Bodymap gets kids moving
Flemish pair’s initiative demonstrates how playful movement activities in the classroom and elsewhere can have wide-ranging benefits for young children
A basis for adult life
Bodymap was founded as a non-profit four years ago by Verhoeven, an expert in motor skills, and her friend Ann De Wilde, a physical education teacher. To begin with, they wanted to provide an answer to the questions of primary school teachers, who are increasingly confronted with children who have problems focusing in class, suffer from difficulty balancing or lack the motor skills to hold a pen the right way. “A growing number of children also panic when they have to read in class,” says Verhoeven.
According to Verhoeven, many children are mistakenly diagnosed with disorders such as attention deficit hyperactivity or dyslexia and need to take medication or undergo therapy that does more harm than good. “The medication can lead to drug addiction later in life, and the failure in therapy can lead to behavioural issues,” says Verhoeven. “But the children can often be helped with simple and playful movement exercises.
“Many children don’t have a disorder, but the problem is that their nervous system has not been stimulated enough in their first years of life,” she explains. “They have spent too much time in front of a TV or computer, instead of for example building dens outdoors. Although playing such games may seem banal to adults, these activities are essential in acquiring the basic skills for complex assignments later in life.”
Spot the signs
The first target group of Bodymap is teachers in day-care centres, nursery schools and primary schools. Five coaches travel all over Flanders to inform teachers about the importance of integrating movement exercises in the general programme, not just devoting separate courses to it. “After 45 minutes, you need to let children move around or play a game, because that is their maximum attention span,” says Verhoeven.
Sometimes, teachers push children to catch up, which causes more counterproductive stress
The coaches also show teachers how to recognise the signs that betray a deficit that can be due to a lack of movement. If a child always sticks out its tongue when writing, this can mean they are not ready for the usual learning rhythm. “Sometimes, teachers push the children to catch up, which causes even more counterproductive stress,” explains Verhoeven.
To help the children, Bodymap gets the parents involved. “Many parents are overprotective or feel they don’t have the time or space to play a lot with their children,” says Verhoeven. “They just don’t realise that they are restricting their children’s development.”
Bodymap gives them simple tips and tricks to play at home. The coaches encourage children to do things like occasionally brushing their teeth while standing on one leg or pulling a towel with some objects on it across the table. Parents don’t need to buy expensive materials, because children can easily be creative with simple objects like cardboard boxes.
During the school holidays, Bodymap organises boost camps, intense days full of movement games involving, for example, a track children have to complete by rolling, crawling and jumping. Next summer, Bodymap will organise a training day for young parents, with an extensive course on how to stimulate kids’ development.
Bodymap has already set up projects with other organisations. For the Flemish Foundation for Traffic Knowledge, it has provided expertise to create a kit called Horen, zien en rijden (Hearing, seeing and riding). The kit includes practical advice to help develop equilibrium, motor skills and other competences. Other partners include the Christian Mutuality and the city of Antwerp. Recently, Bodymap became a company instead of a non-profit.
Just like every mother I want my kids to be sociable and carefree
Although Bodymap can provide solutions, many problems could be prevented if teachers had learned the necessary knowledge during their studies. “There has, however, been progress in recent years,” says Verhoeven, who teaches a related course at the Karel De Grote University College in Antwerp.
“By starting to bridge the gap to the education system, we are fairly unique in our region,” she says. “In most countries, the expertise remains with specialised therapists.” She points out, though, that Scandinavian countries and Australia are ahead of Flanders in this respect.
At the end of our talk, I ask Verhoeven about her personal motivation. “I am a mother myself,” she says, “and just like every mother I want my kids to be sociable and carefree. Let’s be clear: Bodymap doesn’t want to help develop top athletes, just happy children.”