Declining Motor Abilities in Children: Promoting Physical Movement in Prekindergarten Children - Papers & Essays



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Declining Motor Abilities in Children: Promoting Physical Movement in Prekindergarten Children


Declining motor abilities in children is identified as a problem today in Japan. This paper provides data and considers background factors to show that the number of two-year old children with immature motor skills has increased compared with a decade ago. It also explains the significance of physical movement in development during the period from one to two years of age and introduces daily activities to develop motor skills at home.

Decline in motor abilities, two-year old children, motor skills, changes over time, measures at home
Japanese Chinese

When my son was a toddler, I found a couple of playground equipment that he loved had been suddenly removed. The playground had had a slanted balance beam made of logs and the rocket-shaped slide that was quite high for children, and they were most likely removed to prevent accidents. Today, there are fewer parks with equipment that children find fun and challenging and where they can play around with a ball. Although these changes are related to a number of factors, this article focuses on the problem of declining motor abilities among children.

Declining motor abilities in children

Perhaps you have heard of the "Guidelines for Early Childhood Physical Fitness" announced by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) in 2012. These guidelines were issued to heighten awareness of the importance of physical exercise during early childhood in view of the decline in children's motor abilities since 1990.

According to a survey headed by Dr. Kazuhiko Nakamura, a specialist in the study of motor development (Nakamura, et al, 2011), a comparison of seven fundamental motor patterns (sprint running, vertical jumping, throwing, etc.) in 123 children attending daycare centers in 1985 and 154 in 2007 showed a decline in motor development in nearly all seven categories for all three age groups (three-, four-, and five-year olds). Furthermore, motor development scores for 5-year olds in 2007 were equivalent to those of three-year olds in 1985. In line with the results of this survey, a survey of the physical fitness and motor abilities of elementary school students found that after a steady decline over the past three decades, motor abilities continues to remain at a low level. Today, children tend to fall into two divergent groups: those who exercise and those who don't, and this has been identified as a problem (MEXT, 2012).

Why then is the decline in physical fitness and motor abilities considered a problem? This is because the development of physical fitness and motor abilities is important not only for maintaining and improving health, but it also affects overall development, including the development of one's motivation, ability to concentrate, to control emotions and behavior (Japan Society of Human Growth and Development, 2014).

Changes in physical movement among 2-year olds over time

Recent reports have pointed out the increasing number of children in preschool and school who are unable to maintain good posture, quickly tire, and often fall (Noi, et al, 2016). I have mainly dealt with prekindergarten two-year olds in a childrearing support center, and over the past decade or so, have noticed that more children now stumble on a slight difference in level, sit down rather than squat in a sandbox, and unable to walk up a short slope, asking to be carried by their mother.

To corroborate these observations, a study (Sakagami & Kanamaru, in press) was conducted on 112 prekindergarten two-year olds in two phases, 2004-2005 (Phase I) and 2010-2011 (Phase II), respectively. The physical movements of children as they played with the mother, using large blocks, tunnels, cardboard trains, were observed, and differences in movement in the two phases were examined. Although there were no significant differences in such movements as lifting, carrying, and stacking, there was a noticeable decrease from Phase I to Phase II in the number of children who were capable of squatting for 3 or more seconds, stooping, walking with a stoop, straddling, etc. On the other hand, compared with Phase I, more children in Phase II showed such movement as crawling or crawling on blocks, and more children also fell while playing. These results suggest that recently fewer two-year olds are capable of physical movement requiring certain postural balance control. It can be inferred that they have not developed adequate muscular strength in the lower limbs to support unstable posture.

Given that two-year old children show immature motor abilities, it can be assumed that a change has taken place in their prior experience of physical movement. Of the movements that are possible for a one-year old, the most common and central is walking. However, it is possible that children have fewer opportunities to crawl or walk on slopes and places with differences in level, but neither on level ground. Cities and house have become increasingly barrier-free. Moreover, there are not enough places for children to safely engage in physical activity. Baby carriages, now equipped with advanced functions, are used frequently and for long periods of time. Parents are more concerned about hygiene and safety than in the past. Due to a number of these factors, children have fewer opportunities to crawl or walk in different environments.

Promoting Physical Movement in Prekindergarten Children: What to Do at Home

Children start crawling after 7 months and start walking at around 12 months, after which they begin other movement such as climbing, descending, running, jumping, throwing, kicking, etc. This indicates motor development begins with an increase in the repertory of fundamental movement. In the later stage of early childhood, movement becomes more coordinated, smooth, and suited to accomplish its purpose.

Children at one and two years of age express joy at being able to move in a variety of ways and try new movement, which works to boost confidence. This confidence contributes to acquiring basic life skills such as dressing, undressing, and eating by themselves and increases the desire for social interaction and play with other children.

How then should the development of physical movement be encouraged in childhood? No special training is needed to foster physical movement during the prekindergarten years. When walking, try to gradually increase the time and distance and choose intentionally bumpy paths, slopes, or roads with steps. Hang from the horizontal bar in parks or the handrail. This alone will increase both the amount and pattern of movement the child experiences. There are also many ways to play at home that involve a variety of movement: roll from one end of the bedding to the other, attach a handle to a cardboard box and fill it up, move a box by pushing and pulling, roll up a towel or newspaper and throw or kick it to hit a target, or have tug-of-war with a towel. Children who have just learned a new motion will joyfully repeat it. When adults create a setting and situation that enables children to engage in movement together and share the enjoyment of physical movement, children will also learn to enjoy physical movement on their own.


Needless to say, adults have the important responsibility of ensuring a safe environment so that children will not suffer injury. However, it is preposterous if this deprives children of the opportunity to enjoy physical movement and practice new ways of moving and increases the number of children who become injured because their motor skills are not developed enough. The desire to learn about and interact with the immediate environment is promoted by children's efficacy in controlling their physical movement. Parents and early childhood education and care teachers should keep in mind that motor development underlies intellectual development and socio-emotional development, especially in early childhood.


  • MEXT. (2012). Kodomo no tairyoku kojo no tame no torikumi handobukku. [Handbook to improve children's physical strength].
  • Nakamura Kazuhiko, Takenaga Rie, Kawaji Masahiro, et al. (2011). Kansatsuteki hyokaho ni yoru yojiki no kihonteki dosa yoshiki no hatatsu. [Development of fundamental motor pattern using the observational evaluation method in young children] Hatsuiku hattatsu kenkyu [Japan Journal of Human Growth and Development Research], 51, 1-18.
  • Nihon hatsuiku hatatsu gakkai [Japan Society of Human Growth and Development]. (2014). Yojiki undo shishin jissen gaido. [Practical guide to exercise in early childhood]. Kyorin shoin.
  • Noi Shingo, Abe Shigeaki, Kano Akiko et. al. (2016). Kodomo no karada no okashisa ni kansuru hoiku, kyoiku genba no jikkan: kodomo no karada no chousa 2015 no kekka no moto ni [Notes on on-site childcare and education regarding the peculiarities of children's bodies: survey on children's bodies 2015] Nihon taiku daigaku kiyo [Bulletin of Nippon Sport Science University], 46, 1-19.
  • Sakagami Hiroko, Kanamaru Tomomi (in press). Boshi asobi ni oite kansatsu sareta mishuuen 2 saiji no kihonteki ugoki no keinenhenka--2004-2005 to 2010-2011 nendo no hikaku. [Fundamental Movement of prekindergarten 2-Year-Olds during Mother-Child Play: Comparisons and Changes Between 2004/2005 and 2010/2011]. Hoikugaku kenkyu [Research on early childhood care and education in Japan], 55.
Hiroko Sakagami

Associate Professor, Department of Psychology, College of Education, Psychology and Human Studies, Aoyama Gakuin University

Ph.D, Education, Graduate School of Education, The University of Tokyo. Clinical developmental psychologist.

Previously, a researcher at Hitachi Family Education Research Center, The Odaira Memorial Hitachi Education Foundation. Specializing in lifespan development psychology and clinical developmental psychology, her research focuses on socio-emotional development in childhood and parental development. With a research interest in parental development, she is also active in childrearing support activities. Publications include Kodomo no hankouki ni okeru hahaoya no hattatsu—hokou kaishiki no boshi no kyouhenka katei [Maternal development during a child's "terrible two": Mother-child transactional models during the toddler years], Kazama Shobo, 2005, and Toi kara hajimeru hattatsu shinri gaku—shougai ni wataru sodachi no kagaku [Developmental psychology beginning with questions: a life-span view], co-authored, Yuhikaku, 2014.