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Swiss study Country kids outperform city kids on motor skills

A girl doing a somersault

A somersault towards success - movement is key for pre-schoolers

(Courtesy MOBAK-KG)

The more children move, the better they are at balancing, rolling and catching a ball, a pioneering Swiss study has found. This is especially clear when you compare children growing up in the country to those in the city – and there are differences between boys and girls too.

This is the first study to investigate the differences in motor skills among pre-schoolers in Switzerland – motor skills being a key part of the early development of children – the authors said. The results have been published onlineexternal link in the journal Swiss Sports & Exercise Medicine.

Using a newly developed test instrument called MOBAK-KGexternal link, researchers compared the motor skills of around 400 four-to-six-year-old children, looking at how they moved on their own and how they dealt with an object, like a ball. Taking part were 12 Kindergarten classes in the more rural canton of Uri, and 14 Kindergarten classes in the city of Zurich.

“The first results show that clear differences between the sexes are already apparent even at Kindergarten age,” said the University of Basel’s Christian Herrmannexternal link, who was involved in the study, along with colleagues from the Zurichexternal link and Schwyzexternal link University of Teacher Education.

He explained that boys do better when in contact with a ball (involving object movement, like throwing, catching, bouncing or dribbling) whereas girls were better able to control their bodies (involving self-movement, like balancing, rolling, jumping and running.

The difference may well have to do with parents concentrating on ball games with boys, more so than with girls, Herrmann explained. He was surprised by the fact that the difference became apparent at such an early age.

Town and country

Overall, Uri kids did better than their Zurich city counterparts, especially when it came to throwing and catching. This has to do with country children having more areas in which to play and move around than their city peers, the study said.

Half of the Kindergarten classes monitored were those that had signed up to the Purzelbaum project, an initiative to promote physical activity at school (see box). As expected, the study found that children in these classes did indeed have better motor skills than those in regular ones.

Herrmann said that the MOBAKexternal link-KG instrument was intended to be used in Kindergarten classes to see where improvements could be made and how best to promote physical activity.

Among the study’s recommendations are that teaching staff especially encourage girls to have a go at catching and throwing. “It’s only when girls attain a certain level in ‘object movement’ that they will enjoy playing ball games and perhaps might take them up as a hobby, like joining a football club,” the researcher commented.

It was also clear that extra physical activities, such as those promoted in Purzelbaum sport offerings, were worth it, he said.

But Herrmann pointed out that there was an enormous difference in what four and six-year-olds could do physically, resulting in a challenge for teaching staff tasked with instructing both age groups.

Healthy Swiss

The MOBAK team is also looking into a comparisonexternal link of primary school-level motor skills in 13 European countries, with the first results expected in spring 2019.

Although it is too early to say how Switzerland has fared in that study, it is possible to say that Swiss Kindergarten and school children achieved satisfactory levels in motor skills for their age, Herrmann said. Studies of those age groups have already taken place.

Children were tested against what they would be expected to achieve according to the curriculum in terms of motor skills. Most reached these goals, although 20-30% did not. To explain quite why this is the case, would require longer-term studies, but other research has found lack of physical activities or different parenting styles to be factors, said the researcher.

Swiss kids seem to have fairly healthy lifestyles overall. A World Health Organization (WHO)external link report, published in 2017, found that obesity was less common in Swiss children than in certain other parts of the world. A WHO spokesman quoted healthy foods in schools and opportunities for physical activity as some of the reasons.

It is very common for children to walk to schoolexternal link, especially in the German-speaking part of Switzerland. This can happen from Kindergarten age onwards.

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