New to Hogrefe, Animal Fun is an effective, evidence-based programme to help children ages 3 to 6 years improve their gross and fine motor skills and social skills. Interactive, exploratory and non-competitive, Animal Fun is ideally suited to school, nursery, and group settings for use by educators and allied health professionals.
We spoke with Animal Fun's Director, Sue McLaren, to hear more about its applications, the importance of early intervention, and why children (and adults!) enjoy the magic of Animal Fun.
Why is it important to promote motor skills and social skill development in young children?
Having appropriate motor skills are essential for all children. Children who have poorly developed motor skills often do less physical activity than other children and this has been linked to health problems such as childhood obesity and risk factors for other diseases such as Type 2 Diabetes and Cardio-vascular problems. Having good motor skills helps children to feel confident about themselves and their ability to engage in social play with their peers. Having poor motor skills has also been linked to children having poor self-esteem, lower academic achievement, difficulty concentrating, being victims of bullying, feeling isolated on the playground and increased levels of anxiety and depression.
Are there any risks if these skills are not promoted?
Yes, definitely! If children aren’t given sufficient opportunities to practice their motor skills, they can feel excluded from playground games, they tend to withdraw from physical activity and this can result in a downward spiral of increased sedentary behaviours such as sitting passively in front of a screen. This can have a direct impact on reduction of core strength, low muscle tone, and lack of motor coordination skills that are really necessary for good health and mental well-being. Children are quick to compare themselves to others and if they notice their peers participating in activities that they feel they can’t do such as maybe swinging on a monkey bar – then that child is more likely to either begin to exhibit internalising problems such as withdrawing from activities, or externalising problems such as being disruptive in order to avoid the activity.
What is Animal Fun?
Animal Fun is an early childhood programme that focuses on improving both gross and fine motor skills as well as social emotional development in young children. Research informs us that the physical and mental health of young children is in decline. There are many tools available to assess children and determine areas of strength and weakness, but we wanted to take one step further and find a solution to any areas of concern that may arise following assessment. Our hope is that if children with motor or social emotional development issues are identified early enough that an early intervention programme such as Animal Fun will help them to improve and reach their full potential.
Why were animals chosen as the theme for the programme?
We thought that most young children love animals, and we could use this interest and curiosity. We also recognised that children in the 3-6 year age range are in that preoperational stage of play where they love to engage in pretend and dramatic play. By asking them to imagine that they are a Bear Walking or a Crocodile Crawling – the child is focusing on imitating the animal within the play – but every activity has been thoughtfully designed to target different muscle groups, coordination and locomotion skills, motor planning, fine motor control and sequencing skills.
How does the play element of Animal Fun help to promote motor and social skills?
Play is everything. Play provides children with the intrinsic motivation to engage, participate and practice. It an activity is FUN, it will be repeated. When we are playful with children we are on their wavelength. The more playful we can be the greater the connection with the children. We encourage all adults to be a little bit silly, to make funny animal noises and to use imagination and dramatic play to bring the Animal Fun activities alive for the children. For example, the locomotion activity of Horses Prancing can be so much more engaging for children if we imagine that we are very beautiful, elegant horses, parading around the ring. The children are focusing on the imaginary play theme, but the movements have been carefully designed to target specific muscle groups and coordination skills.
How can Animal Fun be applied in practice? Which contexts is it suitable for and what benefits does it offer?
Animal Fun was originally designed to be used primarily by Kindergarten and Pre-school classroom teachers – as we recognised that children spent a large portion of their day in these settings. Since launch, we have also found that many Child Care Centres and Allied Health professionals who work with young children have found the programme to be really beneficial.
The programme can be used as a lesson – with children moving around various stations where they engage in 1-2 activities per station.
Or the various activities can be used right throughout the day as mini movement breaks, for everyday routines and rituals such as going to the bathroom – instead of walking why not pretend to be a Kangaroo Hopping? There are also lots of ideas for different fine motor tasks which will help children with their handwriting and pencil grip.
Occupational Therapists and Paediatric Physiotherapists can use Animal Fun both in therapy sessions and to engage the support of parents/teachers to extend the practice of the skills outside of the clinic.
The main benefit of the programme is that if an activity is fun, it is more likely that children will want to engage with it and thereby increase the amount of time practicing a skill. By tapping into children’s love of animals and their innate desire to play, Animal Fun is helping all children to refine their skills, build their growth mindset – of “I can do it” instead of withdrawing.
Sue McLaren first became involved with the Animal Fun programme in mid 2009 as the Research Coordinator for the Healthway funded randomised controlled trial into the effectiveness of the programme. She managed the research team and personally tested over 500 children in a range of measures to assess their motor skills, social skills, and self-perception. She has also co-authored peer reviewed published papers on the programme and their research findings. In 2016 Curtin University granted her the license to the Animal Fun programme.