Preschool Podcast - The Joy Of Movement

The Joy Of Movement For Young Kids

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Episode 161 – Early childhood is an important time for kiddos to develop the large motor skills needed for a healthy life. Mary Lynn Hafner, a Physical Therapist and the author of The Joy Of Movement, shares her passion for movement and strategies for age-appropriate activities to support physical development at a young age. She explains how to incorporate exploration, discovery, selection, repetition, and imitation when working with young kids. She also highlights how patience is key as each individual will develop at their own pace!  


Episode Transcript

Mary Lynn HAFNER:

It really encourages creativity. It really gives the kids that feeling of kind of self-esteem, that, “Ooh, I just got announced, I just did that!” And I find that it really, really eliminates the potential for chaos.


Mary Lynn, welcome to the Preschool Podcast!


Hi, Ron! Hi, [HiMama]! Hi, listeners!


So we are very excited to have you on the show with us today Dr. Mary Lynn Hafner. She is a physical therapist, she’s a movement teacher at her YMCA. She has also authored a book called The Joy of Movement [Lesson Plans and Large-Motor Activities for Preschoolers], which we’re going to touch on in today’s podcast about movement for preschool and early-childhood education programs. Mary Lynn, awesome to have you on the show. Tell us, what got you into movement? And why do you care about movement so much? Why is your career devoted to this topic that you spent so much time on over the years?


Ooh, I’m excited to get into it! First I just want to say, Ron, I’m super-excited about being on your podcast. I’m a podcast nerd and this is my very first podcast to be interviewed, based on my book. So excited to be here.

First, a quick bit of background: so, I’m a physical therapist. I graduated back in 1996 with a bachelor’s degree in physical therapy. And then later on I went back in about 2012 to get my clinical doctorate in physical therapy. And I’ve worked in about six states in various rehab and hospital settings, all the way from neonatal intensive care – believe it or not – to adult brain trauma.

I’m certified in a lot of adult physical therapy, so a lot of people kind of go, “How in the world did you get into movements specifically for preschoolers?” Now, I think to understand physical therapists are movement specialists. So, we’re really good with anatomy, physiology, kinesiology – a lot of “ologies”, right? And we’re looking to help our clients achieve functional goals. So it’s not a stretch – by the way, pun intended – to become a movement teacher.

But I can tell you the truth, and your listeners: I was not looking to become a movement teacher for preschoolers. I kind of fell into the job. So you see, I have four children. And many years ago my younger two – who happen to be a set of identical twins – were in a cooperative [co-op] preschool. That was my first experience in a co-op preschool.

And those of you, or your listeners, who are familiar, parents in a co-op preschool have to do volunteer hours. And it was during one of the days that I was volunteering with my girls that we walked the three-year-old classroom to a big multipurpose room on campus. It had a large stained glass window at the top of the room. And the volunteer teacher at the time was having the kids participate and do all these different activities. Well, I was a little underwhelmed by what we were doing. She kind of had the students, asking them to run around and do some type of, like, octopus “chase me” game.

And my girls were literally holding on to my legs and completely petrified. They did not want to be chased; they were completely scared; they didn’t understand what we were doing. And then she switched gears and she gave all the kids beanbags. I remember that big stained glass window – we used to call it the “rainbow room” because the stained glass would let light in and there’d be rainbows all over the floor. Well, she had the kids throw the beanbags about 30 feet high at this window. And I’m kind of looking, going, “Well, all these kids are about three feet tall and this makes no sense.”

So, believe it or not… first of all, I just want to say, no judgments on this teacher. She was doing the best of what she knew. But I knew I could do better with my background as a physical therapist. And to be honest with you I kind of fell into this as a drive to do better for my girls. What happened was is that I later on – not too many weeks afterwards – that job became open. I started doing the job really to complete my volunteer hours. And about five years later I was still now the movement teacher and getting paid and doing lecturing in the community. And I really kind of fell into almost a passionate side hustle by accident.


Interesting. So, how recently was this?


So this was… so now my twins are now 12 years old. So this would have been… I’ve been doing this now for about nine years.


Cool. And so I assume, through some of your learnings and experiences doing the side gig, was that the inspiration for writing a book?


Yes. And again, the book kind of came very organically. So I’m a military spouse and my husband had retired from the military when we were living at the time in Alexandria, Virginia. And my director, I had let her know that we were going to be moving across the country all the way to Seattle. And she went, “Mary Lynn, please can you leave me your binder of lesson plans? Because no-one’s done it like you’ve done it. And can you please just leave us all your lessons for the next teacher?” So I said, “Okay, sure.” And I went ahead and I put all of those lessons – my top favorite ones – and I just kind of bound it in self-published.

And then I kind of thought to myself, “Well, this is crazy. This is like five years of a lot of research,” a lot of work that I had put into creating lessons that were really developmentally appropriate, stacking the activities in a way that was going to maximize whatever developmental milestone we were looking to do. Then I said, “I’m going to submit this to a publisher.” And I actually got accepted by Redleaf [Press] and was super excited.


Very cool. Next question: sneak peak! Can you give us one into your book?


Totally, yeah. So, I would say my favorite go-to activity that I literally keep in my movement bag all the time is something I like to call “Red Stop, Green Go, Yellow Slow”. Now, I don’t even… I really do everything on a budget, as all preschool teachers know, right? We don’t have a lot of funds, most of us, to kind of go out and buy different things. So I think I had my oldest child create and paint a sign that looked just like a stop sign, a green sign that had the big word “Go” and then a yellow kind of “slow down” sign.

And I love this activity because it’s very much a great activity to have kids start to learn about structure in a class and really in a really fun way learn how to be able to stop themselves, be able to go so that they kind of start to get the pace of my class. And I use it in the very first lessons that I teach kids. But I also interject it throughout the year so that we can use this tool.

So what we do is, I line all the kids up and I start talking to them and show them the signs first and say, “Well, what do you think this means?” And they say, “Stop!” “Okay, so what do you think you should do when you see the sign?” They say, “Freeze,” or “Stop.” And then we show the green sign. “What can you do when you see this?” Well, “We would go; we would walk.” “What are you going to do for the yellow?” I have the kids get down low and crawl slow, like a turtle.

And so then I back up and I go as far away from them as the room will allow, that I’m in. And then I just proceed to flip through the signs in a really fun, kind of dramatic way. Sometimes I even put on a little police hat or gloves to make it fun. And then we go through it and I’m amazed each and every time how these kids really get into it.  So it’s one of my favorite activities that I always keep with me.


Very fun. And sort of stepping back from specific activities, any ideas or thoughts you can share with our audience around specific frameworks or methodologies when it comes to teaching movement in a preschool classroom?


Absolutely. So, it’s interesting, what I try to do is what I call “structure with flexibility”. It’s really my model. So this might seem a little contradictory, that I’m providing structure but I’m being flexible at the same time. “Mary Lynn, this doesn’t make any sense.” But what I really try to do is, number one, I recommend your listeners to prepare ahead. I am a big proponent of having everything that you need, plan it out, know what materials you’re going to bring and have it ready on the go.

Step two, as we all know, always have a backup idea or activity kind of on hand. And I allude to my “Red Stop, Green Go”, sometimes I use that as a backup. And then three is, it’s really important – and this is what I try to do in my book – I sequence the activities for milestones, motor milestones, in being age appropriate. So for instance, what we try to do with “structure with flexibility” is the teacher’s job is to create and provide an environment for the child’s learning to happen at their own pace.

So, you kind of create the environment, you create the structure that will hopefully at best have that child be able to have the tools to be able to practice and have exposure to specific movements that will bring a child closer to kind of like an age-normal milestone. So, I know I keep mentioning milestones – a milestone, for instance, for two- or three-year-old would be to stand on one foot with help. A milestone for a four- to five-year-old might mean being able to bounce and catch a ball.

So the structure is knowing the milestones, having materials ready on the go for whatever your kind of targeting – whether that be throwing skills or locomotive skills – and then providing the environment and then stepping back and then kind of being a little flexible with the outcome. Does that make sense, Ron?


Makes total sense. And I think that’s a good philosophy to live by in life, generally, is to have structure but stay flexible. So I like it as a philosophy. And something else I think you talk about a bit in the book or in your work is around discovery and discovery in five different practices, and you did touch on this a little bit. Can you expand on that?


Yeah, absolutely. It was really interesting, I know that a lot of pre-school teachers that I work with – by the way shout-out to all of your listeners because preschool teachers are amazing. I feel like every time I hang out with preschool teachers I learn something new. So it’s also one of the reasons why I love kind of being in their field and kind of giving my two cents, if you will, as a physical therapist.

But I wanted to learn as much as I could. I’m a bit of a nerd, I’m a bit of a dork, as I’ve mentioned. When I started teaching these classes I started looking into research and looking into books that were already out there to kind of guide me because as a physical therapist I tend to do one-on-one training with my clients. I don’t necessarily do as much group work. And this work that I do in the preschool movement sector is all group classes.

And so I came upon a very unimpressive book. It’s kind of like this really weird, brown color. It’s 40 pages and it’s called Movement Education for Preschool Children; the editor is Maida L. Riggs. And in the book that [they go] into the discovery in five practices, and [they call] it “guided discovery”. Now, what this is, it’s basically skills to teach children to develop their motor skills.

And some of these – and I’ll get into it, if your listeners are ready and you have an ability to write these down, I highly recommend you write them down because it’s super, super helpful: The first one is exploration; the second one is discovery; the third is selection; the fourth is repetition; and the fifth is imitation.

Now, as a physical therapist I use a lot of repetition and imitation with my clients. So, repetition of a motor skill… so, for instance, if an infant is learning how to walk, well, they don’t just get up and start walking and they’re totally fine. What do they do? They get up, they walk, they fall down. They practice; they do it again and again, right? That’s repetition.

Imitation is being able to see what somebody else is doing. So, you notice a lot of kids learn by imitation. “Well, my big sister over there is kind of throwing that ball. Ooh, I’m going to pick that up and see what I can do as well.”

So those I knew really well. But it’s really the other elements that I found really, really helped me as a movement teacher kind of really create successes and self-esteem in my groups that even surprised me.


Yeah, certainly anyone who works in a preschool classroom knows how important the imitation piece is and the exploration of the discovery. All of these components are so key in the learning process. And I guess, like, movement is no different, right? For those listeners out there who are preschool teachers – and I’m certainly not, but I’m going to throw to kudos to all of them as well because it’s such a difficult job – but if I tried to put myself in their shoes one challenge I imagine you would have with large-motor activities is complete chaos of children running around wildly!


Yes, every blue moon it happens! But I do find that this discovery really, really helped. So, I know that preschool teachers are very hands on. So let me dive in a little more and let me see if that helps a little bit. So, let’s look at exploration. What does that mean? What we’re trying to do is we’re trying to develop autonomy, creativity and the concept maybe of whatever concept we’re trying to teach them, right?

So let’s say we put out some cups. So, exploration, in a way that we would use this structure to guide them, would be, “Here’s a bunch of cups. What can you do to balance them?” You ask the kids. And so then the kids they’re kind of… they have the material and they’re just kind of exploring. With movement I might give them a bunch of hula hoops and say, “Okay, well, here’s some hula hoops. Let’s space out and see what you want to do.”

Now, again, exploration seems kind of crazy – exactly what you’re alluding to. Chaos could totally happen. But what I find is that when you start off the class with structure… so you’re starting off with a circle time. So I always start my movement classes off with a good morning circle; we kind of do some warm-up activities. And there’s a very defined transition from each activity. And I always give the kids a heads up. It’s, like, “Okay, so when you hear the slide whistle, I want everyone to do what?” And they all know it, they go, “Freeze!” And then we’ll move on to the next activity.

So I really want the kids to kind of get loud and a little rowdy because when they’re transitioning from, let’s say, a preschool classroom where they have to be a little more quiet – they might be indoors, we might be in a bigger space than the regular classroom – then it allows them that ability to kind of get some of that stuff out.

So when I’m doing my warm-up before we might do a more specific exploration activity I kind let the kids get a little crazy like we do a fun kind of warm-up where I say, “Okay, we’re going to stomp it out.” And the kids are sitting on their bottoms with their feet in front of them with their knees bent and then we stomp loud. And, oh my gosh, they have such a good time. They just start banging their feet and maybe even getting a little loud. And then I go, “Shhh,” and then we go quiet and they tiptoe their feet. And then they go loud again.

And so when I structure activities in a way that they have had those bursts ahead of time I find that 90% of the time it really creates enough kind of structure that they had a little bit of that craziness they’re able to go and do. But because they’re so focused on the task at hand and because I don’t keep the task going for long amounts of time just, kind of jumping from one task to the next they tend to keep their focus really, really well.


Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. So some craziness is good, with instruction?


Yeah! And I grew up in New Jersey so I don’t know, maybe we tend to feel we get a little crazy there, too.


Oh, for sure. And I think kind of goes back to your point from before, too, in terms of coming prepared with your materials and that kind of thing I think helps a lot. And thinking about the transitions that you mentioned, as well, are good, practical tips.


Yeah, absolutely. And I also find that, again, going back to the tools – the five practices of discovery – I also find that… let’s say I have a large group activity that might seem that it could get into that little crazy stage. What I do is, I use the discovery practice and I kind of use a technique where some authors call it, like, “Sport Announcer”. And I find that when you have an activity where the kids are maybe exploring a movement with a particular item, whether it be a hula hoop or a bean bag or just even a paper plate, sometimes – I give very simple items.

What I do is, if they are kind of, let’s say, playing with a scarf I might say, “I see Joe spinning with the scarf!” And I walk around the room – and you would think would be chaotic – but I walk around the room and I just kind of sports announce: “Oh, I see someone throwing their stuff up and then catching it!” And then I say, “I see Joe blowing his scarf across the floor!”

What I find is that when you use this “Sports Announcer” when you’re kind of in more of a movement larger – what could be chaotic activity – the kids just totally fine-tune their focus and then they get really excited. Then they want to get up right next to me and go, “Do you see what I’m doing?” Or the kids who like to imitate will go, “Oh, Ahmid is throwing his scarf up and Ms. Mary Lynn just said that! I’m going to try that, too!” And so it really encourages creativity. It really gives those kids that feeling of kind of self-esteem, that, “Ooh, I just got announced! I just did that!” And I find that it really, really eliminates the potential for chaos.


I like that. I really like that a lot, the “Sports Announcer” method. We’re quickly running out of time, Mary Lynn. Any concluding thoughts or other things that you wanted to share with our audience before we wrap up?


There’s a quote by one of my favorite movement authors Rae Pica, who’s really quite prolific in this area. And she… I’m going to paraphrase what she says in a book called Your Active Child [How to Boost Physical, Emotional, and Cognitive Development through Age-Appropriate Activity]: motor development and motor learning [are] age-related. It’s not age-dependent.

And so I think that’s one thing that I really want preschool teachers and parents to take away, that as much as I provide structure and I’m looking at motor milestones and I’m aiming to get the kids to have as much experiences so that they can dynamically kind of, at their own pace, grow into the milestones and the confidence in terms of their movement skills.

At the same token I’m also not caught up that one of the kids who is six years old and should be able to hop and can’t hop. I think we have to just understand it’s a dynamic process, that we don’t want to create stress for the kids. We don’t need to kind of go over to the child and… I know that a lot of preschool teachers who are well-meaning want to go over to the child and just kind of, like, hand-over-hand show them how to throw a ball correctly. It’s really okay to kind of provide the opportunity to do it and demonstrate it, but then give the kids a little breather space so they can figure it out on their own. Use it as a guide for what you’re doing and how you’re providing it but don’t get too caught up in, “Oh my gosh, they have to be doing this by this age.”


Awesome. And your book, The Joy of Movement, has practical lesson plans and large-motor activities for preschoolers. Where can our listeners get a hold of that book if they’re interested?


Yes, I was so excited when it came out because it was one of those things that I never thought I would have done and I’m really proud of it. And it really works. Everything in here is something that I’ve been doing for the last nine years in Virginia and my current movement teacher job here in Washington State. They can get it on, which is my publisher. Of course it’s on Amazon; I just didn’t advertise for Amazon.

If your listeners want to get some more information I have a fine-motor lesson plan that’s not in the book. They can go ahead and if they want to get a sense of what the book’s about it’s on my website for free at – [the DPT stands] for a doctorate in physical therapy. And they can go ahead, get on there and grab a free, very detailed motor lesson plan. And you can really see through that lesson plan how I really take specific ideas and games and activities for kids. And in the lesson I stack them so that the activities are varied but the outcome is still towards a specific goal.


Awesome. Mary Lynn, you’ve given us some great tips and advice on movement. Thank you so much for joining us on the Preschool Podcast today!


Thank you, Ron, I was so excited! And goodbye, everyone, and thanks for listening!

Carmen Choi

Carmen is the Marketing Coordinator and Preschool Podcast Manager on the HiMama team. She's been working with childcare business owners and consultants for 3 years. She is passionate making connections that empower the ECE Community through knowledge-sharing to support better outcomes for children, their families, and society!