'Motor Magic', a program that works with pre-school children who are experiencing developmental difficulties, their parents and kindergarten staff, produces marked benefits in terms of motor skills and sensory processing, leading to improved self-confidence and concentration, and better engagement in learning activities.
According to a report by researchers at Flinders University, introducing the occupational therapy-based program to kindergartens would be instrumental in countering early childhood developmental difficulties, which can affect as many as one in four children.
The program was trialed at 10 kindergartens in Adelaide's outer southern suburbs, and the evaluation report was launched recently at the Aldinga Community Kindergarten.
Ms Naomi Priest, who works as an occupational therapist at Noarlunga Health Services and as a Research Fellow in the Primary Health Care Research and Evaluation Program in the Department of General Practice at Flinders, said that early childhood experiences are crucial to brain development and to later health, behavioural and social outcomes.
Because the brain's neural pathways are more flexible in the first five years of life, programs aimed at maximising young children's developmental and learning opportunities are highly effective and produce long term benefits, she said.
"We need to be supporting children's early development and learning rather than waiting until children reach school," Ms Priest said.
"As children get older, their brains are more hard wired and it is much harder to change behaviours and capacities."
Developmental difficulties among children involved in the program include struggles with coordination, muscle strength and sequencing tasks, all of which can affect children's abilities to participate in everyday kindergarten activities such as using scissors, drawing, puzzles, joining in group activities, and using playground equipment.
"These children often have low self-esteem and self-confidence and won't even attempt a task because they feel it is too hard for them" Ms Priest said.
The report found 'Motor Magic' brought clear benefits not only for children at risk of developmental difficulties, but for their parents and kindergarten staff as well.
At kindergarten, changes identified in children who participated in the program included increased willingness to attempt and participate in activities, improved relationships with other children and a more positive attitude to learning and to attending kindergarten, as well as increased readiness for school.
The benefits at home included improvement of connectedness between the parents, an increase in parenting skills, improved child-parent relationships and reduced stress.
A partnership approach that combines health and education is of particular benefit to families from disadvantaged communities who may have trouble accessing the health centres where therapy is traditionally based, Ms Priest said.
"It's an important step in taking a program out of the hospitals and health centres and into the community where children and families are in their own natural environments," she said.