Children’s motor skills have declined in recent years. Observed in Western countries, the trend seems to go hand in hand with the population’s increasing inactivity and overweight as well as health problems resulting from them. Especially in Central Europe the share of children with weak motor skills has increased, and now even a majority of South and North American children have weak or very weak motor skills.

The learning of motor skills is one of the key development tasks in childhood. Sufficient motor skills enable participation in playing and games typical for the age and development level, such as running games and ballgames. Common playing also makes it easier to make friends and adapt to school, for example.

So far, Finnish children have been preserved from a significant collapse of motor skills. Our study, in which the skill level of Finnish children was compared to Belgian and Portuguese children, demonstrates that the motor skills of Finnish children are at the same or higher level than the norms defined for German children in the 1970s. In addition, Finnish children from age 6 to 10 seem to develop significantly better in comparison to Belgian and especially Portuguese children of the same age. Even though overweight is significantly more common with Portuguese children, it does not seem to explain the skill difference between the countries.

Finland does well at the international level but there is also variation within the country. The skills to move are managed evenly well, but the biggest differences between children were in ballgame skills. One reason to this was believed to be hobbies. Quite surprisingly, the connection of a sports hobby and motor skills was reversed: In Portugal, children have more guided exercise than in Finland or Belgium but weaker motor skills. In addition, the Finnish children who had most sports hobbies between the ages of 3 and 7 had weaker motor skills than the average.

The good motor skills of Finnish children as well as some of the differences within the country may be explained by factors related broadly to the culture and environment of physical activity. Children’s freedom to move more independently, urban structures that favour play and activity, and national efforts to promote an active lifestyle may be reasons for the good motor skills of children. One special Finnish strength at the international level is that children spend a lot of time outdoors. Also in comparisons within Finland, the children who spent the most time outdoors playing freely had better motor skills than others.

It is often claimed that the cold and sparse amount of light limit the time spent outdoors. However, a comparison between locations did not support this claim: children in central and northern Finland spent the most time outdoors and the children in southern Finland the least.

Outdoor activities give children a chance to repeat the skills learned in hobbies.

Because an increasing share of families are moving to the Helsinki region or other cities, it is important to acknowledge how important a safe environment and play are for children’s development – also in motor skills. It is our common responsibility to guarantee children a growth environment that enables safe outdoor activities, spontaneous physical activity, and hobbies. This is our strength, so let’s hold on to it tightly! The responsibility is ours.

Donna Niemistö
Doctoral Student
Faculty of Sport and Health Sciences

Arto Laukkanen
Postdoctoral Researcher
Faculty of Sport and Health Sciences

Get latest articles from The University of Jyväskylä’s stakeholder magazine into your email. You can cancel your subscription at any time.