When children have a strong awareness of how they move, and how they feel in their bodies, that’s when they are starting to embody physical literacy. They’re feeling the mind-body connection.
There’s a lot of talk in popular health books and videos about connecting mind and body. This is exactly what embodiment is about. It means having conscious awareness of how our bodies feel as we move through the world. Not numb, not sleepwalking, not oblivious to our physical surroundings, our balance, or the activity of our arms and legs—but really feeling connected to every instance of movement or non-movement in our bodies.
The importance of embodiment
All of us have a body and a mind, and they are not separate things—they’re inextricably woven together.
But it is possible to grow unconscious or develop a “disconnect” between our body and mind. This tends to happen with busy modern lifestyles, as we train our minds to deny or ignore what we’re feeling in our bodies for the sake of getting through the day.
For example, we study all night for an exam and ignore our body’s demand for sleep. We disassociate from our discomfort in a cramped seat to endure a long-distance flight. We compete with muscle injury in a mini-triathlon because we want to say we finished the race.
It might make sense or feel acceptable to do these things in short instances, so we can accomplish a particular short-term goal. We are choosing to make a relatively small sacrifice. However, if we make a habit out of ignoring our bodies and stifling our feeling awareness on a daily basis, we can slowly lose touch with ourselves. We can lose touch with our own embodiment.
Learning to be disconnected
Much of modern life in technological society teaches us to be disconnected. When it comes to children, we have many cultural practices that teach them to ignore the sensations in their bodies.
We train them to sit still in desks all day long at school, even though their bodies are screaming to move. We let them watch videos or play on their smartphones for hours at a time, where they learn to ignore the need to eat or go to the bathroom. We don’t give them opportunities to explore movement and active play from an early age, indoors and outdoors, when so much of their body-mind connection should be developing.
This is the opposite of how most children grew and developed prior to the twentieth century, or for that matter through countless millennia of human evolution. Prior to the advent of mass industrialization and the increasing migration to cities, most children were outdoors and physically active on a daily basis, often in natural environments with trees to climb, hills to scale, forests to explore, and even lakes and rivers to swim. All of this had a huge impact on developing their awareness of being in their bodies.
We can do better to help children today to develop their mind-body connection. We can start by making sure that they get plenty of opportunities to play actively from a young age, whether it’s through early years centres, physical activity and recess in schools, quality sport programs, or simple activities at home.
Any physical activity is good, but some types of activity are arguably better. For example, outdoor play is becoming increasingly recognized as essential in healthy early child development.
Sports such as skateboarding, snowboarding, and parkour also rank highly. These activities emphasize the development of proprioception, or the ability to feel our movement and body position as we move through space.
The simple act of walking through a forest or swimming at the beach is also valuable if we apply our mindful attention.
There is hope for embodiment
In recent decades, the idea of the mind-body connection and body-as-self has steadily gained recognition for its importance. Now the concept is referenced in everything from physical education to personal counselling (see somatic therapy).
But the sense of embodiment is a delicate thing. It needs to be cultivated through real activity and mindful attention, not just talk.
It’s important that we do this for our children. To the degree that we help them to develop their own embodied awareness from a young age, we do more than simply develop their ability to move well. We bring them into a fuller, richer experience of being alive.