All motor skills are learned through dedicated practice and everyone knows that children learn best when they are highly motivated and willing to give their full attention to the task at hand. Motivation to achieve a goal helps the child to persist in the face of repeated setbacks and to keep trying until the goal is achieved.
A positive mood (positive affect) also enhances learning and performance. A happy and alert infant or child learns more than a child who is cross or upset.
But there is another factor that is less well recognized: giving a child a choices during a practice session enhances their sense of autonomy which in turn leads to better performance and learning.
Here is an example of how I give James (aged 7) several opportunities for making choices during a practice session. The task is to throw a ball at a target on the wall from a distance of 3-4 meters. There are two targets attached to the wall one above the other of slightly different sizes. I have also placed three non-slip mats at a distance of 2, 2.5 and 3 meters from the wall.
And lastly I have 2 differently marked soccer balls.
The session consists of 5 sets of 10 throws each. For each set of throws James gets to choose between the different options of target, starting mat and the ball.
Organizing the practice session in this way not only enhances performance and learning, but also provides opportunities for variable practice. The task is not the same for every set of 10 throws. each change requires some adaptation in aiming and the forceful ness of the throwing action. varying a task in this way helps the child to discover how to adapt the throwing action for different goals.
But here is the really interesting thing.
If the only choice I had given James was which ball he wanted to throw, the accuracy of his throwing would also have improved even though the color of a ball makes no difference to how the task is performed.
It seems that any choice in how to perform a task increases helps to increase a child's sense of autonomy of autonomy which enhances learning.
Wulf, G., Chiviacowsky, S., & Cardozo, P. L. (2014). Additive benefits of autonomy support and enhanced expectancies for motor learning. Human Movement Science, 37, 12–20. doi:10.1016/j.humov.2014.06.004
Two factors that have been shown to facilitate motor learning are autonomy support (AS) and enhanced expectancies (EE) for perfor- mance. We examined the individual and combined influences of
these factors. In a 2 ? 2 design, participants learning a novel motor skill (throwing with the non-dominant arm) were or were not pro- vided a choice (AS) about the ball color on each of 6 10-trial blocks during practice, and were or were not given bogus positive social- comparative feedback (EE). This resulted in four groups: AS/EE, AS, EE, and C (control). One day after the practice phase, participants completed 10 retention and 10 transfer trials. The distance to the target – a bull’s eye with a 1m radius and 10 concentric circles – was 7.5mduring practice and retention, and 8.5mduring transfer. Autonomy support and enhanced expectancies had additive advan- tages for learning, with both main effects being significant for reten- tion and transfer. On both tests, the AS/EE group showed the greatest throwing accuracy. Also, the accuracy scores of the AS and EE groups were higher than those of the C group. Furthermore, self-efficacy measured after practice and before retention and trans- fer was increased by both AS and EE. Thus, supporting learners’ need for autonomy by given them a small choice – even though it was not directly related to task performance – and enhancing their perfor- mance expectancies appeared to independently influence learning