Why Move!

Let’s get physical!

In light of the World Health Organisations (WHO) report on Children’s Physical Activity it is clear we still need to ‘do more’ to promote physical activity among young children.  In the UK, 91% of children under the age of 4 are still not reaching the recommended levels of physical activity (PA), this will impact on all areas of development and increases the risk of mental and physical health concerns in later life.   The recommended amount of daily physical activity for a child aged under 5 is 180 minutes (3 hours) incorporating 60 minutes for MVPA (moderate to vigorous physical activity).

What is attributing to this decline in PA in today’s society?

Since 2014, 347 playgrounds have been closed by local authorities across England.  Digital technology is a daily experience for many young children and is often used as a ‘babysitter’ by parents that impacts on relationships and time spent being physically active.  Our busy, stressful lives and environmental changes impact on children’s development opportunities.

Many young children are spending prolonged periods of time being restrained and sedentary in strollers, car seats, buggies, bouncers, reclining chairs, etc.

Childhood obesity is considered to be at epidemic levels and its rise is expected to continue. In the next 5 years the number of obese children worldwide is predicted to reach a staggering 75 million. Obese children are significantly more at risk of becoming obese adults.

How can we best support our children to become physically active for life?

Studies suggest many factors may influence the delivery and promotion of PA within settings;

  • Staff place more ‘value’ on the ‘academic’ areas, maths and literacy skills, and feel pressurised by management to demonstrate this in their practice
  • Numerous studies found levels of physically active play decline in early years settings when more staff were present in the room (1) this tallies with the feeling of pressure and increased inhibitions in early years staff when peers were present (2).
  • Staff assumed ‘playtime’ offered sufficient provision for PA and the underlying notion that children are inherently active. (3)
  • Staff were not confident to support children’s PA and were not using the space and equipment provided effectively (4).
  • Staff felt less confident in ‘how’ to promote PA and were fearful of causing ‘damage’ to the child as a result
  • Conflicting guidance from various sources add to confusion over what is and isn’t appropriate.

I have created this simple to follow guide for all staff working in early childhood settings to support their PD practice.

  • Know your children! Copple and Bredekamp (5) adhere developmentally appropriate practice should identify “what is known about child development and learning; what is known about each child as an individual and what is known about the social and cultural contexts in which children live”.
  • Assess your environment, check the space is safe. Where possible reconfigure the space to allow for more movement; removing tables and chairs, opening doors, allowing open access to outdoors, include large loose parts, tunnels, large cardboard boxes, bubble wrap etc.
  • Take a step back – observe, observe, observe. At times we have an urge to step in and assist when it is not in the child’s best interests, allow children to ask the question – make their way and  find their own solutions.
  • Introduce a wide variety of action songs and rhymes.
  • Recycle and use materials from the natural world – Recycle everyday items for play and access supplies from the natural world, they are cost effective, reduce our carbon footprint and the neutral colours will encourage a calming environment.
  • Keep it simple – we have a tendency to complicate things, simple movements for adults may be complex for young children. Start with isolating movements, ie marching without arms, once mastered introduce arms, Jumping forwards, once mastered jump backwards.
  • Introduce body mapping; identification and knowledge of one’s body, it’s position and identification of features, and where they are situated in relation to the rest of self. Simon Says is a great way to help children to understand their bodies.
  • Balls – Children love balls, introduce different balls, squidgy, bouncy, spongey, large, small, sensory, light-up, inflatable to promote sensory motor stimulation.
  • Bubbles – offer a great opportunity to develop hand-eye co-ordination, boost ocular control and stretch the body.
  • Use music – music is a motivator and our response to music is innate. Vary music genres and allow the children to move freely to the music, music also promotes pro-social behaviour, supporting language and social skills.
  • Keep parents/carers informed of the current PA guidance and advise on simple family activities to do at home. Stay informed activematters.org.
  • Animal movers – let children explore their movement ideas by inviting them to move as different animals, ie ‘Move/slither like a snake, bounce like a frog’.
  • Imitation – Children are imitators and watch us all the time, reduce YOUR sedentary time and move more!
  • Introduce movement vocabulary – zig-zag, jump, glide, spin, leap, wriggle, stomp, slide, twirl, fast, slow, up, down, in, out, over, through, behind, on, under, around, astride, gallop, skip, climb, pounce, slither, creep, tip toe etc.
  • No Chair Day – if developmentally appropriate, remove the chairs from your setting to allow for more movement, any sedentary activities can be completed laying/sitting on the floor or standing up. Use chairs for mealtimes. Try to avoid passive ‘sitting’ circle times, opt for lying/kneeling/squatting etc
  • Bring stories to life by adding movements/gestures or re-enact the story.
  • Invest in staff CPD to promote PA and staff well being.
  • Provide a canopy movement experience, offer activities and equipment to support;

Pushing, pulling, climbing, swinging, hanging, jumping, balancing, crawling, running, catching, rolling, dancing, creeping, hopping, stomping.  All of these movements assist with the development of the proprioceptive and vestibular systems essential to future development.


Last term I conducted a research case study with reception children in the UK (4-5 years) for Birmingham City University on ‘Can delivering a movement based intervention positively impact on attainment and well-being?’  After collating the data, results showed a significant increase in developmental maturity, communication skills, physical competency and PSE development, the study also saw increases in all areas of the Early Learning Goals.

Golding (6) also confirms introducing a daily 45-minute movement programme combining complex movement patterns and increased cardio activity will significantly increase developmental maturity levels in young children.  Motor-sensory (vision, hearing, smell, taste, touch, vestibular, and proprioception) experiences during early childhood are vital for establishing the neural architecture from which future development will emerge.

What does ‘learning’ look like?

Children spend over 12,000 hours in statutory education – how many of these hours are spent sitting? Is this the best teaching method for children to learn?

Many of us connect learning and education with being seated at a desk as most of us will have experienced this style of learning ourselves. Thankfully in early years with the introduction of ‘free flow’ provision and ‘child-initiated play’ learning has evolved, yet sadly in many reception and year 1 classes we continue to see rows or clusters of desks and little space for movement play.

Higher levels of PA during early childhood have been associated with improved health outcomes, whereas sedentary behaviour (SB) has been associated with poorer health outcomes. (7) Sedentary time is also associated with an increased risk of depression in children and adolescents.

Physical activity and movement play support all areas of learning and underpin all future childhood development….the best start you can provide for your child (children) is to introduce an ‘active learning’ experience from birth onwards.

Links to useful infographics and blog posts:










  • Gubbels, J.S. et al. (2011) Interaction Between Physical Environment, Social Environment, and Child Characteristics in Determining Physical Activity at Child Care. American Psychological association
  • Wilke, S. et al. (2013) Factors influencing childcare workers’ promotion of physical activity in children aged 0–4 years: a qualitative study
  • Van der Kolk, I. (2018) Healthy Nutrition and Physical Activity in Childcare: Views from Childcare Managers, Childcare Workers and Parents on Influential Factors
  • Rea, T. (2008) Alternative visions of learning. Children’s learning experiences in the outdoors. BESA
  • Copple, C. & Bredekamp, S. (2009) Developmentally appropriate practice in early childhood programs serving children from birth through age 8. NAEYC: Washington DC
  • Golding, A. (2015) Investigating learning through developmental dance movement as a kinaesthetic tool in the Early Years Foundation Stage. Research in Dance education
  • Bentley, G.F et al. (2015) Mothers’ perceptions of the UK physical activity and sedentary behaviour guidelines for the early years (Start Active, Stay Active): a qualitative study. British Medical Journal.

WHO report – This study is based on data gained from 1.6 million 11 to 17-year-old students

Press release: https://www.who.int/news-room/detail/22-11-2019-new-who-led-study-says-majority-of-adolescents-worldwide-are-not-sufficiently-physically-active-putting-their-current-and-future-health-at-risk

Study published in The Lancet: https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanchi/article/PIIS2352-4642(19)30323-2/fulltext

BHF report – Monitoring the levels of physical activity of more than 2,000 children from 57 primary schools across South West England. – children are less active at 11 yrs than they were at aged 6.

Press release: https://www.bhf.org.uk/what-we-do/news-from-the-bhf/news-archive/2019/november/new-study-finds-children-become-less-active-each-year-of-primary-school

Study: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41366-019-0459-0

physical activity in children
baby brain facts