Early movement

The benefits of structured movement development in the early years

Gary South wants greater support for the systematic development of Fundamental Movement Skills (FMS) in the Early Years. Huge benefits follow.

The Early Years and PE

It has often been debated whether the Physical Education offered during a child’s primary school years is of sufficient quality. However, the most crucial time in a child’s physical development is before they even reach this stage of learning. Connections in the brain develop fastest in the first five years of life. It is during this time that we have the greatest opportunity to set the foundation for a lifetime of physical activity. The question is, in a financial climate where funding is becoming harder to come by and both parents are likely having to work, is early years provision meeting our children’s physical needs?

Self-directed play and guided learning 

Studies have shown that the habits and behaviours developed in early childhood can have a lasting impact on an individual’s health and well-being. This is partly attributed to the premise that a child is much more likely to go on to adopt a healthy, active lifestyle if they can participate with an adequate level of skill. Early years education is key in forming these healthy habits and ensuring physical competence.

The aims and mission statements of schools around the world seem to suggest that this is understood.  The apparent provision for early years PE varies, but there are some common themes, one of which is an emphasis on play-based learning. Play is often favoured over the use of structured PE lessons. This approach allows children to develop their physical skills at their own pace, whilst also fostering creativity and imagination. Play also develops social skills and is usually enjoyable for children. However, in my view, relying too much on play means that we do not take full advantage of this window of rapid physical development.

Play-based learning can be inefficient in developing motor skills and fundamental movement skills (FMS). FMS are the basic movements and skills that are necessary for children to participate in physical activity and sport. These skills include gross motor skills such as running, jumping, throwing, and catching. Developing FMS is important because they provide the foundation for more complex sports skills such as a tennis serve or golf swing. Children who have a strong foundation of FMS are more likely to enjoy participating in sports and other physical activities throughout their lives.

Leaving the comfort-zone of play

The issue with play-based learning is that it too often leaves the child in sole-control of the movements performed, especially when the teacher adopts a passive role in the activity. This can translate to children not leaving their comfort zone and their bodies having no reason to adapt and become stronger. It is only natural for us all to take the path of least resistance. For example, in a play-based game involving travel, children are not going to choose to bear crawl from A-B. Instead, they will take the easier option of walking or jogging. However, ‘easy’ does not stimulate muscle growth or enhance coordination. More adult-led physical activity can ensure that a larger range of motor skills and FMS are adequately covered and children are more likely to leave their comfort zones and make physical progression.

Finding the perfect mix in the Early Years

A combination of play and adult-led physical activity can provide the perfect mix of experiences during a child’s early years education. However, there is another barrier to overcome. To facilitate greater levels of physical activity in children under 5, adult interaction and enthusiasm for the activity is crucial! Of course, early years practitioners are in an ideal position to be this enthusiastic role model. However, research has shown that a high proportion of early years and primary school practitioners lack confidence in a PE setting. This isn’t a new problem and governments have tended to respond with initiatives and extra funding. The policy papers that accompany the funding say all the right things, but these grandiose mission statements often fall short due to a lack of accountability assigned to the beneficiaries.

For ideas – have a look at: Developing Physically Literate Children through Fundamental Movement Skills

Greater funding needed for the Early Years

Bearing all this mind, I have some suggestions that I believe will ensure students enter primary education with an enhanced level of motor competence. Firstly, it would be great to see early years PE provision receive more funding. And of course if this were to happen, then the money should be accompanied by clear guidelines on how it’s best utilised and accountability ensured. At the forefront of these guidelines should be the upskilling of early years practitioners so that they are confident in delivering adult-led PE sessions geared to developing FMS that may not naturally develop through play alone. Initiatives that get specialist PE teachers working with early years practitioners have been shown to have a considerable impact on pupil’s motor competence. With this kind of support, movement programmes that are innovative, creative and effective become more likely.

The first five critical years

In summary, it seems that the importance of the first five years of life in developing the foundation for an active, healthy lifestyle is underappreciated in educational systems. Increasing the influence of specialist PE teachers in early years could have a lasting impact. Early years provision that balances more focused, adult-led sessions with opportunities for indoor and outdoor free play can then give pupils the base they need for a healthy life and potential success in sports.


Gary South is a PE educational consultant, specialising in the development of Early Years skills. He is the founder of ‘Infant to Athlete’, a new project that helps parents provide their children with the best foundation for a lifetime of sports and physical activity.




FEATURE IMAGE: by Rujhan Basir from Pixabay

Further information: (Physical Development (Moving and Handling) & (Health and self-care) pages 22 – 27 in Development Matters in the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS)

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