24 Jan, 2014

Learning & Development: Physical Development = Different Movements

11 January 2013  written by Dr Lala Manners published by Nursery World

Lala Manners explains the principles behind the many approaches to physical development and the training available for practitioners.

With the much welcomed elevation of Physical Development (PD) to ‘priority’ status in the revised EYFSC, the spotlight has fallen inevitably on the service providers who are available to support practitioners absorb initiatives into their daily practice and affect positively the lives of the children in their care.

This new focus has not happened overnight and it should not have come as any great surprise. Many countries, including Finland, Hungary, Canada, the US, Australia and New Zealand have long considered physical development to be a critical component in their early years provision and certain educational approaches such as Montessori and Steiner have PD firmly embedded in their conceptual frameworks.

Over the years, factual and anecdotal evidence has been gathered relating to the effect movement intervention programmes have had on a range of issues concerning the health and well-being of young children. Evidence suggests that these programmes have had a positive effect on learning dispositions, reading and mathematical scores, social and communication skills, curricular skills, parental attitudes to health, dyslexia/dyspraxia, emotional healing and physical capabilities relating to sporting achievement.

Training providers in the field of PD will undoubtedly be influenced by their initial training and subsequent exposure to relevant research studies that support their specific areas of interest and expertise. This will be reflected in the training they are able to offer and the opportunities the children who participate in their practical sessions will experience. Therefore, a wide range of emphases between training providers and those who deliver practical sessions must not only be expected but supported.

There will be clear differences in the way sessions are structured – or not; whether

leaders/teachers/facilitators/coaches deliver pre-designed programmes or create their own opportunities; if apparatus/equipment/props/kit is used – is it specialist or not; if music and rhythm are a component; if links to the curriculum are important; if there is a reward component and if parents/carers are encouraged to participate. The ages of children participating will also vary – birth to five, birth to three, three to five years.

Practitioners will also approach the issue of supporting PD as a ‘priority’ with differing agendas. There will be variations in levels of interest, underpinning knowledge, experience of working physically with young children and possible issues regarding weight status and personal movement capabilities.

The training possibilities for early years practitioners may often seem confusing. Having some knowledge of the provenance of different approaches provides a valuable tool by which decisions may be made to ensure children in individual settings participate in a range of physical activities.

The principles of the following approaches to supporting PD may vary, but the aim remains the same – movement really does matter.


This approach is based on the pioneering work with young children of Hinrich Medau (1890-1974). His work emerged from the melting pot of mid-20th century theories concerning the value of movement capabilities in ensuring young children’s positive learning dispositions and general health and well-being.

Influenced by Pestalozzi (educational movement), Delsarte (health), Laban (movement theory) Dalcroze and Bode (music), Medau developed a teaching method by which movement became the primary means through which learning across all developmental domains was assured – an approach far removed from the physical drills and strength exercises he had noted children experiencing on his travels.


Over many years this approach has been developed and adapted, but the fundamental principles remain and links to the curriculum are evident throughout.

  • Movement is the optimum medium through which children learn across all areas of development. It is suitable for all ages from birth to five years
  • The ‘Immediate Environment’ (the children, the wider group and the physical setting) are used as a primary aid to learning and the basis for conceptual frameworks
  • Apparatus must be accessible and affordable (preferably found at home, for example, socks, paper bags, plastic cups and cotton reels) – ensuring maximum opportunities for children to transfer skills between environments. Free play with the apparatus is encouraged and parental/carer involvement is critical
  • Music and rhythm are an important element in extending children’s use of apparatus – and the development of curricular and communication skills
  • Group work is encouraged though the approach may be adapted to one-to-one settings.

Training is available at Level 2 and Level 3 for all those who work with young children.


Movement as a therapeutic tool has a long history in the treatment of children on the autistic spectrum and those who have suffered emotional trauma. Based on Jungian psychodynamic principles and building on the work of Peter Slade (play), Rudolf Laban (movement theory), and Marian Lindkvist (non-verbal communication language), young children are encouraged through spontaneous movement experiences to discover self-healing and change.

There is also a growing body of evidence to suggest that a movement intervention programme has a positive effect on children who are failing to thrive in school settings. This approach is based on the work of the psychologist Carl Delcato and his team in Philadelphia in the 1950s who discovered that a movement approach to the treatment of brain-injured patients was more effective than the language-based programmes employed previously.

This approach was developed further and adapted by Peter Blythe throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Building on his research evidence, Sally Goddard-Blythe has extended the scope of movement programmes to effect change in children’s engagement with school activities.


The following principles underpin this approach:

  • Movement is fundamental to young children’s health and well-being
  • Difficulties they encounter in school settings may be due to immature (neuro-) motor skills that can be identified through the presence of retained infant reflexes
  • Early identification of problem areas is critical
  • A structured movement programme may then be implemented to ameliorate symptoms – either one-to-one or through a ten-minute, class-based daily programme in school settings for children aged four to seven years
  • Movement programmes replicate earlier developmental stages giving the child a ‘second chance’ to establish the foundations for movement control essential to support the higher aspects of learning.

A range of training opportunities are available for practitioners.


Although there have always been many opportunities for young children to engage in dance classes, particularly ballet and cultural folk dance, it is only the dance-based ‘Developmental Movement Play ‘that clearly involves developmental principles. This approach draws on the ‘developmental task theory’ of Robert Havinghurst, the work of Piaget and Ayres and the ‘bio-ecological theory’ of Bronfenbrenner.


This approach is based on the following principles:

  • Developmental Movement Play supports all areas of development
  • This approach is fundamentally child-led and practitioners support children in their exploration of personal movement capabilities and give them the necessary time and space
  • ‘Props’ are used when necessary to support children’s exploration of movement
  • Children’s social and emotional development is supported throughout
  • Parental and carer involvement is vital to ensure that Developmental Movement Play occurs.

A range of training opportunities is available to practitioners.


Specific sports provision for young children emerged during the 1980s. Companies and franchises were formed by ex-sports coaches in response to the feedback they received from primary teachers who had observed the decline in motor skills over time of children beginning formal schooling.

Initially, young children experienced activities that had been adapted from older age groups but the design and delivery of sports sessions has developed to highlight links to the curriculum, particularly in the area of language development. Many programmes now stress the importance of acquiring fundamental movement skills before any specific sporting skills are introduced. Sessions are mainly delivered by outside providers to children from three to five years.


The following principles are generic to all sporting approaches:

  • Sport is a valuable means to promote the general health and well-being of young children
  • Sessions are primarily skill-based and specialist equipment is required to deliver activities
  • Pre-designed programmes are followed and there is clear progression of skill acquisition over time. Often a reward system is in place to encourage participation
  • Parents and carers are encouraged to rehearse and refine skills in alternative settings
  • Links to the curriculum are important and highlighted to practitioners in settings.

A range of training opportunities are offered in this field, though they apply mainly to employees of relevant companies. Freelance coaches are available to provide training if settings consider the provision to be suitable.


In the early 1970s Bill Cosgrave, an ex-Olympic gymnastics coach, developed the first gymnastics programme for young children in the UK. Over time a more theoretical framework has emerged to accommodate relevant research material and the growing interest in PD as a vital component of the curriculum.

Sessions may be delivered by a variety of providers, and there are many freelance coaches who have developed their own programmes, based on personal gymnastics experience. However, anyone taking a gymnastics approach will follow the principles below.


  • Motor-skill capabilities develop confidence and self-esteem that affect social skills and relationships
  • A structured, skills-based programme is the optimum way to ensure this occurs. Specialist equipment is required to successfully deliver the programme
  • Movement vocabulary is enhanced through the processing of instructions
  • Children begin to understand the concept of performance
  • Concentration and engagement with tasks increases through the repetition of activities.

A range of training opportunities are available to practitioners.


Some practitioners will have a wealth of previous experience, underpinning knowledge and easy access to support that will ensure that PD is demonstrably a ‘priority’ in their settings. Others will rely on outside provision that may have serious financial implications. A third group may well be willing to engage in physical activities but perhaps lack the confidence and competencies to begin.

Always remember that practitioners care and work with young children every day – many of the skills needed to design and deliver practical activities and sessions are in place already.

A few pointers to encourage support of PD:

  • Invest time in expanding your level of underpinning knowledge. Have a good working grip on the PD component of the EYFS and the BHF Early Years Activity Guidelines of 2011 and use these when forming judgements as to the efficacy of different approaches. Read widely and make a scrapbook of anything that you find interesting.
  • Experience as many different activity sessions as possible that are offered to young children in your area. Be aware of the differences in approach, emphasis and delivery – keep an open mind. If you are confused by any terminology, ask for clarification (‘planes of movement’ and ‘translocation of the trunk’ make sense to dancers and sports specialists …).
  • Observe children moving naturally as much as possible. What do they do? How do they do it? Are they happier in a group or alone? At what speed do they like to move? Do they ever ask for help?
  • Start with manageable tasks and use different physical activities when effecting transitions during the day. Think of various ways to move from inside to outside; from one side of the room to the other: hands on head, on tiptoes, arms crossed, walk on your knees. Investigate the possibility of securing a ‘movement corner’ where children may explore their own movement capabilities.
  • Try to spend wisely if you have a budget for equipment. Take your time to make decisions and remember: brochures are glossy for a reason. Investment in training is essential, and appointing someone in every setting to be responsible for this area of the curriculum is strongly recommended.


  • Early Years Movement Skills by Mary Chambers and David Sugden
  • Supporting Physical Development and Physical Education in the Early Years by Jonathan Doherty and Richard Bailey (Open University Press)
  • Physical Development by Linda Cooper and Jonathan Doherty
  • Physical Education for Young Children by Rae Pica
  • What Babies and Children Really Need by Sally Goddard-Blythe


Dr Lala Manners is a director of ‘Activematters Ltd’, which offers specialist training in Physical Development for all those working with young children in whatever capacity and in all settings


Published by Nursery World and available to subscribers in their extensive archive of past publications.