Physical development – Limited or limitless?

Written by: Dr Sue Allingham
14 August 2018

We, unwittingly, limit children every day. It can happen through the language we use, it sometimes happens through the rules and routines we set up, or that are put in place for us. It commonly happens through planning.


Key points

  • The aim of this article is to unpick what an in-depth understanding of physical development includes, how this is exemplified in the environment, and the impact that developmentally appropriate practice in supporting physical development will have across all areas of learning
  • With the current political agenda in danger of being shaped by Bold Beginnings, the pilot of yet another ‘baseline’, and the proposed revision of the Early Learning Goals, it has never been more important to emphasise the importance of having an in-depth knowledge and understanding of early physical development.
  • Being able to work with this knowledge will enable us to help the children to self-regulate, thus supporting them to be motivated to learn

I heard Chelsea Clinton speaking on the radio the other day, and something she said stood out – ‘children are limitless’. On face value, that statement is not that significant. But as I reflected on it, I realised that actually we, often unwittingly, limit children every day. It can happen through the language we use – ‘that’s a lovely picture, what is it?’ It sometimes happens through the rules and routines we set up, or that are put in place for us. It commonly happens through planning formats and advice that requires ‘ability grouping’, or ‘differentiation’. And it is through planning and routines that I most often find that children are limited physically – this can easily be compounded by the environments that are provided.

The aim of this article is to unpick what an in-depth understanding of physical development includes, how this is exemplified in the environment, and the impact that developmentally appropriate practice in supporting physical development will have right across all areas of learning.

The current picture

Despite the fact that ‘Physical Development’ is one of the three Prime Areas in the Early Years Foundation Stage Statutory Framework (DFE 2017) – alongside Communication and language, and Personal, social and emotional development – a visitor to the planet could be forgiven for thinking that we have completely overlooked the importance as the attention to this key area very quickly tails off.

The framework describes the area of learning, thus:

• Physical development involves providing opportunities for young children to be active and interactive; and to develop their co-ordination, control, and movement. Children must also be helped to understand the importance of physical activity (6), and to make healthy choices in relation to food.

[DFE 2017. 1.5. p8]

Footnote (6) states:

(6) The Chief Medical Office has published guidance on physical activity that providers may wish to refer to, which is available at:

[My italics]

The footnote makes very interesting reading – particularly the use of the word ‘may’. Those who have taken the time to read the government guidelines will know how crucial they are. In fact, they are vital to our everyday practice, and should have informed the framework as well as the Early Learning Goal. They are not an optional read.

Several of the ‘Goals’ are weak, and the one for Physical development is a case in point:

Physical development

Moving and handling: children show good control and co-ordination in large and small movements. They move confidently in a range of ways, safely negotiating space. They handle equipment and tools effectively, including pencils for writing.

Health and self-care: children know the importance for good health of physical exercise, and a healthy diet, and talk about ways to keep healthy and safe. They manage their own basic hygiene and personal needs successfully, including dressing and going to the toilet independently [DFE, 2017: p11]

Notice how physical development has become about control, coordination of movement, confidence, and handling small equipment – with the contentious inclusion of ‘pencils for writing’. Then compare to this excerpt from the guidelines referenced in the footnote:

Examples of physical activity that meet the guidelines

Physical activity is likely to occur mainly through unstructured active play but may also include more structured activities. Activities can be of any intensity (light or more energetic) and may include:

  • Activities which involve movements of all the major muscle groups, i.e. the legs, buttocks, shoulders and arms, and movement of the trunk from one place to another.
  • Energetic play, e.g. climbing frame or riding a bike.
  • More energetic bouts of activity, e.g. running and chasing games.
  • Walking/skipping to shops, a friend’s home, a park, or to and from a school.

[From Factsheet 2: Physical Activity Guidelines for Early Years –]

The differences are clear. The focus of the Early Learning Goal is very narrow, and this often leads to narrowed thinking and perceptions of what teachers should do to underpin and develop early physical skills.

Case studies

Consider both these examples. I have made them up, but they are based on my experiences, and the former is more typical than the latter. How does a typical day in an early years setting enable the development of movement and coordination? What does your setting look like? What type of practice appears to be promoted by the Early Learning Goal?

Reception class A

As the visitor enters the room they become aware that floor space is a premium and a small group of boys is trying hard to build a model in a tiny space between pieces of furniture. All the other children are sitting at tables, either working with one of the two adults in the room or completing an activity on their own. It seems that the small group of boys have already completed all their tasks, called ‘challenges’ in this setting, so they have a few minutes to fill before the teacher indicates that it is time to start the next session.

The tambourine is shaken, the children hold up their hands to indicate they acknowledge it, tidy their tables, and move to the small carpet area for their daily phonics session. The interactive whiteboard is switched on and the program begins. There is not really room for all 30 children on the carpet, so they are all squashed. They each have their own little mark to sit on, but several find sitting in such a confined way difficult. More so as they have just been sitting at tables for the previous half an hour.

Twenty minutes later the phonics program has finished and the teacher switches to a music and movement type program on the interactive whiteboard (IWB). The children stand up and shake their arms and legs. Then they sit again. It is nearly lunch time, so the individual pots of dough come out, the children jostle to claim their favourite pot, music goes on, and the whole class sits squashing the dough backwards and forwards to the instructions given by the teacher. The lunchtime assistant arrives, the dough is collected, the children stand and file out.

The door to the outside area has remained shut all morning, and is only open now so that the children can walk to lunch. On looking outside, the visitor can see that it has been laid out to represent each area of learning, and mirrors what is seen indoors. Resources had been ‘differentiated’ according to a perception that groups of children could only manage certain types, or sizes of equipment – for example, spades in the sand. They are left to spend half an hour eating in the dining hall, then another half an hour in the playground. Running games are not allowed.

Reception class B

On entering this room, the visitor is immediately aware of the space available. Also, that there seem to be very few children in the class. Further investigation reveals that about half the class are outside, with some children moving between the two environments.

There are two adults in the environment, one is inside working closely with a group of boys using a sheet of flipchart paper. The boys each have felt pens, and they are working out some mathematical problems. They are all – including the adults – lying on the floor with the paper between them. Other children are stopping by to have a quick chat, but they are on their way to get resources to support what they are engaged in. None of the children indoors are sitting down. In fact, there are very few chairs to be seen, if the children are working at tables then they are standing up.

Both adults are flexible to move where the children need them, but they always stop to engage in teaching. While one adult is on the floor solving a maths problem, the other is solving a problem of a different kind in the outside environment. The children were looking forward to a forthcoming royal event and they had built a ‘carriage’ using crates, planks and tyres that they had cleverly arranged. But they could not work out how to put a cover, or roof, on it. There was a great deal of lifting and carrying, until the problem was finally solved with a table cloth, some poles and a few pegs.

Another group (outside) were using some poles as swords, using big arm movements, and were negotiating the rules in order to play safely.

Several children were writing invitations and good luck cards for the royal event, and a variety of tools were being used to make cakes – real ones – and models for the event. Woodwork was underway, and the children were confidently using real tools to make decorations for the tables. Several children were also making their own playdough and colouring it red, white and blue. All tools and resources were authentic, as you would find at home, and appropriate for the task in hand. Some were a challenge, for example, the can opener, but the children were happy to take this on.

Towards lunchtime, the adults called the children together, they talked about their morning, then had a quick fire phonics input and game that had them standing up and moving around identifying some letters and sounds. As the lunch time assistant arrived, the children moved over to her, sorted themselves out and went off to lunch. After they have eaten, the children go back to their outside area to continue where they left off.

Questions for reflection

  • What differences do you notice? Are there any similarities?
  • How are fine motor skills developed in each study?
  • How are gross motor skills developed?
  • How are the two settings…
  • But what do we really need to consider, and how?

The key components of physical development

A few years ago, I had the very great pleasure of meeting the late Dr Len Almond. We subsequently worked together until he passed away a year ago. He sparked my interest in physical development, and also introduced me to the term ‘physical literacy’. Developing my thinking around this, while working alongside Len to train our local early years teams, I gained a deeper understanding of two things:

  • How little I really understood about physical development.
  • How this understanding is vital to developing our practice and environments because it has a huge impact on learning and development, as well as physical health.

My understanding of ‘physical literacy’ now informs my work ‘across the board’ because it is core to teaching, learning and the emotional and physical environments.

Maude (2015) writes: ‘We, as educators, are charged with ensuring that the children with whom we work are encouraged and enabled to experience the widest available world of movement. This world of movement includes not only a range of indoor and outdoor environments, but also a varied programme of physical activity, which balances the demands made on different parts of the body and takes into account the maintenance and enhancement of strength, mobility and endurance, helping to ensure the development of sound physique, posture and an active lifestyle.’ This is an extract from a chapter, called ‘How do I do this better?’, from Movement Development into Physical Literacy.

How often do we promote the type of activity – by which, I do not mean something that the adult has pre-planned for children to ‘undertake enough physical activity’ (Solly, 2015). Solly goes on to note: ‘Article 24 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child stresses the need for children to have the right to the highest level of health possible. There is increasing evidence that children’s reduced access and uptake of outdoor play has been a causative factor in increasing obesity, as well as diseases such as coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes, stress, anxiety and depression…’

How does the Statutory Framework (2017) reflect our need to support the development of ‘strength, mobility and endurance’, or ‘sound physique, posture and an active lifestyle’? Are we enabling the children to have the ‘highest level of health possible’?

If the framework and the Early Learning Goal are taken at face value then the answer is that neither are strong enough to underpin physical development. And if we do not develop our understanding then we are doing our children a huge disservice. And we are not helping them to learn: ‘…movement is an integral part of life from the moment of conception until death, and a child’s experience of movement will play a pivotal part in shaping his personality, his feelings, and his achievements. Learning is not just about reading, writing, and maths. These are higher abilities that are built upon the integrity of the relationship between brain and body (Goddard Blythe, 2005).

We increasingly understand that the stages of brain development are vital to understanding developmentally appropriate practice, but these stages are inextricably linked to physical development. It is not possible to get one right unless we work on both.

Conkbayir (2017) reminds us of the important stage the children are at: ‘When practitioners understand the crucial role of sensitive periods in facilitating early brain development, they can think more critically about their planning of the environment and what changes can be made to maximise each child’s learning experience.’

She notes: ‘Take motor skills – babies and young children learn through the movement and coordination of their bodies. This movement not only strengthens muscles but also boosts brain development; controlling body movements leads to control of finer movements, such as being able to manipulate and explore play materials and, later, learning how to write.

It is difficult to master such fine motor skills if control over larger movements of the body is poor. If all young children are to successfully learn during sensitive periods, it makes sense that the concept of sensitive periods should be reflected across the early childhood curriculum provided in the setting.’

None of this includes pencil grip, finger gym or dancing with dough, a quick dance to a programme on the interactive whiteboard, or sitting down all the time. Because physical development is much more than that: ‘Physical Literacy can be described as the motivation, confidence, physical competence, knowledge and understanding to value and take responsibility for engagement in physical activities for life (Whitehead, 2016 –’

Reflecting ‘Physical Literacy’ in the environment

Look back at the case studies above. Which of the two environments do you think reflects an understanding of physical literacy? How do you know? What are the clues? It could very well be that the teams in these, fictitious, settings above have never heard the term, but it is clear that one set has a deeper understanding of supporting physical development, and is using the principles of physical literacy.

So often, we see children sitting for extended periods of time. Often on little chairs or cross legged on the floor. But actually, for many, the simple act of sitting is not as simple as it sounds. In order to sit comfortably we need to have strength in our core muscles, and if the children are sitting on the floor with their classmates then they need a secure understanding of their own body in space. It is also important to have an understanding of how their own body works in relation to those around them, and to be responsible for it.

As adults, we often take a great deal for granted, because we understand how to sit, and can often sit still if required. Have you realised what this actually entails?

Proprioception – How often have you noticed children fidgeting when sitting down? They are wriggling about and it may even be perceived that they are not behaving appropriately, so they may attract some negative comment. However, it may very well be that they have an underdeveloped sense of proprioception – this is the sense of movement, and the position of muscles, ligaments, tendons and joints. An increasing number of children spend a great deal of time sedentary, at home and in settings, so they have not had a chance to, literally, flex their muscles.

Balance – If a great deal of time is spent sitting, and indoors, then really getting a sense of balance is not easy. How often do very young children get a chance to walk for long distances, negotiate uneven surfaces, or climb on anything other than a safe installation? The development of the vestibular system requires an innate understanding of a sense of gravity and movement.

Touch – The sense of touch – the tactile system – is also an important strand of physical development because we need to understand the messages that the physical sense gives us in order to discriminate experiences.

These three are known as the ‘Primary Movement Senses’. They then inform the ‘Secondary Senses’ of vision, hearing, smell and taste.

As Goddard Blythe (2011) points out: ‘This is why physical development through the preschool years is so important for preparing the child to meet the demands of school. The control of eye movements needed to follow a line of letters and words on paper does not develop by itself. Rather, it operates from the platform provided by secure posture and balance. If either posture or balance is unstable, the eye movements needed for reading can be erratic, jumping further along the line when reading, missing out letters and words, or even jumping to the line above or the line below.

Are our children physically limited or limitless?

In the course of work he once did with me, Dr Almond wrote: ‘The focus on Physical Development has effectively created a barrier for most early years settings because their efforts have been distracted away to a very narrow focus. This needs to be reconsidered.’

So often, the physical development of our children is seen through the narrow, dual lenses of gross motor and fine motor development. We have established that the Early Learning Goal for physical development is limited and has led to this narrow focus. Largely by emphasising ‘pencil grip’.

We need to think more widely than this and see the implications of it. What can we change in order to make our provision – including how we teach – limitless for the promotion of the whole range of physical development, and what will the impact be? Take a look around your environment. How are your children being encouraged and appropriately challenged to experience what they can do and achieve physically? What opportunities are you offering inside and out? Try looking at things differently:

  • Do you have enough space in your setting? Is it possible to move around easily without having to negotiate around equipment and furniture?
  • What is available outside?
  • How much do you do for the children that they could actually do for themselves?
  • How much of the day do the children spend sedentary?
  • How can you add purposeful movement into everything you do?

Notice my use of the word ‘purposeful’. This is important, because so much that goes under the guise of promoting and supporting physical development is more time wasting than effective. Reflect on the case studies. If the provision already provides purposeful physical opportunities, then there is no need for programs on the interactive whiteboard, or dancing with dough, for example.


The concept of ‘physical literacy’ enables us to take a wider viewpoint of the vital aspect of physical development. One that does not focus on just fine and gross motor skills, but that focuses on understanding the layers that underpin them in order to enable the children to be the best they can be.

Too often, we get bogged down in tick lists of the ‘fundamental movement skills’, for example:

  • Running.
  • Throwing.
  • Catching.
  • Kicking.

All of which are core skills, but cannot be achieved if the children are not secure in their bodies first.

Maude (2015) notes that the role of the educator is: ‘As we proceed to influence children’s development through the pedagogical framework that we provide, we may need to take a closer look at what children actually do when they engage in physically active play and, as a result of that observation, put ourselves even more in touch with the nature of children’s physical development.’

To do this, we need to view physical development through the wider lens of what children can actually do and how we can challenge and develop this further. This does not require us to buy in expensive equipment, or programmes of study, but it does mean adjusting our thinking.

To this end, we are using this year’s eye conference to focus on Physical Development. The programme has been put together to give a rounded overview of what quality provision for this area of learning must demonstrate. It is also interesting to note that Ofsted has recently announced that they will be focusing on how settings promote physical development ( The viewpoint of Ofsted will be heard at the conference.

This important day will look at physical development as limitless, not limited, by presenting active opportunities to explore how we view being ‘physical’. For example, it is not always about rushing about and being out of breath. While this type of energetic physical play is important, it is also important to understand how to be still and controlled. Purposeful physical play involves this holistic view.

With the current political agenda in danger of being shaped by Bold Beginnings, the pilot of yet another ‘baseline’, and the proposed revision of the Early Learning Goals, it has never been more crucial to emphasise the importance of having an in-depth knowledge and understanding of early physical development. It is worth pointing out, of course, that being able to work with this knowledge will enable us to help the children to self-regulate, thus supporting them to be motivated to learn.

I am giving the last word on this to my much missed and dear friend, Dr Len Almond – again, from something he wrote while working with me: ‘The child’s world has great potential, therefore, we need to consider how we can enrich it in ways that expand their capabilities and enable them to learn to value them. The richness of this ‘potential’ needs to be sampled and its importance recognised and developed; this requires careful thought as to the nature of the experiences that can open up a world of challenge and meaning.’ eye


  • Conkbayir M (2017) Early Childhood and Neuroscience. Theory, Research and Implications for Practice. Bloomsbury Academic: London
  • Goddard Blythe S (2005) The Well Balanced Child. Hawthorn Press: Stroud
  • Goddard Blythe S. (2011) The Genius of Natural Childhood. Hawthorn Press: Stroud
  • Maude P (2015) ‘How do I do this better?’ in Whitebread W, Coltman P (Eds) Teaching and Learning in the Early Years. Routledge: Abingdon
  • Solly K (2015) Risk, Challenge and Adventure in the Early Years. A practical guide to exploring and extending learning outdoors. Routledge: Abingdon