I recently watched a TED talk about physical education (PE) and its impact on cognitive development. It shared what many early years practitioners have always known – that physically active children are learning children. We talk about active learning in terms of children being engaged in their learning, but we also need to consider keeping learning active – in a physical sense.
When children are moving, their brains are working harder and this makes them more receptive to new learning. So movement has a positive impact on the brain. There have been a number of research studies which have found links between the physical fitness of children and how well they perform in memory, reading and maths tests. In addition, the Millennium Cohort Study found a correlation between a delay in gross and fine motor development in a child’s first year and delayed cognitive development at age five.
Neurologists talk about ‘sensitive periods’ or ‘windows of opportunity’ as they are more widely known, which are times when our brains are most receptive to learning certain things. Learning outside these windows is harder, but not impossible. The window of opportunity for gross motor development is from the antenatal period until around five years old, and the equivalent window for fine motor development is from shortly after birth until about nine years old. It is important to remember that these critical periods are not the only time that learning takes place, we continue learning throughout our lives, however, they do highlight the importance of the pre-school phase.
There are many ways that we can use this research in our practice:
- Introduce movement experiences early and within the windows of opportunity for optimum benefit
- Encourage a positive attitude to movement – the foundation for a lifetime of good health
- Include activities that integrate visual information with fine and gross motor movements, e.g. throwing and catching a ball
- Provide children with lots of sensory-motor experiences
- Include a variety of gross motor movements, e.g. crawling, creeping, body rolling, jumping
- Combine movement activities with music as this presents an excellent learning medium for young children
- Embed movement play into every area of learning, don’t limit it to physical development
- Join children in movement play and role model different ways to move
- Ensure that learning opportunities are as active as possible, e.g. review any times when children are more sedentary and incorporate movement into these parts of your routine
- Value spontaneous movement play indoors as much as outdoors by providing adequate space to enable children to move how they wish and when
- Encourage babies and young children to move in ways on the floor that are important for development, e.g. crawling
- Ensure that the environment, resources and experiences offered promote and not prohibit movement
- Support children’s natural ability to risk assess for themselves and supervise children who do not have this ability yet, providing extra help to ensure everyone stays safe.
You may like to have a look at the Department of Health’s Physical Activity Guidelines as they provide useful leaflets aimed at parents offering ideas for keeping active. Children under 5 years should be physically active daily for a minimum of three hours split throughout the day. In a busy early years setting, once you take out routine activities such as group times, snacks, meals, naps, stories and so on, it might be tricky to find a spare three hours to be active!
One of the best ways to get children moving is to move with them! So get out of your chair and move it, move it!
About the author
Tamsin Grimmer is an experienced early years consultant and trainer and parent who is passionate about young children’s learning and development. She believes that all children deserve practitioners who are inspiring, dynamic, reflective and committed to improving on their current best. Tamsin particularly enjoys planning and delivering training and supporting early years practitioners and teachers to improve outcomes for young children.
Tamsin’s book, Observing and Developing Schematic Behaviour in Young Children, was released in July 2017.