Learning and Development

Movement Skills: Body & mind

In the first part of a new series on physical development, Angela D Nurse looks at the impact movement has on children’s health, wellbeing and cognitive skills…

As we shall explore over the next three articles, ‘physical development’ in the early years is not just about being able to run faster or completing more complex gymnastic movements than others; it is about how our bodies and brains interrelate and grow together, a process that begins well before we are born.

I wrote in 2009 that “children’s minds live in their bodies, so the two are inseparably linked”. Despite the fact that physical development is one of the three prime areas in the EYFS, the deeper importance of this aspect has been neglected – particularly after a more formal curriculum for small children was introduced at the end of the 1980s. The EYFS stresses moving, handling, health and self-care, rather than investigating how the physical feeds into other aspects of development, particularly intellectual skills. These articles will investigate this aspect, emphasising how movement is the basis for expanding cognitive skills (thinking and organisation of information within the brain).

In the following articles we will focus on ‘fine’ muscle movement and lastly on large or ‘gross’ movements. As we will come to see, this division is artificial but may help us discover how we can, as practitioners, support infants and children to progress and coordinate their movements optimally. As adults many of the things we do are automatic; we do not have to think about them because in childhood they were constantly practised, like talking or climbing stairs. It is only when an event intervenes, like illness or an accident, that we have to relearn these sequence of movements and have to think about them actively once again. By everyday movements becoming ‘automatic’ we free the brain to concentrate on the more complex aspects of being human.

Cognitive development

What we learn about the world is mediated through our ability to reach out and absorb information through movement and our senses. Goddard Blythe (2012) writes “throughout life movement acts as the primary medium through which information derived from the senses is integrated and knowledge of the world is expressed”. In the past few years, with advances in medical science and technology, we have learnt so much about how the brain works and how it connects to and coordinates the work of our bodies. Even if the mechanisms are not entirely clear, and the more we discover the more we realise we do not understand, we know now that babies are born with an infinite number of possible connections within the brain’s structure; input and stimuli in the early months and years of life ensure that these connections are made and expanded. Even before birth, as scans reveal, babies practise movement in the womb, turning somersaults, playing with their hands and feet and sucking their thumbs, until space becomes too restricted. Once born, along with survival reflexes (grasping, rooting), their sense of taste and using their mouths are most developed, enabling them to feed effectively.

It is now estimated that babies can remember certain things before birth, from the age of about 20 weeks; one of these concerns specific sounds. A few days after she was born, my daughter, held by a nurse, heard my voice from a few feet away and turned towards me so vigorously that the nurse nearly dropped her.

Researchers such as Professor Colwyn Trevarthen have explored how music played before birth is remembered and how babies can initiate ‘conversations’ soon after birth by making different facial expressions which adults copy. Humans are born with a number of ‘reflex’ movements such as grasping and startle.

As babies mature these initial skills are built on – hand and eye movements come under their control, for example. Practitioners need to develop close relationships with those in their care so that there can be reciprocal communication (the precursors to ‘shared sustained thinking’) and in order to recognise through their close observations when the time is ripe to present the rhymes, toys and games used to support this development, for example, mobiles and rattles. Adults across the world introduce their own versions – in an English-speaking environment, finger rhymes like ‘Three Little Piggies’, ‘Round and Round the Garden’ and ‘Peek-a-boo’ are examples. Elinor Goldschmied introduced the concept of treasure baskets, collections of everyday objects that very young babies could reach for, explore and share. These baskets are also very intriguing for older children with a variety of additional needs and can include items tailored to a child’s special interests.

We now recognise that babies are not blank slates; it is galling to hear people say that infants are not interesting until they can walk and talk when close observation would reveal just how much they can do and how quickly they learn!

Staying healthy

There are, as the EYFS stresses, health issues that are part of the physical aspects of development. Concerns centre on good nutrition and obesity as lifestyles have changed and children’s lives are circumscribed by health and safety fears; their interests, if not challenged, can centre overwhelmingly on technology, allowing little in the way of practical, outdoor activity. Not only does this prevent the development and practice of vital skills, it can have detrimental effects on other aspects of health such as the re-emergence of rickets in the UK. This is a bone disease caused by vitamin D deficiency. Vitamin D is produced by the skin’s exposure to sunlight’s ultra-violet rays and is essential for the absorption of calcium, the basis for healthy bone formation. Children’s indoor lifestyles and measures to prevent damage to the skin from excessive exposure to sunlight are implicated. This nasty, painful disease, historically associated with poverty, affects mobility in particular and is now found in all socio-economic groups. Foods such as oily fish include this vitamin, but not all children will eat them; however, a number of foods, certain margarines and milk, for example, will have vitamin D added to them. A short exposure to sunlight each day can protect children without endangering them in other ways.


Good physical skills are fundamental to one’s sense of self-worth, and I have worried over aspects of our education system that have seen small children expected to perform before they are physically ready and can demonstrate appropriate skills. One illustration of this is children being asked to write before they have had plenty of practice in developing the muscles of their arms and hands and coordinating what their brain wishes to do with the nerves and muscles that will do them. Another is being expected to sit still on the floor, usually cross-legged, for extraordinary lengths of time (and then be told off for wriggling… ). Not only does this exceed a child’s attention span, it can also damage the muscles in the hips and have unwelcome effects on self-esteem through being reprimanded constantly.


In daycare, one of the dilemmas has always been how far the practitioners should go in establishing a strong relationship with a child, which, it is thought, may impair the bond between parent and child. A child can spend a long time in daycare and to be without a strong attachment to a carer could be detrimental. Surely a baby’s needs must come first? Back in 2004 Sue Gerhardt, building on attachment theory, explained the need for sensitive adults who respond to a baby’s emotional needs and help in the formation of connections in the brain that underpin positive reactions to stress as the child matures. She has also explored the implications of too much cortisol in the baby’s brain. In 2011 she wrote, “Basically, babies learn to do things through their experiences with other people, not through words or instruction. They learn to cope with stress by having the experience of someone being with them and helping them to cope”. Exercise also produces chemicals (endorphins) in the body which combat stress and pain and produce feelings of wellbeing.

Closing thoughts

This has been an overview of some important aspects of physical development in the early years, moving hopefully beyond our first responses when we are asked to consider what it involves. I would like to add, however, that babies and young children are pretty robust (as long as they are not abused) and although many consider there are optimal times (sensitive periods) when acquiring new skills is easier, most development is flexible and continues beyond the age of five – though the development of good language skills is an exception you may wish to debate with colleagues. In some cultures, movement in the first year is restricted (some babies are swaddled) but once given their freedom these children catch up quickly.

Next up, read Angela’s article on fine motor skills.

Angela is the author of Physical Development in the Early Years Foundation Stage. She was formerly head of the Department of Childhood Studies and a principal lecturer in early years at Canterbury Christ Church University.