Learning and Development

Physical activity for Early Years – Its vital role explained

  • Physical activity for Early Years – Its vital role explained

Early Years children need ample physical activity and movement opportunities to support their physical, cognitive and emotional development. Helen Battelley explores how to integrate diverse and engaging physical activities into your setting’s daily routines…

Young children love to move. Movement is innate, it is deeply visceral; both the brain and body need it. More importantly, the brain seeks it if it is not available.

Physical development for Early Years children

However, despite this, children are spending more and more time on screens and being sedentary. The average daily screen time for children aged 3-5 years is three hours.

As one of the tryptic prime areas of learning, physical development holds a position of influence and value within the education sector.

Yet nearly every day across media outlets there is coverage of young children’s physical inactivity, continuing obesity issues, decline in mental health and diminishing opportunities for daily physical play.  

We need to ensure that the infants we look after have plenty of opportunities to spin, swing, twist, roll, crawl, push, pull, jump, balance, and climb.

All of these strengthen the core as well as developing other physical skills that support more refined movement like fine motor skills. 

Obstacles to physical activity for Early Years children 

In 2021, the Chief Medical Officer for England recommended that Early Years children undertake 180 minutes of physical activity a day. 60 minutes of this should be moderate to vigorous physical activity (MVPA).

We need to consider some of the following obstacles to physical activity. 

  • A prevalence in increased social anxiety, resulting in a fear culture preventing children from playing outside
  • Urban housing with little, if any, provision for play areas
  • The removal of parks and outdoor spaces to provide housing
  • Increased use of tablets and devices among very young children (some prams and pushchairs now even come with adaptable handles to support tablets)
  • Parents working longer hours, reducing the time available to spend in physically active play as a family

Fundamental movement skills 

Throughout my role as a movement consultant, early childhood educators often discuss a recent decline in stamina, resilience and self-regulation in young children.

All of these are grounded in physical play. Physical confidence and capability are both intrinsically linked to general feelings of competence and self-efficacy in early childhood.

To support our children to become resilient, determined beings we must support their physical journey to accomplish reachable goals. 

Fundamental movement skills (FMS) that emerge in early childhood are the essential building blocks on which all further, more complex movement competencies can be built.

Their smooth acquisition, rehearsal and refinement ensure long-term interest and engagement with a range of physical activities. FMS are separated into three areas: 

  • Body management: stability, agility, control etc 
  • Locomotor movement: travelling, rolling, running, dancing etc 
  • Object control: catching, throwing, kicking etc 

They also support, inform and underpin a wide range of learning opportunities across all areas of development. Can you categorise the activities available to your children in each FMS?

Using music to encourage physical activity in Early Years 

Babies and infants seem to present an innate response to music. They may wriggle, be still and listen or bop as they move their bodies to the rhythm of the music.

We need to give babies and infants time and space to kick their legs and move their bodies to music, whether its recorded or the sound of your voice.

Action songs in particular, provide a wealth of movement experiences. Many of these combine midline actions, crucial for hemispherical development. 

For children who are confident walkers, try introducing action songs that involve standing up and whole-body actions. 

Reducing sedentary learning in Early Years 

Anthropologists suggest reduced postural activity (standing and movement play) in early childhood reduces the ability to learn from experiences and produces developmental delays.

Higher levels of physical activity during early childhood are associated with improved health outcomes, whereas sedentary behaviour (SB) is associated with poorer health outcomes.

Prolonged periods of sedentary time in early childhood is associated with an increased risk of depression in older children and adolescents.

We must evaluate how much time children are spending in sedentary positions and make changes and choices to reduce that time, if necessary. Think about whether you need chairs at every learning station, for instance.

Tips for boosting infants’ physical activity

  • Ensure infants spend time on their backs to strengthen core muscles  
  • Offer tummy time as body-to-body contact until babies’ core strength is strong enough to be on harder surfaces
  • Practise yoga activities with lots of body-to-body contact
  • Schedule time for baby massage, perhaps during changing time. This triggers the proprioceptive system  
  • Play music and dance together, reinforcing the rhythm of the music with bouncing, clapping, bopping etc
  • Sing action songs. Babies love the sound of your voice, regardless of whether you sound like Catherine Jenkins or Mr Tumble!  
  • Provide lots of sensory stimuli: scarves, ribbons, lights, shakers, playdough, bells
  • Offer heuristic play opportunities 
  • Provide lots of opportunities to be outside in nature 


Providing young children with lots of physical activity opportunities in Early Years within a secure, nurturing environment gives all children the best start in life.

Embedding movement play, fundamental movement skills, physical activity and musical movement into daily routines will promote learning in all early childhood developmental domains.  

Physical activity in Early Years is vital to children’s all-round development, enabling them to pursue happy, healthy and active lives.

Through physical activity we can engage and support children to become more active and extend their learning potential using a movement programme. 

Helen Battelley is an author, lecturer, researcher and consultant in early childhood physical activity, movement play and PE. Alongside Brianne Pearson, she has written the Physical Activity Adventure Pack (PAAP) scheme of work. This is a comprehensive PD/PE scheme of work for Reception children, embedded in evidence-based practice. Find out more about PAAP and download a free Reception PE games sample.