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Understanding the Importance of Early Childhood Physical Development

Understanding the Importance of Early Childhood Physical Development

April 11, 2024

Article Written By:
Sally Redman
Early Childhood Educator at Kids Club Gosford
Sally is a dedicated advocate for play-based learning with 17 years of experience in early childhood education. She values each child’s uniqueness, nurturing their strengths and interests. Passionate about music, Sally integrates it into daily routines, fostering a supportive environment where children explore, create, and imagine freely.

Sally Redman

Imagine the joy in a child’s eyes as they learn to skip, the laughter that fills the air when they catch a ball for the first time, or the pride they feel in mastering the balance to ride a bike. These milestones are more than just fun and games; they are crucial building blocks for a child’s health and well-being. Physical development during these early years plays a pivotal role in setting the stage for a lifetime of active living, helping to prevent diseases associated with inactivity and boosting mental health. But how can we, as parents and caregivers, ensure that we’re providing the best support for our children’s growth? 

We all dream of our children growing up strong, healthy and happy. Part of this dream includes nurturing their physical development from a young age. But what does this really mean? Simply put, early childhood physical development is the foundation upon which children build their physical abilities, like running, jumping, and even the coordination needed for everyday tasks. 

Let’s explore the criticality of early childhood physical development in depth.

What is Physical Literacy in Early Childhood?

Physical growth and motor development in early childhood are about more than just muscles getting stronger; it’s about the brain and body learning to work together. What is physical literacy? It’s the ability to connect brain and body, move with competence and confidence in a wide variety of physical activities in multiple environments that benefit the healthy development of the whole person.

There is much talk about the importance of literacy in early childhood for shaping development. Just as literacy in reading and writing opens up a world of information and communication, physical literacy lays the groundwork for a healthy, active lifestyle. It includes the fundamental movement skills and the enthusiasm and confidence to use them in everyday life. From the playground to the sports field, adopting physical literacy skills in early childhood is critical to equipping children with the tools they need to explore, engage, and excel.

“Physical literacy is the motivation, confidence, physical competence, knowledge, and understanding to value and take responsibility for engagement in physical activities for life.”

The International Physical Literacy Association, May 2014.

Let's do some sports

What is physical literacy, really?

Physical literacy is the concept that if you don’t know the rules and structure around an activity, or you don’t enjoy you are not going to seek it out. Though, if at an early age you are encouraged then in your later life you will have the skills, motivation and knowledge needed and will be much more likely to participate throughout your lifespan. Physical literacy goes beyond sports, it is about gaining confidence and desire to be physically active for life.

Why is it important for children’s development?

As adults we are told to be more active and less sedentary in our work day. We also know research shows that physical activity can improve your health and reduce the risk of developing several diseases: regular activity can improve your quality of life.

But what if you were never confident with physical movement as a child? If a child is not exposed to the fundamental movement skills, they become adults who are inactive and uncoordinated.

With access to computer games or mobile devices starting sooner, children are spending more time indoors and being more sedentary. This explains the scary statistics forecasting that by 2025, 80% of Australian adults and a third of all children will be overweight or obese.

Early Education and Sports

Early childhood is the “sensitive” learning period when skills such as running, throwing, catching, hitting, kicking in addition to levels of strength, speed and flexibility are learnt and help physical literacy be achieved in adulthood.

Children need to have physical movement to grow and develop muscles and help the surrounding tissue strengthen so they can gain better control of their bodies.

This is also called Fundamental Movement Skills. It is the foundation and structure of being physical active, just like when a child is learning to read and write there are basic structures to make this happen. A child does not automatically know how to run, there are various things that need to happen before that moment.

It all begins with “tummy time”, that time your infant becomes comfortable lying on their stomach. This means your baby is developing strength in their neck muscles as they practice keeping their heads up, also limb coordination and overall strength ready for crawling and other developmental milestones. This helps build the neural networks that support basic motor coordination, so your child can move and interact with their environment.

Sports and DaycareThink of a toddler who is just starting to walk, and they are unstable. Their brain functions are still not mature enough to control the movements of their bodies such as coordinating certain movements. By introducing fundamental movement skills through physical activities involving different body parts, such as balance, object control and locomotor skills at an early age helps the child master the skill and add more complexity to the action. Once developed the child learns to move confidently and competently with control, in a wide range of situations.

A recent study from NSW Health showed that 89% of 4 – 5-year-old spend more than 2 hours inactive watching television, videos or DVD’s. The more sedentary a child is the more their health suffers, mainly their sleep patterns. When children do not remain active physically they are not able to get the sleep needed for their brain to develop, which means in the morning they are tired and unable to remain physically active during the day which means not active enough to be tired at night. This cycle becomes a health issue as too little sleep can cause hyperactivity, lower IQ scores and adverse hormonal changes

1.57 million Australian children attend childcare centres and this number is growing each year. They will spend between 22 to 50 hours in care. So, it makes sense that physical literacy is part of a normal curriculum in early childhood and not a luxury.

What we do at Kids Club

Yoga at Kids ClubHere at Kids Club Early Learning Centres we know that the early years is a critical time to give children the love of moving and that Play is the essential tool for learning physical literacy. Children at this age are curious by nature and full of playful energy which allows them to try new things without fear of failing. Our play-based curriculum helps children engage in physical play by using our amazing, creative outdoor environments, planned activities and visits from sports clinics to allow the children to participate in many different physical activities.

Studies show that when activities simultaneously involve several areas of the child’s development, learning is at its most powerful. For example, physical development lays the foundation for later cognitive and social skills. A toddler who learns to walk instead of crawling, can hold a toy and walk to an educator and communicating his needs gaining access more easily. Think of Da Vinci, he is known as a painter, but he was also an engineer and scientist. He used the different parts of his learning to gain a better understanding of what was needed to create a masterpiece.

By using physical activities, children are also enhancing how they process information, memory, concentration and also behaviour opposed to a child not being active they are distracted easily, memory lapses and less flexible with the thinking, like multi-tasking.

Let's kick the ball

We ensure that children are active throughout the day and we do not have excessive screen time activities. We take part in lessons from other professionals that include dancing such as Zumba, team’s sports such as basketball, netball, football or cricket.

Activities such as this will help children be challenged and motivated to try different activities which they can then bring into their everyday life. Our educators use these interests to then extend on throughout the week, ensuring the children are continuing to enjoy physical activity.

This is why a play-based curriculum is so important to a child’s learning and development. By providing spaces that allow children to have unstructured play they are able to try new things with their bodies, such as stretching, climbing or jumping. This type of play keeps your child active for longer, as they are using their bodies, mind and creativity in their play. Using pretend play, the
children go off on a Bear hunt using those Fundamental Movement skills, of sidestepping, forward and backward walking, swishing through the imaginary long grass using their arms and legs. It is about making physical activity a part of the play instead of just something we do once a week.

Outdoor sportOur playscapes are carefully designed to give maximum space for a child to practice and reinforce their gross motor skills with both fixed and movable areas. Young children thrive in our playscapes as we allow them the time, space and opportunity to explore their surroundings. Our rich learning environments also promote age appropriate active play and allows children to repeatedly engage in active play, building their confidence and competence to move in different ways.

Wobbly bridges become spaceships blasting off to the moon, using our legs to balance as the bridge wobbles and we try not to fall! We will often see children exploring the different climbing equipment. Seeing two children help each other climb up the climbing wall in the middle of play and then celebrating at the top is always a proud moment for the children, educators and the parents. It is this kind of moment that the child will remember and want to repeat time and time again. It is fun, enjoyable and makes them feel like they are invincible.

Read more about our creative playspaces here.

Munch & Move trained educatorsAt Kids Club Clarence Street, our educators are trained in the NSW Health Initiative Munch and Move program that encourages active play by using large muscles to help with healthy body weight, bone strength, cardiovascular fitness and muscle strength. It also trains the educators on how to incorporate Fundamental movement skills into the children’s everyday play.

This means the children are always exposed to the fun of being active and it becomes second nature. The educators use both fixed and loose parts to make innovative games for the children to participate in and as they get older the children start to use the equipment to make their own games using the skills they have learned over the year.

What can you do at home?

You don’t have to be a sporty type to teach Fundamental movement skills at home, look at these activities. You just need to participate!

* Balancing, making shapes with their bodies. Hop skip or jump, kick a ball,
* Encourage vigorous play – running, swimming, carrying heavy loads,
* Promote creativity and self-expression,
* 2 hours of active movement, they shouldn’t be inactive for more than an hour at a time except of course when they are sleeping,
* Make a hopscotch,
* Wobble boards,
* Masking tape lines the children need to walk along,
* Stepping stones made out of carpet squares,
* Use small bean bags, or balls to practice throwing and catching etc
* Have portable equipment available such as hoops, tunnels, bubbles cones and bikes,
* Bring in loose parts like logs, rocks, sand etc into their play – try this loose parts at home
* Use your local parks – try this 50 best playgrounds in Sydney

Talk about movement through story’s and explanations.

How did the bird walk on the branch without falling? How do they balance, there are books and songs you can use to connect it all together:
– Elephants cannot dance or Watch me throw the ball by Mo Willems
– Clifford’s field day by Norma Bridwell
– From Head to Toe by Eric Carl

Look at this website Childhood 101 Yoga story

How active should our children be?

How active should our children be?

Physical Literacy lays a foundation of attitudes, habits, skills and values that will last a lifetime. It is a very important part of the curriculum here at Kids Club as we create a space where children are not just prepared for Formal education, but for life as Confident and Capable people.

Shelli Hanson, Centre Director at Kids Club Clarence Street.

Kids Club Childcare is known for having the most beautiful Early Childhood Education centres in Sydney and Canberra. We believe the best start to your child’s future begins at Kids Club. A statement based on our commitment and practices in (4) key areas: Child-Led Learning, Stimulating Environments, Healthy Nutrition and Experienced Educators.

Factors Influencing Early Childhood Physical Development

A child’s journey through physical development is influenced by a myriad of factors, each playing a significant role in shaping their growth and abilities. Understanding these elements can help parents and caregivers provide the best support for their young ones as they grow and explore the world through movement.

  • Genetics: Just like how a seed’s potential to grow into a tall tree is embedded within it, genetics play a foundational role in a child’s physical development. This includes their potential for height, body structure, and general health. While we can’t change genetics, understanding this helps us appreciate the natural pace at which each child grows.
  • Nutrition: Think of nutrition as the fuel that powers a child’s growth and physical activities. A balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, proteins, and whole grains provides the essential nutrients needed for energy, muscle development, and overall health. The importance of literacy in early childhood includes nutritional literacy, helping children make healthy eating choices from a young age.
  • Physical Activity: Regular physical activity is like the practice sessions for the body’s developing systems. It strengthens muscles, improves cardiovascular health, and enhances coordination and balance. Encouraging children to engage in a variety of activities, from structured sports to free play, is crucial for developing physical literacy skills.
  • Sleep Patterns: Adequate sleep is often the unsung hero of physical development. During sleep, the body grows and repairs itself. Ensuring a child gets enough restful sleep supports their physical health, attention span, and even emotional well-being.
  • Environment: The spaces where children play and explore greatly influence their physical development. Environments that are safe, stimulating, and have a variety of physical challenges encourage children to practice new skills. This could be climbing on playground equipment, running on grass, or balancing on logs.
  • Emotional Support: The role of emotional support from parents and caregivers cannot be overstated. Encouragement, patience, and positive reinforcement build a child’s confidence in their physical abilities. Participating in activities with your child not only strengthens your bond but also shows them that physical activity is a valuable and enjoyable part of life.
  • Social Interactions: Playing with peers teaches children about teamwork, competition, and the joy of shared activities. It also offers them a chance to observe and learn new skills from others, further enhancing their physical literacy.
  • Safety and Accessibility: Finally, ensuring children have access to safe and accessible spaces for physical activity is essential. This means creating environments where children of all abilities can explore and participate in physical activities without undue risk of injury.

By acknowledging and supporting these various factors, parents and caregivers can create a nurturing environment that promotes healthy physical development. Remember, physical literacy is not just about excelling in sports or physical activities; it’s about laying a foundation for a lifestyle that values and incorporates physical well-being at every stage of life. Encouraging early childhood physical development through a supportive, engaging, and safe environment is a gift that will benefit children for a lifetime.

Promoting Healthy Habits for Growing Bodies

Promoting healthy habits starts with leading by example. Children who see their parents or caregivers enjoying physical activity are more likely to want to be active themselves. Incorporating physical activity into family routines can be both fun and beneficial. Whether it’s a weekend hike, a bike ride around the neighbourhood, or simply playing tag in the yard, these activities lay the foundation for a lifelong appreciation of movement.

Nutrition also plays a critical role in physical development. A balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and proteins provides the energy young bodies need to grow and thrive. Meanwhile, adequate sleep is essential for recovery, growth, and development.

Physical literacy skills are nurtured through a combination of structured activities like sports or dance classes and unstructured play. The key is to provide opportunities for children to practice a variety of movements in a safe and supportive environment.

Keep in mind that the goal of nurturing early childhood physical development is not to create superstar athletes but to instill a love for movement that will last a lifetime. The importance of literacy in early childhood—both physical and academic—cannot be overstated. It’s about giving children the tools they need to explore the world with confidence and curiosity.

By understanding what physical literacy is and actively supporting our children’s physical development, we pave the way for them to lead healthy, active, and happy lives. It’s a journey we take together, one step, one jump, one playful moment at a time.

Learn more about the Kids Club Education Program

If you want to learn more, call Kids Club Early Childhood Learning Centres or book a tour now of your closest Kids Club Early Learning Centre, click here to view your closest Centre.

As the leading provider of early childhood care in Australia we always put your child first. We are committed to 7 National Quality Standards.