EYFS Best Practice: Prime time ... Physical Development

The inclusion of physical development as a Prime area of the revised EYFS will have a powerful impact on a child's emotional well-being and later learning, says Anne O'Connor.

There has been a lot of debate about the order in which the Prime areas appear in the revised statutory framework for the EYFS and in the practice guidance, 'Development Matters'. Which is most fundamental to learning - communication and language (CL) or personal, social and emotional development PSED? It's important to remember that there are three Prime areas and that they are all, including physical development (PD), equally fundamental to young children's learning - and strongly interlinked.

So, let's put physical development first for a change. After all, without a physical body to house them, there would be no point in developing communication, emotional or social skills. There is a more serious point to be made here, however. There is so much more to physical development than just providing a healthy container for all the higher order learning and development. As Sally Goddard Blythe writes in The Well Balanced Child (2004), 'Physical expression is the very experience of life. Just as the brain controls the body, the body has much to teach the brain.' Through sensory experience and movement, the body is responsible for building and shaping the brain.

A requirement of the revised EYFS is that, 'Children must also be helped to understand the importance of physical activity (Statutory Framework, para 1.6).' The wonderful thing is that babies and children know the importance of physical activity - right from before birth. Movement is our first form of communication, even before we have left the womb. A foetus in the womb responds to stimulus by moving. In the later stages, a mother registers a baby's kicks and in return is likely to respond to them, with a gentle rub, or even with a comment addressed to the child within. This makes an obvious first link with the Prime area of communication and language, but there are many more links between the two and we will return to this later.

Movement in the womb plays an important part in the development of skeletal structure and is obviously crucial to delivery and birth. From then on, an infant is rarely still. They are seeking the stimulus and responses that movement provides - because they seem to know instinctively that movement is good for them.

As Carla Hannaford writes in Smart Moves: Why learning is not all in your head (2005), 'Brain structure is intimately connected to and grown by the movement mechanisms within our body', and babies are developing a huge number of movement patterns and abilities in the first year of life.

At the same time, as Sally Goddard Blythe suggests, it is as though they are fast-forwarding through the evolutionary stages of human life, from the aquatic movements of the baby in the womb, to the reptilian belly creeping, the mammalian crawling on hands and knees, the primate up on two feet but needing the hands to hold on and right through to the bipedal human stage running about confidently on two legs.

What we are coming to realise is that it's not how quickly a child reaches the goal of walking that matters but how effectively they work through these important stages. Each of these stages has important implications not just for later health and physical well-being, but also for aspects of learning and cognitive development. For example, time spent on the tummy develops, among many things, the full palm stretch which is important for later dexterity in fine motor control and handwriting.

For a variety of reasons, some children are not getting enough good-quality experiences in these stages and we are beginning to see how this is affecting their later cognitive development. So, a focus on physical development is essential in providing lots of opportunities for movement play and supporting parents and practitioners to value each of these stages and not to hurry through them.

Movement is also linked to other crucial aspects of physical development. Some of these words sound complicated but they are linked to activities that children instinctively want to engage in.



Our vestibular system is active in the womb and is crucial to later visual and hearing development as well as balance. Babies and young children instinctively know how to develop their vestibular system by swinging and rocking, rolling and spinning, sliding and hanging upside down.

Access to the outdoors and lots of physical play is essential for this, and without it children's vestibular development may be limited. This can have a major impact not just on their balance but once again, can compromise their later learning development and emotional well-being. For example, the relationship between the vestibular system and neck and eye muscles is important in tasks such as reading and copying from a board or screen. The vestibular system can take seven years to be fully developed yet young children are often expected to be copying from screens and wall charts at a much younger age.



Proprioception tells us important things like where our bodies are in space and where they start and finish, without us having to look at them. From their earliest days, babies kicking their legs and waving their arms are beginning to build this proprioceptive sense, as the movement in muscles and joints sends a constant flow of messages to the brain. Over time, this creates a kind of 'body map' that tells us about the positioning of our bodies - and what they are doing - without us having to look or think about it all the time.

When our proprioceptive sense is working well, we take it for granted and hardly notice it, but poor proprioception can be the cause of a range of problems in children and adults. Children need a well-developed proprioceptive system if they are to have good control and body co-ordination and be able to negotiate the space around them safely.


Babies are born with primitive reflexes essential for their early survival but which make way for more complex postural reflexes as the child develops and these early reflexes are no longer needed. The earlier reflexes become naturally integrated or 'inhibited' when a baby has lots of movement opportunities, lying on their backs or tummies. We are beginning to understand that later problems with motor control, eye function, perceptual skills and hand-eye co-ordination may be linked to the continued existence of these reflexes.



Sensory stimulation (which includes movement) is essential for brain development. We think automatically about sight, sound, smell, touch, taste and our increasing knowledge of physical development reminds us to add vestibular and proprioceptive senses to that list.

When all is going well, young children develop the ability to handle all senses at the same time, for example, painting a picture, wearing a plastic apron, with the sights, sounds and smells of the classroom around them. For some children, handling more than a couple of senses at a time is too overwhelming for them as their brain is unable to process or integrate all the sensory information. Any one of the aspects of painting a picture could engage just one sense too many and trigger a behavioural reaction - the feel of the plastic apron, the smell of the paint, the sound of the child talking next to them.

A greater awareness and understanding of sensory processing issues helps practitioners to understand the emotional and behavioural issues of children with sensory integration difficulties and to provide the right kind of environment to support them.



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.' (Revised Statutory Framework for the EYFS, paragraph 1.13)

After considering all the above, the physical development learning goal for Moving and Handling seems rather basic. Reflective practitioners, however, will be applying their deeper knowledge and understanding of all the elements of sensory and movement development to ensure that children get the best possible early experiences in this area of the EYFS curriculum. The more we understand about physical development, the more we see how crucial it is for later learning in all the Specific areas as well as how strongly it is interlinked with the other Prime areas.

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.' (Revised Statutory Framework for the EYFS, paragraph 1.13)

This second learning goal for physical development concentrates on self-care and has absorbed elements from the original PSED learning goals. There is a focus here on independence and self-control, which is appropriate for most children by the end of the EYFS. There is a danger, however, (as there is with all learning goals) that these become targets to push children towards at increasingly early ages.

If we have to remind ourselves that there are good reasons why children should be allowed (and encouraged) to take their time through the early developmental movement stages, then the same should be true of self-care. The early years are valuable nurturing years, when close affectionate relationships are not only emotionally rewarding, they are also vital for brain development.

There is a fear perhaps in our society that if children don't learn very early on how to manage their self-care, they will expect help throughout their life. Not true. But all too often, the push for independence means that children miss out on the opportunities for affectionate intimacy that care routines can bring.

The key person approach, when practised effectively, enables the adult to engage sensitively with parent and child, to work towards independence at the rate that matches the child's need and stage of development. The real value will show in the child's later confidence and emotional well-being, which will support their ability to function well academically.


With other Prime areas

Once we understand what's really involved in physical development, then we can really appreciate just how deeply it is connected with the other two Prime areas.


Here are some examples of how PD and PSED are interlinked.

  • Jabadao's ten-year action research project on developmental movement found that the most significant impact of the programme was on children's levels of well-being.
  • There are strong links between vestibular development and emotional health and well-being (Goddard Blythe 2005). That's why we talk of being 'well-balanced'. Without the grounding and stability that comes with a well developed vestibular system, a variety of emotional and behavioural disturbances can occur. Young children need lots of input into their vestibular system to help with emotional regulation and focus.
  • Proprioception has equally strong links with emotional well-being. Children with poor proprioceptive development do not have a strong sense of their bodies' position in space. They find it hard to learn physical tasks quickly which can affect their independence and they need constant feedback from sensory stimulus to feel safe and comfortable. They might be fidgety and find it hard to sit still. Children with poor proprioception might find it hard to sleep in the dark or on their own as they need to feel someone next to them to know their body is still there when they can't see it.
  • Primitive reflexes that remain active can lead to a whole range of problems that result in emotional and behavioural difficulties including hyperactivity and hypersensitivity.
  • Children with learning difficulties as a result of poor physical development (sometimes described as neuro-developmental delay) are likely to experience frustration and a whole range of emotional/behavioural issues as they try to make their needs understood and keep themselves feeling safe.
  • Attachment is essential for emotional well-being. Sensory experience is part of the attachment process - the sights, smell, sound, touch, even taste of a parent is what builds attachment in the early days. Being held and stroked, rocked and carried fire positive connections in a baby's brain, interlinking their emotional and physical development right from the start.

PD and CL

Some of the ways PD and CL are linked include:

  • Movement is our first communication from before birth. The baby in the womb communicates with movement and kicking, which is when conversations with the mother begin. Once born, and long before they can communicate verbally, babies use movement to let us know that they are interested in us and what we say to them. We think of crying as the baby's only form of communication, but sensitive carers quickly learn to understand the communication in a baby's wriggles and squirms, their happy kicks and arm waving.
  • The language centre in our brain needs constant stimulation from all the different parts of the brain, including the vestibular system. Think about how vestibular activity - swinging, spinning, and riding a roller coaster, for example, is strongly linked to the urge to shout out and make sounds. It is possible that if the vestibular system is understimulated by a reduction in natural vestibular activity (for example, playing outside and rough and tumble games), then it might be linked with some children's speech and language difficulties. A Jean Ayres suggests in Sensory Integration and The Child: understanding hidden sensory challenges (2005) that it is 'as if the brain needed a certain amount of vestibular input to produce sounds and the movements of daily life did not supply the amount needed in these children'.
  • Self-expression through movement and dance is a powerful form of communication. Early positive experiences encourage children to maintain an interest and appreciation of movement and dance throughout their life and to gain personal and emotional benefit from watching and taking part.

With Specific areas

The Specific areas of learning are dependent on the development of the Prime areas. Apart from the fundamental role physical development plays in generating nerve networks and shaping the brain essential for all other learning, there are countless ways in which physical development continues to play a part in learning associated with the specific areas.


  • Crawling and weight bearing on the hands is linked with developing the palm stretch which is required for dexterity in using tools and handwriting. This kind of floor play is also important for close-range eye focus and tracking, which is important for visual development and reading skills. Using the whole body to create large and small movements in the air helps with writing and letter recognition.


  • Young children make lots of associations with movement and counting - climbing upstairs, counting steps, jumping from stump to stump, etc. Using their whole body while counting also deepens their conceptual awareness of 1-1 correspondence.

Understanding the World

  • Being physically active outdoors is important for a child's developing awareness of the natural environment. The outdoors provides lots of sensory stimulation that can't be replicated indoors and encourages risk and perseverance. Young children are naturally interested in their own bodies and those of others, and bodily functions.

Expressive Arts and Design

  • Children act out their imaginative worlds with their whole body - telling their story as they run around the garden, clamber through obstacles or stand still behind a tree while they hide. Children use all their senses to explore paint and other media and use large and small movements in their artwork. Children use their bodies freely to express themselves in dance and movement in response to stimulus.




The welcome addition of the Characteristics of Learning to the revised EYFS provides a focus for HOW children learn, as much as WHAT they learn.

This includes an awareness of dispositions and the way they impact on children's learning. Not all of us are going to be Olympic athletes, but we all need enough good early experiences to support our brain development and strengthen our bodies.

We have much to benefit from the kinds of positive early physical experiences that leave us with the motivation to continue developing our physicality throughout life. Being playful using all our senses, seeking challenge and showing persistence are characteristics of learning with particular relevance to physical development.

We have a very important role to play in making sure that children's physical development isn't left to chance. We need to provide:

  • the support that parents of babies and young children might need to understand the significance of the early stages of physical development, and
  • the enabling environment that maintains and extends that development, as well as compensating for any lack in early experiences.

This will include specific movement sessions and also:

  • continuous provision of open-ended, indoor and outdoor physical opportunities and sensory stimulation
  •  time and space for play experiences that encourage children to use their whole bodies, including rough and tumble; crawling, climbing, sliding, rolling, running and jumping
  • less time spent sitting and more time using the floor for play
  •  activities that include lifting, carrying and other 'chores' such as sweeping and digging
  • periods of rest and relaxation and opportunities for affectionate touch and physical soothing
  • spontaneous playful interactions with 'tuned-in' carers who know their children well and can respond to individual needs and dispositions, and
  • helping children to become aware of levels of risk and developing children's ability to 'risk assess' for themselves, rather than removing all risk for them.



There is growing concern at the number of children who enter school with immature motor skills. This may be due to a number of factors, but there is no denying that babies and young children are spending longer periods of time restrained in car seats with fewer opportunities for natural, instinctive movement play on their tummies and backs.

As Sally Goddard Blythe, director of the Institute for Neuro-Physiological Psychology, commented in Nursery World, in June 2011, 'There are children who are five-year-olds on the outside but three-year-olds in terms of their motor skills.' These children need more movement to improve their motor skills, so containing them on chairs with table-based activities is not going to increase their school readiness.

They need the time to revisit the early movement experiences that they may have missed out on and the chance to develop the motor skills that will be of importance in their future learning. The ability to sit totally still is one of the most advanced of all movement activities and is not possible until the vestibular system is well developed, which can take up to seven years.

The new requirements for physical development as a Prime area of the revised EYFS are a great opportunity for us to put joyful, physical activity back into the heart of early years practice, knowing that it will have a powerful impact on children's emotional well-being, their language development and all of their later learning.


'There are seven areas of learning and development that must shape educational programmes in early years settings. All areas of learning and development are important and inter-connected. Three areas are particularly crucial for igniting children's curiosity and enthusiasm for learning, and for building their capacity to learn, form relationships and thrive. These three areas, the Prime areas, are:

  • communication and language;
  • physical development; and
  • personal, social and emotional development.' (Revised Statutory Framework for the EYFS, paragraph 1.4)

Physical Development

Communication & Language Development

Personal Social and Emotional Development


The Prime areas within the revised EYFS are fundamental to children's development and well-being. They permeate all experience even from before birth and are the foundations of learning. They are particularly important in the earliest years and continue to play a crucial role in later learning throughout school days and beyond.

All learning and development is lifelong, but it is the experience of the Prime areas of learning and development in the first years of life that are responsible for shaping the brain and building the nerve networks that support all other learning and development.

Helen Moylett and Nancy Stewart of Early Learning Consultancy have highlighted the key differences between the Prime and Specific areas and helped make clear why the areas have been divided in this way in the following table from their guide to the EYFS.


- Prime

Time sensitive

If not securely in place between 3-5 years of age, they will be more difficult to acquire and their absence may hold the child back in other areas of learning


Occur in all communities and cultures

Independent of the specific areas

Not dependent on the specific areas of learning, although the specific areas of learning provide contexts for building on early development in the prime areas

- Specific

Less time sensitive

Specific areas of learning reflect cultural knowledge and accumulated understanding. It is possible to acquire these bodies of knowledge at various stages through life

Culturally specific

Specific to priorities within communities and cultures.

Dependent on the prime areas

Are dependent on learning in the prime areas - the specific learning cannot easily take place without the prime.

Understanding the Revised Early Years Foundation Stage by Helen Moylett and Nancy Stewart (Early Education, 2012, £15.00 including p&p, www.early-education.org.uk)



  • Sensory Integration and The Child: understanding hidden sensory challenges, A Jean Ayres, Western Psychological Services (2005)
  • The Well Balanced Child: movement and early learning, Sally Goddard Blythe, Hawthorn Press (2005)
  • Smart Moves: Why learning is not all in your head, Carla Hannaford, Great River Press
  • Hopping Home Backwards: body intelligence and movement play, Penny Greenland (2000) Jabadao, www.jabadao.org
  • Anne O'Connor's Physical Development series is at: www.nurseryworld.co.uk/go/physical development/

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