Nursery World's Physical Development in the Early Years conference – report

Annette Rawstrone 
Friday, November 10, 2023

Delegates were dancing in the aisles at Nursery World’s Physical Development in the Early Years conference this week (7 November) as they learned how movement is fundamental to young children’s cognitive functioning and their forming of emotional connections.

PHOTO: Adobe Stock
PHOTO: Adobe Stock

A keynote address by Sally Goddard Blythe, author and director of the Institute for Neuro-Physiological Psychology, investigated why Physical Development is given the prominence of being a Prime Area in the EYFS. She shared her decades of neuro-physiological research to demonstrate how children’s bodies and brains work together to build ‘motorways of the mind’ and how this underpins their learning and development.  

‘What you are doing in the nursery years is crucial in building the physical foundations expected to be in place when children start formal education,’ she told delegates who had gathered in London from private, voluntary and independent settings and local authorities across the country. ‘A child’s movement abilities reflect developmental maturity within the central nervous system,’ she said. 

Goddard Blythe explained how when a child’s balance is insecure, they then do not feel secure in themselves which impacts on their emotional regulation. But when their physical positioning is in place children can then cope with the demands of a more complex outside world: 

  • Having confidence in where you are in space gives a sense of well-being. 
  • Knowing your physical place in space is a precursor to being able to make spatial judgements about the world in relation to the self. 
  • Control of eye movements. 
  • Unstable balance activates centres involved in the physical experience of anxiety. 

‘Simply looking at the physical development of some children can predict if they will have difficulty learning when they enter the school system,’ said Goddard Blythe. On a positive note, she told delegates that daily movement programmes can close the gap in attainment and not to ever think that children spending time moving and building their physical skills is a waste of time. 

‘Children who are delayed in their physical development need more time involved in general physical activities before being ready to integrate fine motor and visual integration tasks,’ she said.  

Goddard Blythe advised delegates that activities can include songs, stories and activities which follow a developmental sequence and give children the opportunity to practice, learn, adapt and integrate normal movement patterns in preparation for life.

Delegates were invited to participate in Musical Nutrition's music-based project with UK based nurseries and paediatric clinics. If you would like to find out more scan the QR code below.

Under threes

Independent early years consultant, trainer and author Julia Manning-Morton focused on physical development in the under threes. She introduced the Piklerian idea of naturally unfolding motor development, while cautioning against the dominant discourse in children’s educating and parenting that adults must always be leading children’s learning and the view that it is better to meet physical milestones, such as crawling and walking, early. 

Manning-Morton questioned the current orthodoxy around the importance of ‘tummy time’, warning that if a baby is put into a position that it may not be able to get into naturally then it results in them being ‘trapped’. She cautioned that overuse of tummy time can cause tension in the child’s back, neck, head and shoulders and that time for them to play on their back and side is equally important.  

She recommended that delegates support babies and toddler’s free movement by: 

  • Only putting babies into positions that they can get into and out of by themselves. 
  • Avoid putting babies into a passive sitting or standing position. Do not use containing equipment (such as walkers, seats and swings). 
  •  Allow babies and toddlers uninterrupted time for play. 
  • Provide ample space to move and to rest. 
  • Organise care events that allow for movement and autonomy. 
  • Ensure that clothing doesn’t impeded children’s movements.  

‘We talk about enabling environments, well the most important and first enabling environment is a child’s body,’ stated director of Active Matters Dr Lala Manners. Despite this, she reported that many teachers believe they have received inadequate or not enough training in physical development and report other barriers to engaging in movement with children including a lack of confidence, parental understanding, lack of funding and resourcing and the weather. 

She called for each setting to have designated physical development leads and to ensure that all staff have a role in promoting physical development, whether that’s liaising with parents or sourcing local amenities. Rather than being daunted, Manners urged delegates to have the courage to tune in and follow children and see where they lead: ‘Start where you are, use what you have and do what you can.’ 

Rough and tumble
How staff at Hargrave Park School in North London stopped saying ‘no’ and safely adopted rough and tumble play was shared by assistant headteacher EYFS and KS1 Carla Jones and early childhood teacher and consultant Rachna Joshi. Delegates learned how this style of play had a positive impact on both children’s physical and literacy skills.  

Delegates were also inspired by headteacher Dr Alison Stewart and room leader Harris Payne from Brougham Street Nursery School in Skipton, North Yorkshire who have redesigned their small outdoor area to maximise physical development outdoors. They are not limited by their grounds and embrace the local area as part of their classroom, from traversing a river on stepping stones to visiting the allotment and exploring along the canal.   

Other speakers included Prof Iram Siraj, professor of child development at the Department for Education, University of Oxford, sharing how to use the MOVERS scale to measure and enhance the quality of physical development and Anne O’Connor who considered how movement play, music and dance can be used to ‘tune into’ children’s emotions and enable them to safely explore difficult feelings such as grief and loss.  

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