Physical Development - Let’s get moving!

Claire Martin
Monday, November 11, 2019

How the British International School of Boston encourages children to be active. By the US setting’s nursery teacher, Claire Martin.

Physical development (PD) is one of the Prime areas of learning in the EYFS. Without a solid foundation of gross and fine motor control and experience of moving in different ways, children will struggle with the other areas of learning. A strong foundation in PD lays the grounding for all future learning.

Being active is vital not only for children’s health and physical development. It is also critical for their well-being, social and language development, reading and writing skills and their sense of themselves in relation to the world around them. Essentially, PD is the key that unlocks all learning (Macintyre and McVitty 2004). However, with children living more sedentary lives, we, as practitioners, need to ensure we give them ample opportunities to move.


Movement triggers processes that are critical to early learning and development. When children (and adults) move, the brain releases a chemical called dopamine – known as the pleasure response. This sense of pleasure makes children want to move, explore and learn more.

Physical activity also increases our levels of the protein Brain Derived Neurotropic Factor (BDNF), which is essential for neurological growth (White 2017). It helps to build neural connections, maintain healthy neurons, and is linked to memory and higher-order thinking.

Likewise, physical play can help increase our serotonin levels – a chemical that contributes to our sense of well-being and, in turn, helps children to be more attentive.

These processes, therefore, challenge the longstanding expectation that children should sit quietly on a mat with their legs crossed. When children fidget on the carpet, it is because they need to move more – particularly boys.

Because of boys’ testosterone levels, they can sometimes have lower levels of serotonin, which can result in a greater predisposition to act impulsively. So, sitting on a carpet can impair, rather than promote, children’s ability to learn.

An Institute of Medicine study concluded that more active children demonstrated better attention skills, had faster cognitive processing speed and performed better on academic tests (2013). In essence, movement ‘turns on’ the brain.


Physical activity, such as running and jumping, is vital for healthy bone development and growth, while walking and running through a rich visual environment is good for developing eyesight. Spinning around and encouraging children to point out things they see helps to build eye muscles and tracking skills, which are essential for reading. Allowing children ample opportunity to develop their fine motor skills will also develop the muscles and cartilage in their hands.

Physical activity is also a great way for children to bond. Children tend to interact with each other physically, making physical games an ideal time to form friendships; non-verbal children can also participate and feel included.


Jan White (2015) suggests that a movement-rich environment needs various important components. Children need the opportunity to move on a variety of surfaces and to have ample space to move without obstruction. We also need to provide them with the opportunity to move in a variety of ways, including pushing, pulling, spinning, climbing, riding, rolling and making horizontal and vertical movements.

In the early years classes at the British International School of Boston, we try to provide ample time for children to move inside and out. We know that being active and outside makes for happy, engaged students, so we try to enable our children to be as active as possible by providing them with lots of fun, engaging opportunities to move.

Our students enjoy going on walks around our green campus. We have found that moving, walking and being active have been great tools for language development, especially in boys. Exploring nature encourages them to talk more, either using simple words or building on speaking in longer sentences.

Our youngest have also benefited from short walks around our campus. Their stamina develops immensely throughout the year and they grow in confidence in their walking and running abilities. Providing children with the freedom to run and roll down hills also has huge benefits for their overall development.


We allow children to engage in ‘risky play’. This does not mean allowing them to participate in potentially dangerous activities. Instead, it means we encourage children to push their limits and extend their abilities in a controlled environment. What is risky play to one child might not be risky play to another, however.

We don’t shy away from allowing children to climb trees or go up the slide, as we know the physical benefits of these activities are very important. Instead of saying ‘no’, we teach them to manage themselves and their safety as they continue to explore moving in different ways. Through doing this, we are also encouraging our students to become independent learners who are able to self-regulate.

We encourage the children to take ownership of their own safety. Of course, we keep an eye on them and we know our students well enough to understand their physical limitations and when we need to step in. However, we do encourage the children to push the boundaries of what they can do. We try to refrain from saying ‘Be careful’, as this can instil fear in children and highlight our lack of trust in their own judgements. Instead, we try to use phrases such as:

  • Take your time
  • What is your next move?
  • Which part of your body might you bump if you do that?
  • Do you feel stable?
  • Do you feel safe there?
  • I’m here if you need me.

Using such phrases allows children to develop their awareness of their surroundings. Engaging in risky play is a great way for children to practise problem-solving skills.


We also need to ensure we are giving children opportunities to engage in activities that cross the midline (use both sides of the body together). These can include running, digging, jumping and climbing.

Crossing the midline helps the brain to build neurological pathways and is an important prerequisite for developing cognitive skills, such as reading and writing. These activities also build confidence, develop sensory processes and allow children to visualise abstract concepts.


In our early years classes, we also try to limit the number of chairs we have in the classroom. Do children really need to sit down to access resources and activities? Despite some traditional thinking, sitting doesn’t always equal learning.

The only time we expect our children to sit at a table is when they are participating in writing activities. That said, we also encourage our children to write in a variety of ways, including using clipboards or chalk and paint on the floor.

Research has shown that the brain is more active during physical activity and that even standing at a table participating in an activity can improve attention, engagement and ‘on task’ behaviour. The more senses that are engaged when learning, the higher the percentage of retention of information (Pica 2014).


As early years practitioners, it is vital we continue to encourage children to move and be physical in a variety of ways. In our settings, we should be providing children with ample opportunity to engage in the physical movements they need.

Physical development must be at the heart of our provision. Without a strong sense of physical development, we cannot expect young children to access the many areas of the curriculum and become successful, lifelong learners. Allowing children to move freely in a range of ways lays a strong foundation for learning.

About the School

‘The British International School of Boston (BISB)provides students, from toddlers through to Year 13, with an individualised, international approach to learning, culminating in the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme. With more than 80 heritages represented in our community, students develop a broad world view in an academically rigorous, supportive environment.

‘A member of Nord Anglia Education, BISB provides its students with enriched curricula through collaborations with The Juilliard School, MIT and UNICEF.’

Learn more at


  • Connell G and McCarthy C (2013) A Moving Child is a Learning Child
  • Hanscom A (2016) Balanced and Barefoot
  • Institute of Medicine (2013) Educating the Student Body
  • Macintyre C and McVitty K (2004) Movement and Learning in the Early Years
  • Pica R (2014) Preschoolers and Kindergartners: Moving and Learning
  • White J (2015) Every Child a Mover
  • White J (2017) Early Years Autumn Summit
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