Revised EYFS - In focus… Physical Development

Anne O’Connor
Tuesday, March 2, 2021

How the prime area of PD should be approached to best meet the needs of all children, as the countdown to the revised EYFS begins. By Anne O’Connor

Photos at Holmsdale Manor Nursery, Ibstock
Photos at Holmsdale Manor Nursery, Ibstock

As we count down to the introduction of the revised EYFS in September, we need to consider the changes within each area of learning and reflect on what this means for our practice and provision.

Within the Prime area of Physical Development, the educational programme is now much broader in its scope, which is to be welcomed, while the goals have actually become narrower. They now focus only on fine and gross motor skills, with self-care moved into the area of Personal, Social and Emotional Development (see box, page 17).

When it comes to the ‘bigger picture’ of our practice in supporting this area of development, we need to be guided, as always, by the four key themes within the framework – a Unique Child, Positive Relationships, Enabling Environments, and Learning and Development – backed up by careful observation. It is also worth looking to other approaches to early years education.

Other approaches

One of the many interesting features of the Scottish guidance for practice – Realising the Ambition: Being Me (2020) – is that it invites practitioners to ‘look outwards to reflect on what you can learn from other approaches’ – such as Froebel, Pikler and Te Whāriki.

It notes, ‘By deepening our understanding of other curriculum approaches we can innovate within our own curriculum context; weaving new threads of knowledge into our curriculum to ensure we provide what children need from us in terms of high-quality early childhood experiences’ (Education Scotland 2020).

Finding out about and being open to other approaches can deepen our sense of the principles we share and value. It helps us to meet not just our legal and statutory requirements, but also inspires us to hold a vision for the far-reaching learning potential that is rooted in our physical and emotional health and well-being.

So, drawing on past and new EYFS guidance (see References), as well as other approaches, let’s look at Physical Development in the context of the key themes. And regardless of changing frameworks, let’s consider what our children might be asking us to think about as we focus on their need for a rich and fulfilling curriculum to match our current times.


Child development

Fundamental to our understanding of Physical Development is a good knowledge of the developmental processes of the body and how they link with development of the brain and nervous system. We need to be aware of the importance of our vestibular and proprioceptive senses (and their role in our ability to learn and achieve) as well as the way gross motor skills lay the foundations for fine motor development.

A child’s perspective

  • How well do you understand where I am in relation to ‘typical’ development’? Are you monitoring my development so you know when I am developing in my own time – or if I have maybe missed out on some early movement experiences (such as crawling) that you can compensate for by letting me play more on the floor?
  • Are you making sure that I have all the rich and varied sensory and movement experiences I need for my developmental stage, especially if you think my family may not be able to provide them for me?
  • Are you matching the tasks and goals you set for me with my bodily development as well as my age? For example, am I ready yet to hold a pencil, sit at a table, be still and quiet? How do you help other people, such as my family and teachers in school, to understand how important this is and that rushing me through my physical development is likely to store up problems for the future?

Typical and atypical development

A good understanding of how development can differ in children helps us respond to the unique child; understand how best to support and include children with SEND that is both visible and invisible; and when to seek extra support and guidance.

A child’s perspective

  • Do you know how best to support me with any diagnosed conditions? Do you know where to get expert help?
  • How aware are you of various conditions that might not be evident early on and may take careful observation to pinpoint – for example, dyspraxia or sensory processing issues?
  • Can you judge when my senses are being over- or under-stimulated and make adjustments so that it feels safe, and so I don’t get into trouble for behaving in a challenging way?
  • How can you help everyone to appreciate I am not defined by any disability or condition I may have and to appreciate my physical development challenges even if they are invisible and everyone thinks I look fine?


Connection and touch

Connection and touch are crucial for children’s physical development (for example, the sensory and nervous system) as well as reinforcing for the child that important sense of being ‘known’.

Warm, reciprocal relationships help us to have a strong sense of our children, their likes and dislikes, motivations and interests. This is particularly relevant in Physical Development as we need to be able to read their body language and appreciate their movement play choices.

These tell us a lot not only about how children are feeling but also the aspects of their physical development that they have a biological urge to explore – for example, rough and tumble, spinning and making dens all link strongly to vestibular and proprioceptive development.

A child’s perspective

  • Do you know if I like to be hugged, stroked, patted – do I like firm touch better than soft tickles? Do I like to get really close and climb all over you?
  • Do you know what little games I like you to play with me when you change my nappy or feed me?
  • Does my body calm down when you give me a smile or a wave or just let me lean against you when I am feeling out of sorts or restless?


A child’s family have a very intimate and pertinent knowledge of a child, but don’t always realise we want to work in partnership with them, unless we go out of our way to show them that we appreciate their role as a child’s first educators.

Parents of a child with SEND, in particular, may have a lot of information to share and will need to feel a strong sense of partnership in working together in the best interests of their child, along with all other agencies involved.

A child’s perspective

  • How will you help my family to know and understand that:
  • my earliest sensory and movement experiences fire important connections in my brain, enabling it to grow and develop? This continues the more I move and experience things, causing my nerve networks to increase and pathways in my brain to get stronger. I need to move in order to grow and learn – and sitting still is something I can’t do easily until my body has done enough moving.
  • key aspects of my physical development are crucial for my all-round development, both now and later in life? The nutritional, sensory and physical activity choices made for me now can have long-term benefits in how I make choices for myself in the future
  • it’s a joy for me to move, and having positive associations with physical activity now means I am more likely to continue as I get older?
  • you may have concerns about my physical development and how my home life impacts on this, particularly if you think our family is vulnerable, or is finding life hard? You will want to support them in getting the best for me, including extra help if I need it.


Providing the time, space, people and resources to actively promote children’s physical development is fundamental to their learning and well-being, particularly during times of crisis when families may struggle to provide enough physical experiences in the home.

A child’s perspective

  • Is there time and space for me to wallow in physical and sensory activities – with opportunities for me to observe others and to experiment, repeat, consolidate, refine and extend my skills and abilities?
  • Is there the right amount and quality of resources and equipment to stimulate and support me – that is, not too much nor too little, and appropriate for my age and development?
  • Are you there to help me at first (co-regulation) when things are difficult, so that I learn to eventually be able to self-regulate myself as I take risks to test boundaries, learn to cope with mistakes and to persevere when things are hard?
  • Can I access both indoors and out for long, uninterrupted periods of play, on my own and with others (including you) so that I can pursue my sensory and movement interests and motivations for sustained periods of time?
  • How will you ensure that any health and safety /hygiene restrictions are rigorously followed but still allow for me to develop physically as fully as I need?


Observation and monitoring

Understanding how children’s bodies and brains are interlinked helps us know what to look for and to recognise what they need from us in response. Children are not just learning to move, they are ‘moving to learn’ and need movement play integrated into everyday learning experiences.

It is our knowledge of child development matched with our observations that helps us judge what a child might need help with, when they need time to consolidate and what they need next to stretch them.

A child’s perspective

  • Are you aware of when I need to do things in my own time – for example, sitting up, crawling and walking? Or what skills you can teach and encourage me to practise and get better at?
  • How will you help me to keep going and persevere with physically tricky tasks – or find the courage to try activities that feel scary? Are there movement or sensory activities that I avoid? How will you help me to benefit from a full range of physical and sensory experiences?
  • How do you ensure I find being physically active a joyous thing while understanding it’s good for me? How can you help me to relax and enjoy being still at quiet times?
  • Do you notice if I am doing things that tell you my vestibular system (for example, spinning and being upside down) or my proprioceptive system (for example, getting in tight spaces and touching things) are seeking stimulation so that they can develop? What will you do about it?
  • Do you ask for other people’s perspective on my physical development – for example, my family or other carers? Not all grown-ups like to join in with the same activities (dancing, playing outdoors, and rough and tumble) and you might learn a lot you didn’t know about me!


Upbringing and later experiences can impact on our unconscious attitudes towards children’s physical development, causing us to have differing expectations and to rely on stereotypes when thinking about ability, gender, ethnicity, size and appearance in relation to physicality and activity choices.

We need to be aware of this and of the language we use when observing and planning for movement play and physical activity, so that we don’t present children with limited choices or lead them to have a narrow view of what is acceptable for them.

A child’s perspective

  • What do you know about how my family’s culture and beliefs impact (positively and negatively) on my opportunities for physical development and how to work with this to make the most of my dexterity and physicality – and not make value judgements? For example, do I use chopsticks or my fingers very capably to eat? Does my family disapprove of boys dancing or girls playing football?
  • How do you make sure it is as easy for me to use my left hand for using tools, writing and eating as it is for right-handed children?
  • Do you take my physical development as seriously as you do all other areas of my learning and progress?

PD before and after: the changes in close-up


Physical development involves providing opportunities for young children to be active and interactive; and to develop their co-ordination, control, and movement. Children must also be helped to understand the importance of physical activity, and to make healthy choices in relation to food.

EYFS 2020 – early adopter version

Physical activity is vital in children’s all-round development, enabling them to pursue happy, healthy and active lives. Gross and fine motor experiences develop incrementally throughout early childhood, starting with sensory explorations and the development of a child’s strength, co-ordination and positional awareness through tummy time, crawling and play movement with both objects and adults. By creating games and providing opportunities for play both indoors and outdoors, adults can support children to develop their core strength, stability, balance, spatial awareness, co-ordination and agility.

Gross motor skills provide the foundation for developing healthy bodies and social and emotional well-being. Fine motor control and precision helps with hand-eye co-ordination, which is later linked to early literacy. Repeated and varied opportunities to explore and play with small-world activities, puzzles, arts and crafts, and the practice of using small tools, with feedback and support from adults, allow children to develop proficiency, control and confidence.

The changes in close-up


  • The broader scope of the 2020 educational programme includes reference to a range of important experiences that can serve to support early physical development, as well as highlighting some key skills.
  • Gross and fine motor skills are specifically mentioned in respect of the way they are linked to some areas of learning and other developmental benefits.
  • Sensory exploration is highlighted as a starting point, leading to other key skills that though specifically important in the physical domain also have a much broader value with regards to other areas of learning – for example, spatial awareness.
  • Gross motor skills are highlighted as a foundation for social and emotional well-being as well as physical health.
  • The importance of repetition and variety is indicated, as well as some basic suggestions for ways to achieve this.
  • The importance of adult feedback and support is linked with the development of greater proficiency, control and confidence.


  • The educational programme refers to physical activity rather than physical development – this could lead to confusion, as it doesn’t reflect the multifaceted nature of this Prime area of development.
  • There are no references made to the links between the body and the brain and interconnectedness of neurological development (the brain and the nervous system) and the way early movement experiences drive the crucial development of the vestibular and proprioceptive systems in particular, both of which play a large part in emotional well-being as well as physical development.
  • It is uncertain whether ‘play movement’ is an error and refers to the more usual term ‘movement play’.
  • Self-care has been removed to PSED, although the non-statutory guidance Development Matters (2020) includes most of the information about self-care (for example, toileting and feeding) under Physical Development (where it most naturally fits) rather than PSED.


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.

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.

EYFS 2020 – early adopter version

Gross Motor Skills

  • Children at the expected level of development will:
  • negotiate space and obstacles safely, with consideration for themselves and others
  • demonstrate strength, balance and co-ordination when playing
  • move energetically, such as running, jumping, dancing, hopping, skipping and climbing.

Fine Motor Skills

Children at the expected level will:

  • hold a pencil effectively in preparation for fluent writing – using the tripod grip in almost all cases
  • use a range of small tools, including scissors, paint brushes and cutlery
  • begin to show accuracy and care when drawing.

The changes in close-up


  • Gross and fine motor skills are highlighted as significant, and greater detail is provided.
  • Gross motor skills are identified in the context of play.


There is a great deal of value in assessing children’s physical development at this stage, as it can indicate why some children may be having difficulty in other areas of development and learning (including emotional health). However, a full physical development assessment would focus more widely than on just gross and fine motor skills, and be less about skill and competence than about holistic full-bodied development and where the child is in that developmental process.


This series on the seven areas of learning aims to help you prepare for the introduction of the revised EYFS in September this year by:

  • comparing the 2017 and 2021 educational programmes and Early Learning Goals
  • highlighting the significant changes; and
  • exploring key aspects of practice.


  • Gill Connell and Cheryl McCarthy (2013) A Moving Child is a Learning Child: How the Body Teaches the Brain to Think. Free Spirit Publishing
  • Lala Manners (2019) The Early Years Movement Handbook: A Principles-Based Approach to Supporting Young Children’s Physical Development, Health and Wellbeing. Jessica Kingsley Publishers
  • Jan White (2015) Every Child a Mover: A practical guide to providing young children with the physical opportunities they need. Early Education
  • Anne O’Connor and Anna Daly (2016) Understanding Physical Development: Linking bodies and minds. Routledge
  • Carol Archer et al (2018) Moving Right from the Start: The importance of physicality in the early years. Pre-School Learning Alliance
  • Carol Archer and Iram Siraj (2017) Movement Environment Rating Scale (MOVERS) for 2–6-year-olds provision: Improving physical development through movement and physical activity. Trentham Books
  • Development Matters: Non-statutory guidance for the early years foundation stage,
  • Birth to 5 Matters, written by a coalition of early years organisations, is due out in March,
  • Realising the Ambition: being me,


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