Physical development approaches

Physical development approaches aim to improve young children’s physical growth, skills and health. Activities in this area may be focused on a particular aspect of physical development, e.g. fine motor skills related to writing, or be more general, for instance, encouraging active outdoor play.

How effective is it?

Though the overall picture is positive, the evidence base is not well-developed and findings are inconsistent. It is not possible to provide a clear account of the reasons why some physical development approaches are effective, and very few individual interventions have been evaluated to a high standard. There is some evidence that programmes that combine physical activity with strategies to promote self-regulation can improve executive function and have a positive impact on learning.

Evidence relating to the general positive impact of physical activity on cognitive outcomes is currently stronger than that related to specific programmes. There are some indications that physical activity, including outdoor play, can support children’s learning.

No high-quality evaluations have assessed the long-term impact of physical development approaches on learning.

How secure is the evidence?

The evidence base related to physical development approaches is currently limited. Two recent systematic reviews have been conducted, but the reviews did not identify high-quality evidence related to learning outcomes for young children.

No high quality studies appear to have been conducted in early years settings in England.

Given the weak evidence in this area, it is important to evaluate the impact of any new physical development approaches. Early years professionals should be cautious about the claims of new interventions that do not appear to have been evaluated.

What are the costs?

Overall, the cost of introducing physical development approaches is estimated as very low. The provision of outdoor space and play equipment can be expensive, but these are not essential for physical activity and exercises, and costs are likely to be spread over a number of years.

What should I consider?

Before you implement this strategy in your learning environment, consider the following:

  1. Physical development approaches can have a range of positive benefits, but the existing evidence on their impact on learning is currently limited. How will you evaluate the impact of new approaches?

  2. Have you considered introducing approaches that are linked to other, more well-evidenced strategies such as self-regulation?

  3. There is some evidence that children are likely to learn more effectively after physical activity. Are regular opportunities for active play and physical development integrated into the day?

  4. Is there evidence for the effectiveness of the specific physical development approach that you are selecting?