Healthy, active children are happier and achieve more - Developing positive early habits
There have been numerous studies over the years evidencing what most educators have always known – healthy, active children are happier and achieve more. Activity, if done well, impacts positively on children’s wellbeing, their ability to concentrate and can support the development of positive behaviours. In addition, being active, movement and play are in EVERY child’s DNA, whether it’s a baby crawling, a toddler trying to stand and walk, or a young child chasing leaves, jumping in puddles, or jumping off the sofa. Despite all this, physical activity levels have been in decline among children for some time, with approximately 53% of school age children not achieving the 60 minutes a day activity goal*, a trend that has been exacerbated by the pandemic, with physical literacy levels, as measured by positive attitudes, not recovering since the pandemic*.
The reasons are many and complex and there is no silver bullet, but what’s clear is that getting it right in children’s formative years is essential as this is when they can develop early positive habits and a relationship with activity that can last a lifetime.
The importance of physical development is at least clearly recognised in the Early Years. Physical Development is one of three underpinning Prime Areas in the EYFS framework (alongside Personal, Social and Emotional Development and Communication and Language), while national guidelines recommend children be active for a minimum of 3 hours a day. More work needs to be done however to educate and support parents and carers about the importance of activity and play and how important their role is in facilitating and supporting this daily with their children, to help build on the innate curiosity and desire to move in these early years.
When children move into Key Stage 1 the picture changes. The national message is that children now need only 1 hour of physical activity a day, which is clearly a recognition that a move to the national curriculum means fewer opportunities for activity within the school day, with Physical Education jostling for its place in an already packed curriculum. With the support of the PE and Sport Premium and a range of national and local initiatives, schools have been inundated with support and ideas as to how to increase activity both within the school day and through pre and post school opportunities – active travel, daily activity initiatives, cross curricular and extra-curricular and enrichment opportunities being just a few. However, to really help build those early positive habits and develop an early positive connection with physical activity, there are 2 really important factors that are often missed:
- Clear alignment in how we are presenting and role-modelling Physical Education
- A combined school-home effort
I don’t think there are many parents or teachers who would not agree that creating an early positive relationship with Physical Education for EVERY child is an ambition we should aspire to, as the benefits are so huge both in the short and long-term. To achieve this requires a genuine belief that EVERY child can develop a positive relationship if they are given the right opportunities. This doesn’t just mean establishing a vision or statement, that’s the easy bit! It’s about ensuring there is a clear understanding of the developing child and what they need to create this joyful relationship, for example, a sense of belonging, feeling valued, achieving, improving, a sense of self-efficacy, the autonomy to choose and create. We then must ensure we align everything we say and do accordingly. It’s easy however to have the best intentions but to drift off course. As an example, the mistake is often made that all activity is good, therefore if the children are doing more of it that is automatically a good thing. The action is to then make them all run or perform out of the box aerobic exercise or other scaled-down adult solutions. This may mean they are doing more activity, but is it creating for EVERY child that positive connection with being active that they need? Would they want to carry on doing it when we are not there? Does it align to our understanding of the developing child?
A different example would be how we recognise and celebrate Physical Education in our schools. Elite athletes can be inspirational of course, but their achievements are often so far removed from the day-to-day activity habits we want to inspire in our children, that we must think much more broadly and include messages that really resonate and are relevant to our younger children. Similarly, if we only celebrate the more able children in our schools in relation to PE and Sport, those that represent the school teams for example, are we really aligning with our vision and ambition to make EVERY child feel valued with a sense that Physical Education is something they can achieve in and belong to? The challenge is to do what we already do with literacy and numeracy and ensure that we aim for a fully inclusive approach that celebrates and values the effort, progress and achievement of EVERY child, regardless of where they are on their journey.
A school-home effort
To really have an impact, we also need to reframe our understanding of what we mean by Physical Education. If our staff, families, and children see it purely as a curriculum subject that children experience a couple of hours a week, then we automatically set a ceiling on our ambition. Literacy is not viewed solely as a curriculum subject, but as covering the many varied and rich experiences children experience not just at school but at home – it is everyone’s responsibility! Creating a similar culture of a school-home effort to help children’s physical literacy can be similarly achieved and is best started as young as possible. It communicates to families and children that this is something important, requiring school and home to work together, and it is something that will be recognised and valued. If we get it right, it can provide us with a rich variety of opportunities to inspire children to be more active, to build those early positive habits and to celebrate EVERY child when they are active, when they progress and when they demonstrate positive learning behaviours!
*Active Lives Children and Young People Survey, Academic Year 2021-2022