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Plugging the Gap in Children's Physical Development

Dive into the fascinating insights of Dr. Nalda Wainwright on ‘Plugging the gap in children’s physical development’ on The Voice of Early Childhood podcast. Explore the critical link between motor skills and lifelong health & success!

Dr Nalda's Blog

Dr Nalda’s Blog featured on the Voice of Early Childhood

Early Foundations  

Developments in society mean that the way we live today has drastically changed and this has resulted in our children having less opportunities for good movement experiences than in the past. The World Health Organisation has highlighted that inactivity levels have risen dramatically because of less active travel, more use of technology and changes in the amount of play and recreation we have access to in our communities (1). This reduction in the amount of movement and physical activity for children in the early childhood has led to a serious problem of children in the early years having delays in their motor development (2). This has many unforeseen and far-reaching consequences. Early movement lays the foundations for later development, for example, the strength and stability developed from tummy time and sitting means a baby can hold their head still to focus their eyes. Crawling develops a strong back and core which is needed for standing and walking, whilst climbing and swinging integrate the balance system which underpins all our movements. We know that a variety of rich movement experiences is needed to integrate all the systems in the body, and lots of active play for babies and toddlers builds connections in the brain and connects the motor systems between the brain and the body. Research from the field of motor development and psychology shows us that early childhood, up to the age of 7 or 8, is a critical window of opportunity for developing motor competence (3,4).  This is for several reasons.  In the early years, developmental trajectories show us that children should be mastering a wide range of foundational movements and skills and reaching what is known as proficiency. It is also in this age group that children are not yet able to accurately judge their own physical competence (physical self-perception), and so we know that they are happy to try new things and think they are doing well if we praise them. However, as children get older, after about the age of 7, they become more accurate in their physical self-perception and so if they are not yet proficient in their skills, they become aware of this. This when we see children beginning to opt out of activities as they do not feel that they can do them. We need to make sure that we develop these skills in the early years as it is harder to develop foundational skills as children get older once they have already decided they are not good at moving. Finally, children must be proficient in their foundational skills BEFORE they are ready to take part in structured sport, as all structured sports need proficient skills to access them. 


Motor competence and wider development 

Most people are aware that developing motor competence (good movement skills) in the early years lays the foundations for later access to sport, physical activity, and a healthy lifestyle (5). However, many people may be surprised by just how important good movement is for the whole of a child’s development, for example, developing good motor skills supports cognitive development and school readiness (6). Good movement skills develop increased physical self-perception which increases confidence and self-esteem and supports mental health (7). Also, motor competence supports healthy weight as children who are able to move well choose to move more and have an active lifestyle which in turn supports better skills and more movement, supporting healthier weight (8).  

Delays in motor development 

With the changes in our lifestyles, children are having less opportunities for extended free play in their communities and we are seeing a huge increase in children with delays in their motor skills both here in the UK and Globally (2,9). Given the importance of these skills for children’s development, this rise in children with delayed motor skills is a very serious problem. Children with delayed motor skills will be very unlikely to engage in physical activity and sport and be a much greater risk of poor health. With the links between motor competence, cognitive development and social skills, the consequences for these children reach far beyond their physical health.  

Motor skills can be split into different categories, locomotor skills such as running, jumping hopping skipping and object control skills such as catching, throwing, striking and kicking.  Decades of research into motor development has shown us that object control skills require instruction and do not develop through play alone (10).  Research has highlighted that teachers and pre-school staff do not have the specialised knowledge of motor skill development needed to support the children in their object control skills and without the levels of extended play in communities with children of all ages to model skills children are no longer developing these skills (11). 

Fixing the problem   

Deprivation has long been associated with delays in motor development, and over 30 years of research in the USA has shown that a structured programme based on the theories of motor development can move young children out of delay in as little as 12 weeks (12). Having identified this problem here in the UK we set out to create and evaluate a programme of professional development and training to address this. Working with the researchers from the USA we created a programme of professional development that empowers teachers and pre-school staff to teach these key movement skills to young children. The programme here in the UK was developed in Wales and was designed to fit with the playful pedagogy that is central to early childhood curricula. Therefore, the programme that has been developed supports the holistic child centred concept of physical literacy. The training combines online theory with practical face to face workshops. The practical workshops enable the teachers and practitioners to understand how the theory is applied into practice. This involves learning to analyse children’s movement recognising the stages of development of the children and then being able to set up developmentally appropriate activities for the stage of the children. The ability to set up developmentally appropriate activities is key to the success of the programme and the impact that has been seen on children’s motor development. Just like in all areas of learning, if the tasks are pitched at just the right level, children have lots of opportunities for successful practice, which is key both improving skills, and children’s confidence. Teachers and practitioners report that they were not aware of the critical role motor development plays in the development for the whole child, and they are amazed at the impact it has on the children when they introduce regular quality movement experiences pitched at the right level for the children. They see improvements in concentration, speech and language and social skills. They tell of the growth in confidence of the children and also their own confidence from understanding so much more about why movement is important and having the skills to be able to implement this.   

Final thoughts 

We are facing a problem that we have never had to deal with before in our schools and preschool settings. Due to changes in the way that we live the majority of children are starting education with serious delays in their motor skills. However, this is a problem that can be fixed.  By putting in the right activities for the stage of development of the children we can move children out of delay and make sure they have access to a variety of physical activities. By making sure that all adults working with young children are able to analyse movement and set up developmentally appropriate activities we can reverse this trend and lay the foundations for all children to access a healthy active life.  If you would like to learn more about the professional development training programme please  get in contact.    

  1. Physical activity ( 
  2. Brian, A., Pennell, A., Taunton, S., Starrett, A., Howard-Shaughnessy, C., Goodway, J. D., … & Stodden, D. (2019). Motor competence levels and developmental delay in early childhood: A multicenter cross-sectional study conducted in the USA. Sports Medicine, 49, 1609-1618.
  3. Stodden, D. F., Goodway, J. D., Langendorfer, S. J., Roberton, M. A., Rudisill, M. E., Garcia, C., & Garcia, L. E. (2008). A developmental perspective on the role of motor skill competence in physical activity: An emergent relationship. Quest, 60(2), 290-306.  
  4. Robinson, L. E., Stodden, D. F., Barnett, L. M., Lopes, V. P., Logan, S. W., Rodrigues, L. P., & D’Hondt, E. (2015). Motor competence and its effect on positive developmental trajectories of health. Sports medicine, 45, 1273-1284. 
  5. Barnett, L. M., Van Beurden, E., Morgan, P. J., Brooks, L. O., & Beard, J. R. (2009). Childhood motor skill proficiency as a predictor of adolescent physical activity. Journal of adolescent health, 44(3), 252-259. 
  6. Jones, D., Innerd, A., Giles, E. L., & Azevedo, L. B. (2021). The association between physical activity, motor skills and school readiness in 4–5-year-old children in the northeast of England. International journal of environmental research and public health, 18(22), 11931 
  7. Schmidt, M., Blum, M., Valkanover, S., & Conzelmann, A. (2015). Motor ability and self-esteem: The mediating role of physical self-concept and perceived social acceptance. Psychology of sport and exercise, 17, 15-23 
  8. Lopes, V. P., Stodden, D. F., Bianchi, M. M., Maia, J. A., & Rodrigues, L. P. (2012). Correlation between BMI and motor coordination in children. Journal of science and medicine in sport, 15(1), 38-43.  
  9. John, A., Goodway, J., Wainwright, N. and Williams, A. (2019) Initial findings from a study of SKIP-Cymru in schools in West Wales.  Verona Sept 11 -14 2019 ICOMDR and CIAPSE 
  10. Goodway, J. D., Ozmun, J. C., & Gallahue, D. L. (2019). Understanding motor development: Infants, children, adolescents, adults. Jones & Bartlett Learning. 
  11. Wainwright, N., Goodway, J., Whitehead, M., Williams, A., & Kirk, D. (2018). Laying the foundations for physical literacy in Wales: the contribution of the Foundation Phase to the development of physical literacy. Physical Education and Sport Pedagogy, 23(4), 431-444. 
  12. Goodway, J. D., & Branta, C. F. (2003). Influence of a motor skill intervention on fundamental motor skill development of disadvantaged preschool children. Research quarterly for exercise and sport, 74(1), 36-46. 

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