Physical (under)development in the Early Years? - Guest blog from Loughborough University

Posted by Loughborough University, AfC Policy and campaigns / Monday 27 February 2017 / Early intervention,


Reports that children’s physical development is on the decline seem to be emerging both in the media and from teachers themselves. These reports led us to see whether this was the case by testing levels of physical development in 45 children when they started school (September, 2015).

The research, conducted in collaboration with Loughborough University, found that children’s physical development (which included tests for manual dexterity, balance, throwing and catching), had declined by 18 percentile points since 2001.

In addition, we conducted a number of physical tests to see whether these children had retained any of their primitive (baby) reflexes, as retention of these can often lead to problems in the classroom (e.g. behaviour and learning).  The findings showed that these reflexes were still present in the majority of children tested (they should have disappeared by the time a baby is 6-9 months old).

Movement for Learning

Having established that these children were, indeed, starting school less physically ready than in previous years, we also wanted to find out whether a daily movement programme (Movement for Learning) delivered in class, might go some way to helping children improve their physical development. Using the physical development scores collected in September 2015 and comparing these to their performance at the end of the academic year (June 2016), we were able to establish whether or not this programme had made difference. The findings show that the children participating in the programme improved by 18 percentile points, thus bringing them more in line with children from 2001 (interestingly, the comparison group who did not do the programme, showed no improvements at all).

Why are children less physically developed than before?


While it is hard to know for sure, reports indicate that declining physical activity in general as well as ever increasing ‘screen time’ could be contributors. It may also be that children tend to be strapped into ‘things’ (pushchairs, high chairs, walking aids etc.) more often than they used to and that this might be restricting their movement.   

Additionally, we have seen a rise in the number of children attending nurseries whilst at the same time there has been a general lack of guidance over what activities could contribute to physical development coupled with limited training for practitioners. The elevated status of more ‘academic’ activities could, arguably, be linked to the problems we are seeing when children start school.

What can we do?

It’s clearly a challenge to change broader issues within society but there are steps that could be taken to ease the problem. For example, we would like to see Physical Development in the early years becoming a priority and for more appropriate and adequate training for practitioners. It’s also possible that we’re focussing on physical activity in the wrong way. While things like walking to school or nursery every day should not be undervalued, there are a range of more meaningful activities that may also be helpful. 

Likewise, better guidance for parents informing them of the reasons why things like tummy time are important may warrant further investigation. There are a number of physical activity and development programmes in existence that schools and nurseries could implement (our own: Movement for Learning is just one of these). We would suggest that all schools and nurseries consider these programmes as a way to increase levels of physical activity and to deliver developmentally appropriate movements for the young children in their care. 

If you wish to find out more about the Movement for Learning programme or would like to run it in your school/nursery, please contact Dr Rebecca Duncombe:

Soon, we’ll be writing a blog on what kind of play at home could help with a child’s physical development, so watch this space!