Management

Get moving! Physical activity and development in the Early Years: part 1

July 6, 2022

Why your setting needs a physical activity policy

Why your setting needs a physical activity policy
Physical Activity Policy
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  • The benefits of physical activity in the Early Years are far-reaching and can have profound positive effects in later life too.
  • A physical activity policy for your setting contributes to improving the health and well-being of children by informing staff training and parent education, as well as providing a ‘road map’ for everyone involved.
  • Creating a physical activity policy requires a whole-setting approach, so take the time to think about how ready your setting is to get started.

This is part one of a series from Linda Baston-Pitt on the importance of physical activity and development in your Early Years setting.

Baby girl lying down on bed doing some physical activity

The importance of being physically active in the Early Years

What happens when you’re 0 to 5 has a direct impact on your behaviours much later in life. 

For example, if you’ve had positive physical activity and movement experiences during the early years, you’re more likely to grow up making healthier choices and be more in control of your own well-being needs. 

And the good news is, Early Years settings (and Early Years practitioners) are in a unique position to give children the opportunities to add more energetic activity to their daily routines and to support them to meet the physical activity guidelines (more on that below). Early Years professionals play a vital role in encouraging children by creating a movement-rich culture and environment, with plenty of active and outdoor play, ensuring that physical play and movement are at the heart of young children’s development.

And of course, Physical Development is a prime area of learning in the Early Years Foundation Stage.

It’s also vital that we take these opportunities to promote movement, energetic play, and physical activity, as research suggests that almost 1 in 4 children are already overweight or obese by the time they start school.  And only one in ten children aged two to four are meeting the UK chief medical officers’ physical activity guidelines (at least 180 minutes, or 3 hours, spread throughout the day, in a variety of activities, including active play and outdoor activities). This can make a long-term difference to a child's health. 

Global guidelines issued by the World Health Organisation emphasise this further and make recommendations (by age group) not only for being physically active but also sleep, screen time, and reducing sedentary behaviour for under-fives. 

”Early childhood education and care settings have a unique opportunity to promote healthy eating, physical activity, and adequate sleep for young children that will help them develop healthy behaviours through their childhood and beyond. ” WHO Guidelines 2020

So it’s time to act.

We know what works. We have the guidance based on sound research that tells us what children under 5 need in terms of physical activity. Early Years settings have a responsibility to make sure that this guidance is translated into practice, by promoting physical activity, so that we can help children and their families make wise and healthy choices. 

And to do that, a physical activity policy is an excellent toolkit.

Children involved in physical activity

From tummy time to team games - what are the benefits of Early Years physical activity?

Before we look at the reasons why we need a Physical Activity Policy, let’s start by first looking at the importance of physical activity and movement in the early years. 

We know that children learn more physical skills in their first five years than at any other time in their lives and that physical activity is a key building block for health and wellbeing. 

Daily physical activity is critical for a young child’s overall health and well-being, the many health benefits include:

• Builds confidence and improves social skills

• Gives children the opportunity to learn new skills and teaches them important life skills

• Develops child's strength (muscle and bones)

• Helps to develop coordination, both fine motor skills and gross motor skills.

• Enhances concentration and learning

• Makes children feel good

• Helps to relieve stress and maintain mental and emotional wellbeing

• Improves sleep and energy levels

• Improves overall health and fitness and helps children maintain a healthy weight

Early Years educator working with children on their physical activity

But why do I need a policy?

A policy is a public statement of why, what, and how your Early Years setting is tackling the challenges of getting children active and tackling obesity. It provides a call to action that everyone can rally around. These are issues that parents and carers feel strongly about, so getting parents on board is an important part of the process of policy development.

A clear policy helps everyone to understand what is expected of them, what part they have to play in making the policy a success and a sense of pride and achievement when changes start to happen - both for individuals and for the organisation.

Writing and implementing a physical activity policy is a measurement of quality in the care and education of children in the Early Years setting. It contributes to improving the health and well-being of children because:

• It defines the guidelines that are the framework of your early years setting

• It informs staff training and parent education

• It translates standards and practices into a useable form; and

• It provides consistency and continuity, improving communication with staff and parents.

Ultimately your physical activity policy should support and reinforce the value of physical activity across all areas of the setting to meet the national Physical Activity guidelines. Although it’s tempting to use off the shelf policies it’s important to make sure that your policy is individual to your setting, so that it meets the needs of children, staff, parents and the wider community.

One approach that we have used successfully with our Physical Activity and Nutrition Coordinators (PANCo) students is the CHOICE model of policy development. CHOICE stands for Creating Healthy Opportunities in Children’s Environments.

Developing a physical activity policy is all about developing CHOICE: 

  • Choice for children in the opportunities that are made available to them; 
  • Choice for staff in knowing how to create the environment that supports physical activity and movement; 
  • And choice for parents and carers in continuing healthy habits with their children at home.

Creating healthy opportunities in children's environments through physical ativity

Getting ready to develop a Physical Activity Policy - a whole-setting approach

To help you recognise your setting’s current level of commitment to developing a physical activity policy, ask yourself which statement is the best fit for where you are now.

  1. Pre-contemplation- We have not given any thought to writing or implementing a physical activity policy in our Early Years setting.
  2. Contemplation- We have occasionally talked about the need to develop a physical activity policy but then it gets lost in other priorities.
  3. Preparation- We have made a formal commitment to do something to improve our physical activity policy but have not started.
  4. Action- We have already written and/or implemented a physical activity policy but sometimes go back to old ways of doing things.
  5. Maintenance- We have been implementing a physical activity policy in our setting for 6 months or more. 
Are you at 1. Pre-contemplation or 2. Contemplation stage?

If you think your setting is at the Pre-Contemplation or Contemplation stage of readiness, you have some work to do in helping others to understand why a policy is important. What are the challenges to change? For example, if the workload is an issue, explain how the policy can help everyone to dovetail their work so that the whole team is working towards the same goals. If anyone is unsure why a policy is important, you can share this article with them to remind them of the key reasons. 

Are you at 3. Preparation, 4. Action or 5. Maintenance stage?

You are most likely to be successful when your setting has reached levels 3, 4 or 5. When your setting is at the Preparation, Action, or Maintenance stage of readiness then you are good to go. Reminding people of the importance of policy will help you to get the work off the ground.

Once you have identified and resolved barriers to change, you can start to make staff and parents aware that a physical activity policy is being developed — or reviewed - to ensure that everyone feels included from the beginning.

Don’t forget, a physical activity policy is a roadmap, rather than a set of rules 

When we assess our progress against our policies, we are not just filling in forms for the sake of it; we are measuring what impact our actions are having. 

In the case of your physical activity policy, impact means improved health outcomes for children and can be the difference between a child who grows up healthy and resilient and a child who is vulnerable to chronic health conditions and poor mental health.

In my next article, I will share the 7 steps to creating a physical activity policy.

The big ideas

Official Danish Government Reopening Advice

Guidance from the Danish Health Ministry, translated in full to English.

Picture of a Guidance document
UK Nursery Covid-19 Response Group Recommendations

The full recommendations from a working group of over 70 nursery chains in the UK.

Please note: here at Famly we love sharing creative activities for you to try with the children at your setting, but you know them best. Take the time to consider adaptions you might need to make so these activities are accessible and developmentally appropriate for the children you work with. Just as you ordinarily would, conduct risk assessments for your children and your setting before undertaking new activities, and ensure you and your staff are following your own health and safety guidelines.

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