Get moving! Physical activity and development in the Early Years

Why your setting needs a physical activity policy and steps to create and review yours
Physical Activity Policy
April 21, 2022
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In a rush? Here's the quick run down.

  • 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.
  • A successful physical activity policy requires a whole-setting approach, with staff and parents, staff, leadership, and the children all working in partnership.
  • Follow Linda's steps to creating your setting's own physical activity policy and review it often, to ensure it continues to meet the needs of your 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.

Let’s now look at how to put your policy together

You may choose to develop a separate written physical activity policy, or you may prefer to develop one as part of a wider policy, for example, a Health and Well-being Policy. This could include other areas such as healthy eating, emotional well-being, or other child health and development concerns, such as achieving a healthy weight etc.

Whether you are starting from scratch, or updating an existing policy, it’s important to make sure that it embraces a whole-setting approach to physical activity and movement. Existing evidence suggests that policy and environment appear to be influential factors in providing the best physical activity and movement opportunities in early childhood.

A whole-setting approach to physical activity

A whole-setting approach to increasing young children's physical activity means thinking holistically about how to promote health and well-being for children and for staff.  It’s less about one-off events and more about embedding physical activity and movement into everything that we do.

A whole-setting approach requires everyone to contribute and be involved. Part of your role is to help others to see how the policy fits into the wider context of your setting and, whilst you may not have the authority over all the aspects of the whole setting approach, you can help others to see the bigger picture and to join the dots.

A diagram illustrating a 'whole setting approach' to physical activity, including leadership, the curriculum, polices, the children, staff, partnerships, and the environment.

What are the key elements of a whole-setting approach to physical activity?


Your physical activity policy provides a clear road map that outlines the beliefs and values of the setting. It supports and reinforces the value of healthy growth and physical activity across all areas of the setting (and throughout the day) to meet the National Physical Activity Guidelines. 


Leaders play a vital role in promoting physical activity by creating a movement-rich culture and environment that ensures that physical activities and active play are at the heart of babies’ and young children’s development.  This includes driving your physical activity practices and policy.


The curriculum provides rich physical play and learning opportunities and experiences for children throughout the day, every day, promoting physical development. This is not just an increase in physical activities or developing motor skills, like riding a bike, but may cover how you manage sedentary time (such as rest and sleep). It should also support increasing physical activity as part of other learning experiences spread throughout the day, and an increase in outdoor play.


An enabling physical and emotional environment within and around the setting.  This means creating space for positive physical experiences as well as physical activity. Does your environment include sufficient space for rest as well as moderate to vigorous physical activity? Do your care routines support healthy growth by promoting informed consent and well-being?

Staff wellbeing

Staff recognise the value of physical activity for their own physical and mental well-being, not just for the children. Physical activity policies should support staff to improve their physical activity levels and limit sedentary behaviour, both in their practice and in general.


Strong parent relationships with early childhood settings (and with the wider community) contribute toward babies and young children meeting the statutory and national physical activity guidelines, including guidelines around sedentary behaviour and screen time. Great partnerships mean parents contributing and embracing physical activity, not just following a physical activity recommendation.

Children’s own voices

Giving children a voice promotes self-esteem and self-worth, improves participation, builds strong relationships, promotes inclusivity, and enhances learning. What types of physical activity do your cohort of young children enjoy? What do they tell you about the indoor and outdoor physical activities they already do? What do they know about health and physical activity (depending on their age group)?

An educator holds hands with a little girl as she balances on milk crates. A little boy is also climbing on the milk crates behinds them.

How do I create and implement my physical activity policy? 

Keeping in mind the whole-setting approach, your policy is likely to have a better chance of success if you consider the following seven steps:

1. Nominate a key staff member.

Think about who needs to be involved and who would be the best person to lead the development of the policy. This could be your PANCo , your well-being lead, or a senior member of staff with an interest in physical activity.

However, the policy should not be the sole responsibility of one person. It will be more meaningful to the whole team if it is a collective responsibility, so consider putting together a group to help develop and implement the policy.

2. Consult with the staff team, parents and children to ensure they are fully involved in the process.

This not only provides an opportunity for you to explain why you want to develop and implement a physical activity policy, but it also enables staff, parents, and children to contribute their ideas and views on what should be included. Think creatively about different ways to gather feedback, like through staff or parent questionnaires (for easy data collection), or small group discussions.

Try using the  Mosaic approach to enable children to express their interests before, during, and after physical play. This is a useful way to gather feedback and often unexpected insights!

3. Carry out an audit to assess current physical activity provision.

Audit or conduct a systematic review of your existing physical activity policy and practice in and outdoors against physical activity guidelines. These are:

This will help you to reflect on existing physical activity practice and to identify the strengths and weaknesses of your provision. The evidence you gather will enable you to plan some positive steps for development and to set priorities and goals for your early years physical activity policy. For example, you might identify.

  • Gaps in staff training
  • Lack of outdoor provision or physical activity resources
  • Specific classes or years of age, such as your preschoolers' physical activity, that need more attention
  • The need for screen viewing policies

A group of children sitting on the floor, playing a board game with an educator.

4. Set clear objectives and actions that meet the needs of the setting

Once you have completed your audit, you will have a better idea of what you want to achieve with your physical activity policy. When setting your goals or objectives, consider:

  • To what extent the objectives of the policy align with national policy objectives for children under 5 years of age.
  • What the potential impact of the physical activity objectives is on children, staff and families.
  • How you will evaluate the success of those objectives and aims in your setting, through data collection or systematic review.

For example, depending on the needs of your setting, children, and families, you might aim to: 

  • Encourage more staff participation in physical activity play, health and well-being provision, or engaging in evidence based further research.
  • Improve parental involvement to ensure that children are meeting the minimum requirements for at least 3 hours of activity throughout the day
  • Increase active travel for staff and parents to and from your nursery. 

5. Plan how the policy will be communicated across the setting. 

Now you have the objectives for your policy, think about how you will communicate these to staff and parents. You could use your website, social media, or another communication platform. However you do it, the most important thing is to explain a clear rationale. For example, you could explain how your policy will:

  • Meet statutory and non-statutory physical activity curriculum and child care guidelines, and integrate the seven areas of learning and development. 
  • Ensure that throughout the day, children are meeting the minimum requirements for at least 3 hours of physical and movement activity in the setting and at home.
  • Contribute towards gaining the Start Life Well Setting Award.

6. Review, monitor and update the policy regularly

Finally review and evaluate the policy regularly with the staff team to discover what works well, what doesn’t and how could it be improved. This prevents the policy from becoming stagnant over long periods, or simply a tick-box exercise. Ideally, give your physical activity provision a systematic review on a termly basis, with the whole team, taking into account:

  • Seasonal changes,
  • Staff and children's strengths and interests,
  • Child numbers and available spaces.

Put measures in place to assess whether the objectives of the policy are being met and the outcomes achieved. You can then amend and update your physical activity policy as necessary, to reflect developments.

An iPad with an exercise programme on the screen

A roadmap

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.

If you take the time to create and develop your policy, it will provide you with a roadmap and model to support change and development. Many of our PANCo’s have shared it has had a significant impact on staff, parent's, and children’s behaviours and attitudes towards physical activity both in and out of the setting. 

“Since we implemented our physical activity policy the children are spending more time outdoors being physically active and staff are now participating more in physical play activities with the children. Our next step is to plan a physical activity and movement workshop with the team to get our parents more involved.” 

  Purplebee PANCo Pioneer

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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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