Early Childhood Education

Curriculum, Physical Development


Although charged with the responsibility of educating the whole child, early childhood professionals have historically focused their efforts on cognitive and so- cial/emotional development (the thinking and feeling child), with physical development (the moving child) receiving much less attention. Preservice training has traditionally done little to prepare teachers to meet children’s motor development and fitness requirements; nor, perhaps, has the need to do so been as great in the past as it currently is.

Today, children’s physical development is a topic of increasing concern and attention. Factors associated with this new emphasis include obesity, now increasing at faster rates among children than among adults; and research that describes children’s major at-home activity as being electronically entertained (an average of thirty-three hours a week). As a result, physical fitness has clearly become the responsibility of all who are involved with children. Moreover, because teachers of preschoolers are often more realistic than parents in their assessment of children’s physical activity levels and more influential in the prompting of such activity, early childhood professionals can have a significant impact in this area.

The National Association for Sport and Physical Education (NASPE) describes physical fitness as a condition where the body is in a state of well-being and readily able to meet the physical challenges of everyday life. NASPE’s (2002) position is that “all children from birth to five years should engage in daily physical activity that promotes health-related fitness and movement skills.” Their guidelines for physical activities for young children state that young children should not be sedentary for more than sixty minutes at a time, except when sleeping. NASPE recommends that toddlers accumulate daily at least thirty minutes of structured physical activity and at least sixty minutes (and up to several hours) of unstructured physical activity. Preschoolers should engage in the same amount of unstructured activity but accumulate at least sixty minutes daily of structured physical activity.

The difference between unstructured and structured physical activity is that the former is child-initiated and unplanned. For example, on the playground some children may take advantage of the climbing equipment, while others slide down the slide and swing on the swings. Some children may ride tricycles, while others play tag or simply run around. Structured physical activity, in contrast, is planned by teachers, with specific goals in mind. Teaching children the correct way to perform motor skills such as jumping and hopping is an example of an appropriate goal. And, because motor skills must be taught in early childhood, just as are emerging reading and writing skills and understandings, it is not only an appropriate goal but an important one.

The key word in NASPE’s guidelines is accumulate. No longer is it considered necessary to perform thirty minutes of uninterrupted aerobic activity to achieve benefits. Rather, new recommendations from such groups as the Centers for Disease Control, the National Institutes of Health, NASPE, and the American Heart Association recommend ten- to fifteen-minute “bouts” of at least moderate- intensity physical activity, adding up to thirty minutes, on most or all days of the week.

To promote physical fitness among young children, early childhood professionals should concentrate on health-related fitness, which includes cardiovascular endurance, muscular strength, muscular endurance, flexibility, and body composition.

Cardiovascular endurance is the ability of the heart and lungs to supply oxygen to the muscles. Someone with great cardiovascular endurance has a strong heart— a heart that is larger and pumps more blood per beat than the heart of an individual who is not fit. Good cardiovascular endurance results when an individual exercises regularly. Typically, aerobic exercise improves cardiovascular fitness. However, aerobic exercise cannot be approached in the same manner in which it is for adults.

Young children, particularly before the age of six, are not ready for long, uninterrupted periods of strenuous activity. Expecting them to perform organized exercises for thirty continuous minutes, as an adult does, is not only unrealistic but also could be physically damaging and could instill an intense dislike of physical activity.

Developmentally appropriate aerobic activities for children include moderate to vigorous play and movement. Moderately intense physical activity, like walking, increases the heart rate and breathing somewhat; vigorously intense movement, like pretending to be an Olympic sprinter, takes more effort and results in a noticeable increase in breathing. Playing tag, marching, riding a tricycle, dancing to moderate- to fast-paced music, and jumping rope are other forms of moderate- to vigorous-intensity exercise for children.

Muscular strength relates to the ability to exert force with a single maximum effort. Muscular endurance is about stamina. Because the two are related, many of the same kinds of activities and exercises benefit both. To build them, children should use their own weight in physical activities like jumping, playing tug-of-war, and pumping higher and higher on a swing.

Flexibility involves the range of motion around joints. When people possess good flexibility, they can bend and stretch without effort or aches and pains, and take part in physical activities without fear of muscle strain, sprain, or spasm. In general, girls tend to be more flexible than boys, who start to lose their flexibility at around age 10. Girls begin to lose flexibility at twelve. However, this doesn’t have to happen. If children are physically active, they will remain flexible. They should also be encouraged to work specifically on their flexibility through gentle, static stretches that take a muscle just beyond its usual length (without pain) and are held for at least ten seconds. Such activities as pretending to stretch to climb a ladder, put something on a high shelf, or shoot a basketball through a hoop, or bend to tie shoes, pick flowers, or pet a cat—as well as hanging and swinging from monkey bars—contribute to increased flexibility. Children should work their own limbs through their range of motion, and should be warned against ballistic (bouncing) stretching, as it can cause small tears in the muscle fibers and is not as effective as static stretching.

Body composition, the final component of health-related fitness, relates to the body’s makeup in terms of fat, muscle, tissue, and bone or the percentage of lean body tissue to fat. Due to the burgeoning childhood obesity crisis, much attention is currently being focused on body composition. However, weight alone is not a good indicator of body composition. Some children are simply large-boned. Also, muscle weighs more than fat. So it is possible for two children to have the same weight but very different makeups, one possessing very little fat and the other too much. Physical activity, and particularly aerobic and muscle-strengthening movement, is the key to combating body fat.

Given the increasing emphasis in early childhood programs on accountability and academics, physical activity is in danger of being eliminated from the early childhood curriculum. Many early childhood professionals admit they have trouble fitting movement and other components of a physical development curriculum into the program because they are too busy preparing children for academic expectations. Indeed, physical education classes and even recess are currently being eliminated from elementary schools in favor of more “academic time.” However, academics and physical activity are not mutually exclusive. Researchers have found that regular physical activity contributes to improved school performance. For example, in one study, 500 Canadian students spent an extra hour a day in physical education classes and performed better on tests than children who were less active (Hannaford, 1995). A neurophysiologist, Hannaford states that because movement activates the neural wiring throughout the body, the whole body, and not just the brain, is an instrument of learning. Moreover, brain research has shown us that the mind and body are not separate entities—that the functions of the body contribute to the functions of the mind (Jensen, 2000).

A curriculum for physical development can also contribute to other curriculum goals in early childhood. For example, when children have opportunities to get into high, low, wide, and narrow shapes, they increase their flexibility (one of the five fitness factors). They also learn about mathematics and art because these are quantitative ideas (math), and shape is both an art and a mathematics concept. If they practice these shapes with partners, the concept of cooperation, a social studies skill, is added. When children jump like rabbits and kangaroos, they develop muscular strength and endurance and, depending on how continuously they jump, cardiovascular endurance. They explore the concepts of light/heavy, big/small, up/down, and high/low. These are also quantitative math concepts, but physically experiencing and then expressing them enhances language development as well as word comprehension, which contributes to emergent literacy.

Regardless of the content area or concept being explored, there is a way for children to experience it physically. Doing so benefits children because they learn best by being actively engaged, and this also promotes physical fitness. Early childhood teachers, therefore, should frequently employ movement across the curriculum. They can also use transitions to promote fitness. Children move from one activity to another during transitions, so they may as well move in ways that are both functional and fun. Flexibility is promoted when children move in tall, straight, or crooked shapes; when tiptoeing; or when moving on three body parts. Muscular strength, muscular endurance, and cardiovascular endurance are enhanced when children hop, skip, or jog lightly.

To further encourage children’s active movement, early childhood professionals should arrange the environment to allow for movement, ensuring there is room both indoors and outdoors for physical activity. They should buy classroom and playground equipment and props with movement in mind, choosing items like parachutes, plastic hoops, jump ropes, juggling scarves, ribbon sticks, and balls in a variety of shapes, sizes, and textures. Because children learn by watching the important adults in their lives, early childhood professionals can demonstrate enthusiasm for physical activity, giving the children role models and helping them form positive associations with movement. Finally, recognizing why physical activity is necessary promotes a positive attitude toward fitness that will endure beyond childhood. Children should understand why they’re being given opportunities to chase bubbles, dance, and pretend to jump like rabbits and kangaroos. They should also have a voice in deciding what physical activity they take part in, as choice is a necessary ingredient in fostering intrinsic motivation; and intrinsic motivation is a contributing factor in ensuring lifelong fitness.

Most people believe children automatically acquire motor skills as their bodies develop—that it is a natural, “magical” process that occurs along with maturation. However, maturation influences only part of the process, allowing a child to execute most movement skills at an immature level. A child whose skill stays at an immature level will lack confidence in her movement abilities and is unlikely to take part in physical activities beyond childhood. The likely end result is an individual who is not physically fit.

The notion of leaving cognitive or social/emotional development to chance is unacceptable. So, too, is the idea that all we need to do is let children play and they will be prepared for all the physical challenges life brings their way. Therefore, just as other skills are taught in early childhood, so too must movement skills have a place in the curriculum. By teaching movement skills and helping children to be more physically active, early childhood professionals can help combat the obesity crisis and promote lifelong physical fitness. See also Child Art; Classroom Environments; Development Cognitive; Development, Emotional; Development, Language; Development, Social; Developmentally Appropriate Practice(s); Maturationism.

Further Readings: American Association for the Child s Right to Play (IPA/USA). Available online at www.ipausa.org; Hannaford, Carla (1995). Smart moves: Why learning is not all in your head. Arlington, VA: Great Ocean; Jensen, Eric (2000). Learning with the body in mind: The scientific basis for energizers, movement, play, games, and physical education. San Diego: The Brain Store; Martens, F. L. (1982). Daily physical education— A boon to Canadian elementary schools. Journal of Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance 53(3), 55-58; NASPE (National Association for Sport and Physical Education) (2002). Active start: A statement of physical activity guidelines for children birth to five years. Reston, VA: NASPE; NASPE (2004). Moving into the future: National standards for physical education, 2nd ed. Reston, VA: NASPE; Pica, Rae (2004). Experiences in movement: Birth to Age 8. 3rd ed. Clifton Park, NY: Delmar; Pica, Rae (2006). Physical fitness and the early childhood curriculum. Young Children 61(3), 12-19; Pica, Rae (2006). Moving and learning across the curriculum, 2nd ed. Clifton Park, NY: Delmar.

Rae Pica