We can't forget about physical skills in EYFS

By Julian Grenier on 03 June 2021

Physical development is vital in early years – and we must make sure that we get it right, says Dr Julian Grenier

Picture the scene. I am in a Reception class, observing how the children are getting on.

I am drawn to a boy who is working closely with a teaching assistant. She’s patiently helping him to count objects.

He’s finding it hard to focus.  

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He starts to jiggle on and off his chair and mess around. Meanwhile, I’m feeling uncomfortable: he was having exactly the same difficulties six months ago in the nursery school that I lead. 

I’ve been thinking about him ever since. The nursery and Reception teams worked hard with him and his family. We achieved a lot, but not enough.

We may not have done enough to find out exactly why he was struggling with his learning. I suspect that he needed more support with his physical development. He was a very active child and loved outdoor play. 

Maybe he needed more help to understand important basic concepts through physical play? Concepts like start, stop, beginning and end. We could have planned more physical challenges for him. When children are solving problems and trying different strategies to succeed, they are becoming more powerful learners.

EYFS: The importance of a physical, movement-rich curriculum

In a recent podcast, New Zealand early years expert Gill Connell reminded us that some children may need intensive help with their physical skills. Otherwise, they will struggle to gain the foundations in early literacy and mathematics. 

An ambitious, enjoyable, movement-rich curriculum also helps young children to develop their self-regulation. It helps them to plan their movements, respond to challenges and to focus despite distractions. 

That is better than being “hands-off” in our approach to children who are struggling with their development.

The EPPSE (Effective Pre-School, Primary and Secondary Education) project – the biggest research project into the early years in England – found that where practitioners think children are struggling with their learning, we offer them less challenging experiences [PDF]. We provide less social talk, and more behavioural directives with fewer caring interactions. That can give children a negative view of themselves as learners.

The EPPSE researchers also found that the curriculum balance was different for children who were considered to be of different ability. Children who were described by their teachers as “struggling to learn” experienced more creative and personal, social and emotional aspects of the curriculum and less literacy and knowledge and understanding of the world. 

Children start to fall behind when we differentiate down like that. They miss out on important learning.

Professor Carol Ann Tomlinson’s comments on differentiation in a recent Tes interview are helpful: “We should be doing what I call ‘teaching up’ – planning first for the most advanced children in the classroom, and then saying, “How do I build in scaffolding to enable other pupils to access this, too?”

Scaffolding up needs to follow a clear principle. We need to check that children are secure in earlier steps of learning, before moving on to higher-level skills and concepts. Some children need extra help to catch up on earlier skills they have not yet consolidated. To help them, we need to be diligent in our use of precise assessment, and ambitious for every child.

Dr Julian Grenier is the headteacher of Sheringham Nursery School and Children’s Centre. He co-leads the East London Research School