Physical Development

“Movement is the stimulus that connects the mind and body, feelings and thinking, laying important foundations for young children’s future learning and development.” (Hannaford, 1995; Goddard Blythe, 2005; Lamont, 2007).

What does Physical Development look like for our youngest learners?

We are beginning to understand more about the need for children to be active right from their earliest years and how this activity has a life-long impact, but what does this look like in practice?
Below is a summary of ideas for supporting young babies, older babies and two-year-olds to experience high quality physical development opportunities in their early years settings.

Babies need time with their key adults to build the emotional connections that will help them feel safe and supported as they grow. Supporting physical development requires us to think about how babies can be both active and interactive.

Practitioners can support physical development in so many ways e.g. as babies explore what it feels like to bear weight on their legs or exploring tummy time. Short, frequent sessions of tummy time will help coordination, balance and posture control; supporting a baby to crawl. This stage also supports the development of the full palm stretch which is important in fine motor control (O’Connor, 2012).

Babies love it if their key adults lie, facing downwards, alongside them as they explore. Wriggling about in this position will help babies achieve the belly crawl, a critical phase which can be missed. Although babies need supervision in this position, adults can often intervene too soon. Bette Lamont describes how: “In many cases this is simply the infant trying to sort out breathing from moving, so the grunts are understandable… and necessary.”

(Personal communication, 2006 in Early Education, 2017).

As babies wave their arms and legs about, these movements send messages to their brain and develop their proprioceptive sense (a sense of where their bodies are in relation to the space around them to help develop good control and body coordination).

Mindful care routines, rest and sleep all form a large part of a baby’s time in a setting (at least 2 hours a day!) and are important times to bond with their key person. Supporting these times of the day by using Makaton and familiar language/shared songs can help babies become familiar with these routines.

If you have very young babies in your setting you may be supporting a variety of feeding routines. Breastfeeding support and advice is available via local Children’ s Centres or the NHS offers a 24 hour messaging service run by Start4Life.

More resources are available here:  Health | Bristol Early Years

Useful links:

New born to 6 months guidelines and suggestions & Tummy Time:

The Benefits of Tummy Time and moving and playing with infants: What happens when we move and play together with our infants? Jasmine Pasch
EE_Journal_ Spring 2017 ONLINE.pdf (


Supporting women who are returning to work and breastfeeding:

Children’s Centre Family Support timetable:

As babies become more mobile, they love to explore the environment around them. Providing nesting toys, blocks, balls and objects to shake, bang and roll, on a variety of surfaces and levels, can stimulate their curiosity to venture further.

As babies begin to push themselves up and explore rocking back and forth, they then begin to creep on all fours. Adults can model this movement, encouraging babies to have a go at coordinating hands, shoulders, hips, feet and balance! An all-important phase before they begin to crawl.

Part of the joy of working with the youngest children is the way they engage with the world with their whole bodies. Jasmine Pasch has described this as “bodyfulness.”  (Early Education, 2017) Music and dance provide ways of supporting children in understanding and controlling how their bodies move. The Soundwaves songbook and videos are full of ideas and songs to try out: Robin Brings Our First Song Book to Life! – St. Pauls Nursery School and Children’s Centre (

Playing finger games and rhymes such as ‘Round and round the garden’, ‘Pat a cake, pat a cake’ and ‘This little piggy went to market’ are wonderful opportunities to encourage playful ‘serve and return’ interactions which help build strong connections in the brain. Collecting finger rhymes and games from your nursery families, to create a songbook, can help create a sense of community.

Sharing meals and snacks provide time to develop physical skills and to engage with different food experiences. Picking up small things (such as finger food) encourage children to grasp, squeeze and grip objects, developing their fine motor skills. From around 6 months babies may also be showing signs they are ready for weaning. Further information of feeding babies from 6-12 months is available here:

Nutrition | Bristol Early Years

Between the ages of 18 months and 3 years is a key time to support families as they work through the process of their child being ready to come out of nappies. Parents may have lots of questions about the right time for their child to start using a potty and maintaining a child’s healthy bladder and bowels. Useful advice for parents and practitioners is available via ERIC: ERIC

Useful links:

Positive meal times: How To Create The Perfect Early Years Mealtime Environment | Famly

Weaning- what are the signs a baby is ready? :

To find out more about Soundwaves:
Early Childhood Music Action Research Bristol Launch Event | Take Art

As children enter their second year, their whole bodies are actively engaged in making sense of the world around them. Plenty of space and time for exploring movement supports their physical development, and their emotional well-being. The movements they love to explore e.g. swinging, spinning, rocking, rolling, hanging upside down etc all support vestibular development (important for visual and hearing development as well as balance). Check in with children’s verbal and non-verbal signals as you explore these movements together, they may request to repeat them or may be happier to observe others.

Proprioception and vestibular development work alongside our other senses to inform our understanding of our place in the world. It is helpful if practitioners consider how their environments allow for these senses to be developed, as well as how children with sensory processing difficulties can access these environments equally.

Children naturally explore yoga-like poses and stretches and these can be good times to explore alongside them. Talking to children about calming breathing exercises can help children make the link between movement and how we feel.

A well thought-out indoor and outdoor environment will provide a balance of open-ended opportunities to be physically active, and cosy, smaller spaces for quieter times and for children who may just want to observe others.

Heuristic play provides a great way to build on the wealth of opportunities provided by a Treasure basket. Also based on an idea by Elinor Goldschmied, the heuristic play approach can meet two-year old’s fascination with the possibilities of objects. With a collection of bags and containers and collections of resources such as pine cones, ping pong balls, bangles, wooden clothes pegs combined with mug trees, large tubes and different sized baskets, children can explore the infinite possibilities of combining the materials. This can also be a time to observe and support children’s schematic play.

Two-year olds love to get involved and there are many routines in the nursery day in which they can participate and have their voices heard and rights acknowledged. Feeding the setting’s pets, watering plants, helping to put away sleep mats, choosing flowers from the shop, carrying bags back from Forest School and all kinds of ‘real life’ situations are helpful to encourage children to take an active role in their setting and community. These can all contribute to the 180 minutes of physical movement which, the NHS guidelines state, are essential for children who can walk independently.

Routine parts of the day, such as nappy changes, can also form a time to discuss with the children whether they are ready to stop playing and have their nappy changed and how they can be involved, by collecting their bag or a nappy from the basket.

Playing a part in these decisions can help the children to develop their sense of self and self-esteem and contribute to self-regulation.

Useful links:
Environment- a good place to be two?:

Heuristic play:

Potties :


Self-regulation, executive function and brain development: Building the toddler brain | PACEY

Children rights: 6f8c2e13d02d0d2319f095ed297b388f–child-rights-childrens-rights.jpg (736×1040) (

Breathing exercises: Deep Breathing Exercises for Kids — Coping Skills for Kids

NHS guidelines: Physical activity guidelines for children (under 5 years) – NHS (

Reference:  O’Connor, A (June, 2012) EYFS Best Practice. Prime Time…Physical Development. (EYFS Best Practice: Prime time … Physical Development | Nursery World)

Early Learning Contacts

Nicola Theobald, Early Years Improvement Officer
Kate Hubble, Senior Foundation Years Consultant
Nicky Bale, Foundation Years Bristol Standard Consultant
Beth Osborne, Foundation Years Consultant Birth to Three
Kate Irvine, Interim Foundation Years Consultant
Ali Carrington, Interim Foundation Years Consultant