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Supporting physical development in early childhood
Supporting physical development in early childhood

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2 Interactions with the environment

The environment provided for children to develop physically is all important, but it need not be something that costs a lot of money. Not all children have access to a large garden, gymnastic clubs or forest schools.

The knowledgeable adult can look to cheaply enhance any environment to provide as many opportunities as possible so that the environment becomes ‘a third educator’ (Strong-Wilson and Ellis, 2009); this is a phrase used in ECEC (Early Childhood Education and Care) to describe how the environment is as important as both the child and the adult in a child’s learning.

There are many opportunities for you to support children in their physical development. Included in this are the space and resources you provide. For example, you could push the furniture back to make a space to dance and then provide scarves or ribbons, picked up cheaply from a charity shop, to help the child extend their movements as they dance. Other easily accessible resources within the environment to support the development of fine motor skills could include a collection of plastic bottles with their corresponding lids, which are cheap, easily accessed in most homes and can keep children (3–4 years) absorbed building up their concentration as they try to match the correct lid to the bottle and tighten them. By applying learning from this course, you will be able to confidently consider what already exists in the environment to enhance physical development.

Another key term associated with physical opportunities for young children is ‘risk taking’. The idea of physical development and ‘risky play’ (Sandseter, 2009) fit very well together. Positive risk taking is an important part of children’s lives; it develops their confidence, their thinking skills, their creative skills, their problem-solving skills and is vital for their wellbeing. But what does this term actually mean?

Below are some definitions from those who have carried out research with young children in this area:

  • Little et al. (2011, p. 115) describe it as ‘play that provides opportunities for challenge, testing limits, exploring boundaries and learning about injury-risk’.
  • Stephenson (2003) described 4 year olds’ risky play as ‘attempting something never done before, feeling on the borderline of “out of control” often because of height or speed, and overcoming fear’ (p. 36).
  • Greenfield (2004) said 4-year-old children talked about ‘risk, speed, excitement, thrills, uncertainty and challenge’ (p. 4).

Linked closely with the idea of risky play is the playful wrestling that children often engage in and is frequently described as ‘rough and tumble’ play. Research tells us how important ‘rough and tumble’ play is for young children (Bosacki et al., 2015). It enables them to develop many skills such as self-control, self-regulation and spatial awareness. You will explore ‘risky play’ and ‘rough and tumble’ play in greater detail in Week 5.

A final important feature to provide in the environment are opportunities to stimulate a child’s curiosity. Many people recognise the need to put precious ornaments out of the child’s way once they start crawling. The child moves towards them out of curiosity; they are like a young scientist exploring their environment (Wray, 1999). Therefore, these ornaments can be replaced with other objects safe for a child to move towards and explore, objects that excite them and make them curious. Remember a moving child is a learning child.

If you would like some ideas of what kinds of objects to provide, have a look at this leaflet on Treasure Baskets by North Yorkshire County Council (2017) [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] . Treasure baskets are collections of everyday objects that stimulate young children’s curiosity and therefore support both small (fine) and large (gross) movement skills. (Use Ctrl + click on the link to open in a new window.)

Activity 2

This section has shown the importance of considering all the opportunities offered in the environment to enhance and encourage physical development.

Look around the environment you make available for children and reflect on the variety of opportunities:

  • Can children run, jump, crawl, dance, climb, roll?
  • Can they manipulate objects?
  • Can they make big movements and small movements, slow movements and quick movements?
  • Can they feel exhilarated and a sense of accomplishment?

An environment that offers all these possibilities is not only vital but needn’t be expensive.

You may have reflected that you spend a lot of time asking children not to run or climb because these are not safe movements in your usual environment. Of course, you must ensure always that children are safe, but if you realise that they have very little opportunity to engage in these (or indeed other movements), are you able to plan visits to different environments where they could do so?

  • For example, is there a park nearby?
  • What facilities are there in your neighbourhood and how could you find out?
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