How Physical Play in the Early Years Sets Children Up For Life


Everyone understands the importance of a solid educational base for young children. These days, children are trained and tested in reading, writing and arithmetic from an earlier age than ever. However, children develop holistically, and recent research shows that a child’s physical education in the early years is just as important for success later in life as their intellectual development. The Early Years Foundation Stage places great emphasis on the importance of learning through physical play, and for good reason. Physical activity in young childhood enhances key skills such as concentration, memory, creativity and problem solving, as well as instilling a positive sense of well-being and physical and emotional health that is beneficial throughout life.

Playing Outdoors

According to a survey published this week by Childwise, British children now spend more than five hours a day in front of a screen. Computers, the internet and the television increasingly dominate our children’s lives, and experts have linked this sedentary lifestyle to childhood obesity, attention disorders, Vitamin D deficiency, childhood short sightedness (myopia) and anti-social behaviours. Encouraging a love of physical play in the great outdoors in the early years of your child’s life has never been more important, and can pay serious dividends later on.

Gross Motor and Locomotive Skills

Development milestones such as sitting up, crawling, or taking their first steps are only the first in an ongoing process of developing gross motor and locomotive skills that continues throughout the early years and further into childhood. According to the Early Years Organisation for young children, developing the following skills in early childhood is essential for developing body management, balance, co-ordination, strength, agility and confidence.

  • Waling forwards, backwards and sideways
  • Walking on tip-toes (balance)
  • Running, stopping and starting
  • Climbing up steps or a ladder with one foot leading
  • Pivoting around and around on feet
  • Jumping up and down on the spot on both feet
  • Jumping a distance
  • Balancing along a plank 18cms from the ground
  • Balancing on one leg for 4 seconds
  • Crawling through a barrel or tunnel

There are various pieces of playground equipment that can help develop these skills in the early years. Wobble boards, climbing nets and timber steps are all great for developing balance, overcoming obstacles and fostering a sense of adventure and mastery in young children.

Imaginative Play

Young children have fantastic imaginations and should be encouraged to exercise them whenever possible in the early years to foster creativity and lateral thinking skills. Role play is a key element of this, and outdoor play equipment such as play trains, wigwams, and playhouses offer infinite opportunities for open ended, creative and imaginative play. Role play is excellent for developing language skills, as well as social skills such as empathy, turn taking, team working, sharing and problem solving. Developing such skills early on through play can really help when it comes to helping a child settle into school later, and are essential for success in later life.

Sensory Play and Fine Motor Skills

It might look like just mucking about, but sensory physical play such as playing in sandpits, or with water, or even rolling in the grass or feeling the bark on a tree are of paramount importance in the early years. Sensory exploration is a child’s way of discovering, examining, categorizing and trying to make sense of the world, and encourages scientific thought processes that are invaluable later in life. Sensory play develops important fine motor skills – modelling with sand, for example, strengthens the muscles in the hands in preparation for writing. It can be especially beneficial to the development of children with Special Educational Needs.

Multi-play systems

Combined multi-play systems such as our Caterpillar units and Little Explorers range offer a holistic, many faceted approach to stimulating play – incorporating physical challenges with sensory stimulation and opportunities for imaginative role play. Young children can climb, crawl, explore, pretend and create until their hearts are content in a safe and stimulating outdoor context.


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