Back in March Ofsted Early Years deputy director Gill Jones claimed nurseries were not physically challenging enough.  This report highlighted a disparity between the EYFS profile results for the moving and handling goal and current levels of childhood obesity.  Whilst we fully agree that this is a key issue for the health and wellbeing in Early Years and beyond we must also highlight the focus of this report is solely on physical outcomes.  This neglects a huge benefit of being physically active when learning – it leads to better cognitive development.

Physical activity is always positive.

We firmly believe that all children are born curious and with a drive to discover their world. The adults (including practitioners and teachers) in their life should be there to facilitate and support them when needed. In recent years there has been a growing concern over the increased ‘screen time’ children and young people are exposed to, which translates into a big reduction in physical activity. A study published in the journal Physical & Occupational Therapy in Paediatrics observed that (counter intuitively) even the development of fine motor skills is negatively affected by the use of touchscreen tablets.  In addition there are suggestions that fewer family members are available to play and perhaps fewer safe outside spaces are accessible to children.

Why was physical activity important again? It is linked to children’s cognitive development, not only does it benefit the development of healthy bones, muscles and heart it helps with the development of personal and social skills (self-confidence, interaction, taking turns etc) and has major positive implications for understanding.

Early Years Settings in particular have an obligation to provide many opportunities for physical play. Children should be able to walk, run, climb, skip, jump, balance and crawl to develop gross motor skills. Sensory activities like play dough manipulation or sand and water play should be available for the children to access in order to develop fine motor skills.

An EYFS girlg and boy using multi sensory learning on Moti-Lab

So where does Early Years Science & Maths come into physical development?

We believe it can be right at the heart of the matter for two main reasons.

Firstly, there is no better vehicle for supporting physical development whilst learning than STEM investigations.  All the sensory activities mentioned above have one thing in common – they are enabling what children are most adept to do – be scientists.  

From the moment a child is born they are continually interacting with the world, receiving feedback from their environment and adapting their behaviour accordingly, at the same time they are increasing their knowledge as they make sense of their world – in other words experimenting!

Sand and water play, dough manipulation, muddy play and the like are all tasks that enable children to use their innate desire to investigate.  If we facilitate this through open ended purposeful play we are feeding this thirst for knowledge, self discovery and attending to the natural desires of the child to investigate.

This is echoed by learning maths practically through manipulables; Numicons, Dienes, using an abacus, ball games etc or, less focused on the hands and more on bodily movement, hopscotch, counting games and other wholly active learning through play.

Secondly Early Years Science & Maths has so many opportunities to be immersive.  A child involved in sand and water play or other sensory activities is stimulating all of their senses simultaneously, not just sight and sound.

The textures of materials are tested through touch and manipulation bringing to realisation the physical structure of the world.  It is developing these fine motor skills that allows a child’s brain to lay down the neural pathways to eventually enable them to hold and communicate through a pen.

Experimenting by taste and smell brings quick results, positive or negative, that stay with the child for life and physicality of movement required for these activities stimulates the vestibular (balance / movement) senses.

The immersive experience of pouring water, watching, listening, feeling, tasting and smelling it cannot be substituted with an app that “does the same thing”.

STEM activities provide a fantastic opportunity for totally immersive multi-sensory learning.

Physical engagement promotes learning – why stop at early years?

A lot of evidence points to physical / multi-sensory involvement in a task leads to better cognition accelerating a child’s development.  

Actively involved Early Years STEM activities not only satiate the innate desire of a child to experiment, they provide the multi sensory environment to deepen that learning.  This leads to a positive feedback loop, one side complimenting the other catapulting development for every child.

Young Boy Joyous At Success In Science

We welcome the focus on physical activity to run as a central core to learning in Early Years.  This however, leaves open a huge question that perhaps Ofsted are not focusing upon.

Why does this stop at Early Years?  There is absolutely no evidence to suggest that moving on from Early Years Foundation Stage that children learn in any different way.  

Why should this be the case? Transition between EYFS and Key Stage 1 is an arbitrary notion chosen to suit the education system based on age.  It is not based on any physiological or psychological evidence and as most teachers know, the difference in physical / cognitive abilities of children of that age vary hugely.

So are we then in danger of damaging the academic progress of older children by “switching off” learning through play and the end of EYFS? It is common knowledge that more play based learning systems (such as in Scandinavia) have comparatively better learning outcomes once the age of 8 plus is reached than our own.  We need to be careful that the focus on physical activity and development as a central strand to EYFS learning is not at the detriment of children once they reach Key Stage 1 and beyond.

There are further benefits too, a huge issue at the moment in primary school is mental wellbeing for children.  Primary children these days are considered stressed at the pace of learning and suffer from mental health issues as a result of this.  More focus needs to be put on facilitating children to learn through play and be physically active – when their natural physiology will release endorphins increasing both emotional and physical wellbeing.

A call for Ofsted to promote physical activity in learning for all children.

We need therefore, to make a call to Ofsted and Department for Education to increase the focus on physical activity not just for EYFS but Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2 (and probably beyond) to ensure that all children are accommodated for and learn to the best of their abilities.

We built Moti-Lab with a passion for getting kids to be active participants in their learning. Move, investigate, feel – learn. Every activity and lesson plan for Moti-Lab supports physical development whilst underpinning other areas of learning. For more information on how Moti-Lab would benefit the children in your setting or to book a trial day, please email us on