From the first days of life, children begin using their bodies to learn about the world around them. Piaget (1950) suggests that sensory and motor experiences are the basis for all intellectual functioning for approximately the first 2 years of life. As children continue to mature, their reliance on physical interactions with people and objects remains strong. Motor skills are an essential component of development for all children. Gallahue (1993) puts it this way:

Movement is at the very centre of young children’s lives. It is an important facet of all aspects of their development, whether in the motor, cognitive, or affective domains of human behaviour. To deny children the opportunity to reap the many benefits of regular, vigorous physical activity is to deny them the opportunity to experience the joy of efficient movement, the health effects of movement, and a lifetime as confident, competent movers. (p. 24)

The physical activity level of young children has received increasing attention nationally because of the rapid rise in childhood obesity. Research tells us that the percentage of obese children ages 2 to 5 has doubled in the past 30 years (Ogden, Flegal, Carroll, & Johnson, 2002). This alarming rate of increase can be attributed to two main factors: “eating too much and moving too little” (Sorte & Daeschel, 2006, p. 40). Physical activities in early childhood settings are critically important in helping reduce the increased health risks associated with obese and overweight children (Epstein, 2007).

Social Skills and Physical Development

Movement activities are especially well-suited to helping children develop social skills (Pica, 2004). As children participate in group tasks that require movement, they learn that their efforts are critical to the success of the group. Coordinating the movements of the group in parachute play, for example, allows children to create a dome overhead and sit inside at the same time. Simple games like this for young children also require cooperation and positive social skills. At the elementary school level, group games such as soccer provide opportunities for children to work together for a common goal while engaging in vigorous physical activity.

Motor Activities and Emotions

Physical activity has long been viewed as a positive way to release the pent-up energy generated from strong emotions. For example, vigorous physical activity such as running outdoors is generally considered an acceptable way to get rid of angry feelings. Such activities are far more positive than aggressive interactions with other children.

More subtle, perhaps, is the use of art materials for emotional release. Children painting at the easel or molding with play dough or clay may well be playing out their feelings in a socially acceptable way. This behaviour, which Freud labeled sublimation (Thomas, 1985), provides children with positive ways to work through emotions using physical activity. Bunker (1991) reminds us that children acquire self-confidence and self-esteem in part through successful physical activities. As children master and refine basic motor skills, they see themselves as more competent and capable. The reception child who has mastered the monkey bars and exclaims for all the world to hear, “Hey, look at me!” is feeling good about himself and his accomplishment.  Part of the excitement of many physical tasks is the element of risk that accompanies them.

Connections to Cognitive Development

Early childhood education is rooted in the belief that learning through doing is fundamental for young children. For example, infants beginning to crawl are working hard to master a physical skill that will enable them to explore more fully the home or school environment. At a slightly older age, walking allows toddlers to have even greater opportunities for touching, manipulating, and creating with the objects around them. During the reception years, building with a set of blocks allows young children to learn about such mathematical concepts as proportionality and number. Finally, the refinement of fine motor skills in play makes it possible for children to succeed with writing tasks in the primary classroom.

Physical competence is fundamental to cognitive development during early childhood. Montessori (1967) stated that, for learning to reach its full potential, it must be directly connected to physical movement for the young child. This unity of mental and physical activity is at the heart of the Montessori method of education. When the motor skill is directly related to the task being learned, children can understand concepts more completely and quickly. For example, a Montessori material called the Pink Tower is a collection of pink cubes of differing sizes that are designed to be stacked from the largest on the bottom to the smallest on top. As children practise this physical task, they learn about seriation (ordering from largest to smallest), which is a concept essential to later mathematical understanding.

Physical activities provide wonderful opportunities for children to engage in an integrated curriculum. Through the use of play dough, young children are provided exciting opportunities to learn a variety of important concepts.