The link between physical activity and academic performance is well-documented. But changes in society have brought about new challenges, according to Dr Nalda Wainwright…

We are facing issues that we have never encountered before in our society. As a result of the increased levels of inactivity in children it has been predicted that they may die five years earlier than their parents, despite improvements in modern medicine.

The bill to the NHS is estimated to be £30bn for the treatment of conditions linked to inactivity, which is one of the leading risk factors for death worldwide.

Changes in society have created a ‘perfect storm’ for sedentary behaviours. Modern technology, lack of green space, fear of strangers, a habit of driving, baby gadgets, coffee shop culture and screen time have all eroded time that would have been spent moving.

This is most damaging and far reaching in relation to our very young children. Over 30 years of research in motor development shows us that we need to develop the foundations of movement in early childhood if we are to be able to access physical activity for the rest of our lives.

The relationship between physical activity, motor competence and self-perception is complex, but in essence means that young children need to have access to high quality play and proper instruction to ensure they reach the levels of mastery needed to make healthy life choices.

Added to this are the strong links between physical competence and academic performance. In order for the brain to develop the complex neural pathways for high order thinking skills, there needs to be six to eight years of good movement and multi-sensory input.

The increasing inactivity in society is seeing our babies and young children spending hours being sedentary and entertained by screens resulting in large numbers of children entering school with very poor motor development, problems with communication and sensory impairments. Physical development also has a big impact on mental health.

Research into the implementation of the Foundation Phase shows that in Wales we have a solution to this with a world-leading play based early childhood curriculum.

However, this potential has not been realised as teachers and supporting adults do not have the necessary knowledge to ensure children are having appropriate experiences to develop the important movement foundations for good brain development and lifelong physical activity.

The Wales Institute for Physical Literacy (WIPL) at University of Wales Trinity Saint David has been working to address this. Drawing on research which identified the gap in teachers’ knowledge, a programme of training and support was implemented in target schools.

Working with Professor Jackie Goodway of the Ohio State University and honorary research fellow at WIPL, SKIP (Successful Kinaesthetic Instruction for Pre-schoolers) trains teachers, teaching assistants and parents about the importance of early movement for child development.

The training shows how children learn to move through developmental stages, how to alter tasks and the environment to move children through these stages and, crucially, to achieve the mastery of these skills needed for lifelong physical activity.

Part of this project involves running parental engagement sessions and then parents taking a bag of equipment home to play with their children. The sessions have been very successful with parents highly engaged and in some cases taking over the running of sessions.

The good news is that research conducted on the SKIP programme in Wales to assess its impact on pupil outcomes, shows that in as little as eight weeks there is a significant impact on motor skills. Teachers also report huge improvements in the children’s concentration, focus and engagement in the classrooms.

The approach we have used for this programme is highly cost effective and sustainable, building capacity in the region and using schools as a hub in the community where sports development staff, local clubs and leisure services are also trained, enabling them to work with schools.

Indeed, at the heart of our work at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David is the development of expertise that can support developments in the curriculum.

We are mindful that the Welsh Government’s Education Secretary highlights the need for ‘making sure the workforce are at the heart of these developments and have the support they need to be able to realise the full potential of the new curriculum within their own schools and settings’.

This training and understanding of the importance of movement for development in an authentic holistic learning environment is essential if we are going to have a workforce that can implement the new curriculum, create healthy confident individuals and lay the foundations for a healthy and prosperous Wales.

  • Dr Nalda Wainwright is Director of the Wales Institute of Physical Literacy at Yr Athrofa, University of Wales Trinity Saint David. This is an extract from her keynote speech at the third International Physical Literacy Conference (IPLC), in Toronto, recently.