Moving On…

When Ofsted published their report COVID-19 series: briefing on early years in October, news outlets picked up particularly on regressions in toileting and cutlery handling for some children returning after staying at home during lockdown.  Reading the actual reports puts this into better perspective and it is clear that children’s experiences have been wide-ranging, with positive as well as negative influences.

When Lala Manners mentioned to me that she was publishing findings from her small-scale investigation with eight very varied early years settings about their observations of children’s physical skills following the first 2020 lockdown, I suggested that the ECO community would be very interested in what this had revealed.  Something that clearly stands out is the great need the children had for very active play and how well the outdoors was able to respond to their drives for whole-body and interactive play.

Also impressive is the readiness of these practitioners to respond to children’s ‘foundationally critical’ need to move, especially through being outdoors much more than before.  Might this be indicative of a more national response towards increased time and experience outdoors for all children?

This is a fascinating study with some reasonably predictable outcomes (such as children craving big body movements) – but there are also some more subtle changes that we should be aware of too.  The full article, Make the Move, can be found in the December issue of Nursery World – thanks Lala for this useful summary.

Dr Lala Manners is a physical development trainer and director of Active Matters.  Both of her books, 50 Fantastic Ideas for Getting Children Active (Featherstone 2020) and The Early Years Movement Handbook: a principles-based approach to supporting young children’s physical development, health and wellbeing (Jessica Kingsley 2019) are available post free and 10% off from our ECO collaborator Books Education.  Lala was also part of the team that produced the free online course for practitioners ‘Supporting Physical Development in Early Childhood‘.

Moving On… by Dr Lala Manners

At the beginning of Lockdown 1, I wrote some pieces for Early Years forums about the possible consequences for children’s physical development of much lowered activity levels, lack of opportunities for daily movement play and proactive engagement with materials and resources in different environments.

As lockdown eased, I contacted eight EY settings as their children returned to find out if any of my predictions were supported.  The settings are varied – some are situated in areas of affluence while others are managing issues arising from severe deprivation and poverty.  Their responses to a range of questions reflect their geographical situations.

Three main themes emerged:

The environment – outside

For children who had been kept inside for extended periods, becoming comfortable and confident again in wide open spaces has proved challenging.  Many are sticking to the perimeter – or hugging the corners where they feel safe and secure.  Others have embraced the freedom of movement that a greater space provides and teachers report their ‘craving’ to continually practise the ‘big body movements’ like running, jumping, climbing and twirling around – accompanied by lots of laughing and shouting!  There is renewed interest in the bikes and any wheeled resource that generates speed.

And indoors

A very different story emerged here.  All teachers reported children’s difficulties navigating in and around an enclosed space – a lot of bumping into each other and the furniture, not looking where they’re going, and an inability to change speed and direction when required.  Some children are particularly anxious about getting too close to others, fearful of breaking ‘rules’ and the consequences that may occur.


All children were reported to understand the necessity for rigorous handwashing – and why adults need to wear masks.

Many parents mentioned disrupted sleep patterns, particularly early waking, and some children experienced no effective sleep routines throughout the entire lockdown period.  There was mention of poor oral health and children either wearing the wrong sized shoes or wellies.

As expected, some children who were well out of nappies and dummies returned in pull-ups and with dummies in place.  In contrast, a group of parents used the unexpected time at home to address both issues – with some success.

Generally, there has been much talk about eating habits.  Some children are finding sitting around a table to eat very difficult, as they had been strapped in high chairs for months without enjoying the peer support they have at nursery.  They are asking for help to be fed, are proving very fussy eaters, and engaging with cutlery again is a challenge if they have been using their hands or different implements, such as chopsticks.  It is taking time and patience to recover the joy in eating together and encourage interest in a wider range of food.

Language and Communication

Issues have been noted with children whose speech and language therapy was suddenly withdrawn, and with those who are ‘new to English’ and have been immersed in their home culture and language for an extended period.  The teachers reported how important being outside and active is to supporting the communication skills of both groups.  They have also noted that children from ‘hectic’ backgrounds frequently shout when talking indoors as this is what they are used to – whereas others remain fearful of using their normal voice and insist on whispering.

Teachers’ response on return

All the teachers had provided support for their children’s physical development in the lockdown period: some created ‘PD goody-bags’ that were distributed to families each week – others relied on a regular email to inform parents of useful websites  accessible resources and local amenities.

On return, they have all responded positively to the children’s obvious need to move and are making the most of what outdoor space they can access.  Some are not planning any adult-led activities for now – and not one has mentioned addressing perceived ‘learning losses’ or ‘curricular deficits.’

They have clearly identified their priorities.  In many cases, children’s physical development has been negatively affected by the lockdown period – they are physically less competent and less confident, and this has had a knock-on effect on their emotional equilibrium and communication skills.

This is a time of recovery and recalibration for growing bodies.  The sensitive response from the teachers who contributed to this small-scale study is encouraging and very welcome.

All images are (C) Jan White and Menna Godfrey, and must not be used without written permission from the photographer or Early Childhood Outdoors.

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