Why Physical Education and Physical Activity Are So Important for Early Learners

  •   
  •   
  •   

Health and physical education teachers play an important role in helping children and adolescents understand the connection between physical education, physical activity, nutrition, and overall health. And typically, we think of this as something that is taught in K–12 health and physical education class.

However, it’s imperative that early childhood educators pay even more attention to this issue.

The Council for Professional Recognition and SHAPE America both stress the importance of encouraging physical activity for young children. The Council’s Essentials for Working with Young Children — which includes guidance from SHAPE America — states that “among the fundamental responsibilities of early childhood educators is to maintain a healthy environment that fosters wellness and to teach children what they can do to ensure their own health — now and later in life.”

Developing Physical Skills

For children to be fit they must participate in endurance activities, including aerobic activity. Strength-building activities by definition make children stronger; these are activities where children must push, pull and bend and, therefore, work their muscles.

Flexibility comes from stretching the muscles. Gross motor activities that enhance flexibility include such things as reaching for a toy that is out of reach, attempting to do cartwheels, and dancing enthusiastically to music. Children develop both large and fine motor skills through music movement and dance.

Early childhood educators in all settings provide the education and activities that are critical to young children up to age 5. They set the stage for future physical education and physical activity that will continue as students continue through grades K-12.

The Role of Parents

Parents are also encouraged to model and encourage physical activity with their young children. Working in partnership with early childhood educators — or through at-home activities — parents can help their children learn fundamental movement skills such as:

  • Hopping
  • Skipping
  • Throwing
  • Catching

It’s important to note that fundamental movement skills don’t come naturally — they must be learned. Once children have these skills, however, they will be more confident about engaging in physical activity and one step closer to developing physical literacy, which is defined as “the ability to move with competence and confidence in a wide variety of physical activities in multiple environments that benefit the healthy development of the whole person.”

Physical literacy leads to additional cognitive, social and emotional benefits which can help children throughout life.

children playing with balloon

Promoting Critical Skills in Early Childhood

Regardless of the learning environment — whether it be a day care setting, Head Start program, preK, or at home — early childhood educators, parents and other caregivers can promote critical skills before age 5, including:

  • Fine Motor Skills — Physical skills that focus on the coordinated use of the fingers and hands will help with essential tasks in life, such as writing, cutting and even buttoning clothes.
  • Movement Concepts — To move safely without bumping into objects or people, children must develop spatial awareness. This is how they learn about the boundaries of personal space.
  • Locomotor Skills — Locomotor skills are what children need to move from one place to another by running, walking, leaping, jumping, hopping, skipping, galloping, marching, etc.
  • Nonlocomotor Skills — These important skills include stretching, twisting, turning, swaying, spinning, and balancing.
  • Manipulative Skills — Developing these skills is how young children will learn to throw, catch, dribble, kick or strike a ball (or another object, such a balloon).

Early Childhood Health Considerations

We also point out that early childhood educators need to take steps to prevent illness and health problems instead of reacting to them once a child is sick; this is especially important as we all deal with the COVID-19 outbreak. Further guidance during this time is available at www.cdacouncil.org/council-blog/1931-healthy.

Additional Resources


Calvin Moore
Calvin Moore

Calvin Moore, Jr., Ph.D., is CEO of the Council for Professional Recognition, the nonprofit organization that recognizes and credentials professionals who work in all types of early care and education settings, including Head Start, pre-k, infant-toddler, family childcare and home visitor programs. Follow him on Twitter @Cal1Moore or reach him at CalvinM@cdacouncil.org.

Stephanie Morris
Stephanie Morris

Stephanie Morris is a passionate advocate for effective PE and skills-based health programs in schools. She is CEO of SHAPE America and is also a mom to three kids, an enthusiastic runner and weight lifter, and a consummate chef. Her preferred pronouns are she/her/hers. Follow Stephanie on Twitter @SHAPEAmericaCEO or reach her at smorris@shapeamerica.org.