Is Covid19 an opportunity for more high quality physical education?

Dr Nalda Wainwright, June 16th 2020

As schools begin to go back in England and later this month in Wales, I am sure we have all been shocked with images from other countries of children sitting alone in their marked out areas at ‘play time’ to ensure social distancing.  However I see that this time gives us an opportunity to think differently about the use of playtime as a time to develop children’s movement, and lay the foundations of physical activity for later life, whilst modelling some activities that they can continue to play at home.

Here, I want to outline some of the things that children need to learn in early childhood and also how we can use changes in approaches in schools to create positive, fun physical learning sessions during play time.

Play is an extremely important part of children’s development and is a time for children to relax with friends, and run around, or chat and socialise, work out issues and explore ideas, emotions, movement and creativity. However the current situation means that in schools, for now, this is not possible in the usual ways. Guidance around social distancing are raising many questions about how we can allow children to play safely. The interesting part of this for me is that a key part of what young children should be learning in their physical development and physical education sessions is spatial awareness, and as such is key to young children learning to recognise personal space and boundaries.

When we train students and teachers about physical development in early childhood we begin with fundamental movement concepts. This involves learning spatial awareness, body awareness, dynamics and relationships in movement.  This helps the children to build what we call a movement vocabulary, which helps them understand how to move and control their body in their own personal space and then in the general space around others. This building of a movement vocabulary means that children can be more creative and more skilful in their movement and have access to moving in more environments.

chalk playing

For children starting school the command ‘stand in a space’ has no meaning unless they understand what a space is. Social distancing is super challenging if you do not understand what your own personal space is.

The starting point for Physical Education for very young children is exploring spatial and body awareness. In good early physical education children are learning to understand their own personal space and how to move around without encroaching on other children’s personal space. In the current circumstances it is clear that this learning is more crucial than ever for our children.

The return to school offers an opportunity to use play time as a time for Physical Education where children can be learning about spatial and body awareness and developing a movement vocabulary and improving skills. Although it is not free play, it is physical, fun and social (all cues that children associate with play) and will be developing the skills that will help them to move more safely and learn about the management of their body and the use of space in all aspects of their life.


So how can we do this? 

Where possible physical education and play time should be outside (see the Association for Physical Education guidance on their website  –

Children will also need to have their own bags of equipment to reduce transmission of the virus. You can see a suggested list of equipment for Foundation phase (Early years and KS1) and Key Stage 2 children on the University’s Wales Academy for Health and Physical Literacy website –

Many young children need cues to help them to get into a space, (as do people shopping in a supermarket it would seems).  Small crosses of tape / chalk can be used to show children where to stand initially and then they can place a spot or cone from their own equipment bag there.  Following the guidance all spots or markers or chalked circles should be 2m apart, which they should be even without Covid19.  Each child goes to a spot.

We then explore an imaginary bubble around ourselves….the edges of the bubble are as far as we can reach in every direction when keeping one foot still and stepping with the other foot and stretching, so the children realise that this a very large bubble around them.  Once they get this we can explore balances and shapes in our bubbles to develop body awareness.

As children realise the size of their bubble they can begin to move around the playground.  The important message here is that they must not bump into anyone else’s bubble.  This needs to be done gradually travelling slowly around the space first and returning to their spot. As they are learning to manage this and are keeping in their bubbles, you can start to introduce (over many sessions) different directions, levels, speeds and pathways of travel. Also you can start to explore ways of moving, jumping, skipping, hands and feet etc.

All of this will take many, many sessions of repetition and practice and so 20 – 30 min playtime slots will be perfect for this, and young children enjoy exploring ways of moving and learning how they can manage their bodies.  The understanding of their personal space that they get from these sessions can be used to remind them in all their moving about the school to help with social distancing.

Once they are managing to understand the idea of their space bubble we can introduce some simple equipment to develop object control skills. This initially might be a simple scarf from their bag. Scarves are light and slow and as such really easy for them to throw up and catch, helping to develop eye tracking and hand eye co-ordination. They can have fun weaving the scarf in and out of legs passing around their body and explore what they can do in their bubble.  They can also travel moving and swishing the scarf as this changes the feeling and quality of the movement for them whilst also building arm and shoulder strength important for fine motor control. In a similar way they can use a bean bag and travel with this balanced in different ways.  Reminders not to touch other people’s equipment and also to stay in own bubble will need to be repeated throughout.

A key approach that we use to train Physical Education students and trainee teachers is the use of gardens (zones). This is a strategy that allows privacy for children’s learning in Physical Education which is a subject that can be all too visible for children who do not excel. The use of gardens is a tool for making Physical Education more inclusive, it allows children to work on a task in their own way and as all the children are working in their own gardens (before covid19 with their friends) they are not watching what is happening in other gardens. This approach also means teachers can move around the gardens and offer support or challenge as needed so all pupils are working at an appropriate level. In the present time the gardens make an ideal tool for children to still have meaningful movement experiences.  Using the 4 cones in their equipment bags, they set out their own garden as their movement space. Once set up this can be altered in size and shape depending on the activity.

So what sort of activities can you do in your garden?

Simple catching games, how many catches and bounces can the children do? (Use the different balls in their equipment bag). Can they make patterns of bouncing and catching and repeat?  Can they move their garden over to a wall to play catching games against the wall.

Target Games: Targets on a wall, fence, benches can be used for throwing / rolling / kicking.  These target games are ideal for cross-curricular work by using numbers / letters / words the children can use their chalk to record on the playground or write in a note book. There are lots of numeracy and literacy activities that can be done in a physical way that will be more engaging for children than worksheets and also means that teachers can support them with their physical skills as well. For example throwing at the target means the children can be encouraged to step with their opposite foot and improve their throwing skills whilst collecting numbers for an addition task.  (For more examples of activities visit our website


Children can also create simple movement sequences – this is a simple form of gymnastics or dance, give the children the challenge to link together several actions eg a hop, roll, balance, bunny hop. Challenge them in all these activities by using the movement concepts- can they travel in different directions, levels, speeds, make new pathways?  Can they use different body parts to travel or balance and move in different ways?

Using the hoop, spots and chalk from their equipment bags the children can develop their sequences and make simple obstacle courses in their garden. They can travel around their courses collecting an object and transporting it, e.g. bean bag balanced on bat, or on tummy, or on head. Challenge them to move in different directions, or levels or use different body parts.

They can play traditional hopscotch games, either on playground markings or made using chalk. These help children to develop their basic jumping skills and will help with leg strength, balance and co-ordination.

When the children are more used to their own space and working without being near to others,  outdoor and adventurous activities are also an aspect of the Physical Education curriculum that can be used safely within the guidance and is an area that has all too often been under used due to the domination of traditional sports.  Simple orienteering activities, like trails can be set up for children to complete individually. For younger children a star course can be used where children go out to a marker and return to the teacher after finding each marker so they can be given / told the next clue / instruction. By sending the children out to different markers they can be kept socially distanced. Markers can have word / number to collect in notebook from a safe distance and these could be part of a task for the classroom or a puzzle for them to solve. To remind children about distancing in these activities they could bring their own cone / spot out that they return to between each clue. Pairs can then discuss whilst sitting / standing at a safe distance at their own cone/ spot.

If you have natural areas in the school, these are ideal for children to make dens, do nature art, bug hunting etc. all of which can be done individually, but that give a stimulus for discussion on returning to the classroom.

Hopefully the ideas outlined in this blog give a starting point with ways that good Physical Education can give children purposeful, engaging and enjoyable learning opportunities that will help them to understand space and as such move safely in all aspects of life during this crisis. Movement is part of what we are designed to do as a species and we have all become acutely aware of how daily physical activity supports not only our physical but our mental health. If we are to support our children’s long term health and well-being we need to ensure that they know how to move well so that they enjoy it and as they grow up see moving as an integral part of their lives, a key part of who they are.

Spectacular Summer School

November 5th 2019

WAHPL has recently held a fantastically successful 3 week summer school designed for students in the 2nd and 3rd years of their undergraduate studies at Hobart William Smith University in New York State, USA.

The summer school focused on exploring the stunning landscape of Wales through a range of different outdoor activities whilst learning more about the unique history and culture of this fantastic country. Highlights of the summer school included canoeing on the River Towy between Carmarthen and Llansteffan castle, traversing the cliff face into Paviland Cave on the Gower to learn more about the ‘Red Lady’ and what Wales would have been like 33,000 years ago and hiking and camping in Snowdonia to experience the special nature of Welsh life in the north of the country.

Watch the video below to get a real flavour of this summer school from a New Yorker’s perspective.

Click here for more information about our summer schools and to find out how to get involved next summer!

Physical Activity of Children and Young People

April 17th 2019

The Welsh Government Health, Social Care and Sport Committee recently published its report on Physical Activity of Children and Young People am delighted that the Committee in this report have recognised the important role that early childhood plays in the development of physical literacy, and as such physical activity throughout the life-course.

It is in early childhood that the important foundations are laid for later physical activity. The early years is a unique window of opportunity when young children are excited by movement and are still highly motivated to be active and engage in vigorous and imaginative play. We know from models of motor development that when children are very small as infants and toddlers, they need lots of rich, play-based movement to start to become competent. But as they get a little older, their competence will then influence whether they are active or not. This is however complicated by the fact that we all have a perception of ourselves as a mover, that is whether we think we are good or not, and generally we will avoid what we think we are bad at. In children under the age of approximately seven, because of their stage of cognitive development, they are not able to accurately judge whether they are good or not. They think if they try hard, or are praised then they are great. This gives us a perfect opportunity as it means they haven’t yet been put off physical activity by comparing themselves to others.

This magic window of time when they are highly motivated is when we need to get them to be competent enough so that they feel they are a generally good mover.  If we don’t, as they move into middle childhood they begin to compare themselves to others and it is at this point that if they don’t feel they are competent, and in particular if they are placed into structured sports too soon, they lose confidence and begin to opt out of physical activity. This is why I am so delighted to see the recommendations about the accountability for quality of Physical Education provision as well as the quantity. This is crucial if pupils’ confidence is to be maintained as they transition from the play based activities in the Foundation Phase to more structured physical activities in Key Stage 2.

Children running outdoors

It came as no surprise to me to read recently a report by a group of Oxford academics

who analysed many physical activity interventions in schools and found that they were not working to change children’s long term activity behaviours. It seems pretty obvious that if you don’t like something, being given more of it won’t necessarily make you like it, so if children have already decided by the age of seven or eight that they don’t like physical activity, why will giving them more of it make them like it?  We need to address this issue before it arises by ensuring children master a broad range of skills in early childhood, while they are still developing their sense of self.

To capitalise on the window of opportunity in early childhood requires skilled staff with an understanding of motor development – which is an understanding of how children learn to move. It has been a misconception for many years that children learn skills just through play alone. We would not dream of leaving children to play with a pile of letters and imagine that they will somehow miraculously learn to read.

Child playing hop scotch

The development of reading requires skilled instruction and expertly selected texts at an appropriate instructional level. In exactly the same way, children need a rich variety of movement experiences in appropriate environments with expertly selected equipment and tasks to master a broad range of fundamental or foundational skills.

Although there are some skills that will develop through lots of opportunities to move and play, these are the locomotor skills, such as running, walking, jumping, etc. They are known as phylogenetic, which means that they are common to all humans on the planet and as such we tend to develop these naturally. However, the object control skills such as throwing, catching kicking etc.  are culturally specific or ontogenetic and are different in different cultures across the world depending on what we value in our culture. These skills need to be taught and it is these skills in particular that are associated with adolescent physical activity engagement.

I think the misconception about learning skills has been because in the past children played out for extended hours most days after school, at weekends and during holidays. This play was outside and in neighbourhoods with children of all ages, so older siblings, cousins and neighbours would show younger children how to kick, catch, throw etc. almost like a handed down knowledge. With the erosion of extended free play in communities, children are not having these opportunities to learn these skills. Teachers have not been taught how to teach these skills as they never had to in the past and as such, children are not developing these skills, or if they do, it is in sports specific clubs where they may only learn a narrow range of skills associated with a particular sport.

Add to this issue of not playing out, running, climbing, chasing etc. the increased time sitting in car seats, buggies and on sofas watching screens is resulting in children entering pre-school and school with poor core stability, poor perception of balance and a lack of muscular strength, all of which is required for children to develop their foundational skills. There has never been a greater need to act and address these issues and ensure parents, carers, teachers and early year practitioners are all aware of the importance of high quality movement experiences to lay the foundations for later movement and for us to ensure they can enable children to master a broad range of foundational skills in a developmentally appropriate way. Having a broad range of skills is important as it serves as the foundation for life long physical activity participation, by enabling people to change activities over the years due to age, illness, injury etc.

By mastering a broad range of skills, children will be able to access a range of physical activities and sports and feel successful. This will help them enter a positive spiral of physical activity engagement, and as such, be likely to be on a positive health trajectory. Unfortunately, we know from research from across the globe that children who do not develop motor competence and have a low perception of themselves as a mover are more likely to enter a negative spiral of disengagement in physical activity. This places them more at risk of being overweight or obese, more at risk of type 2 diabetes and many other conditions associated with sedentary lifestyles.

Siblings playing in a puddle

We also know that children in areas of socio-economic deprivation are more likely to be delayed in their motor development and as such, at greater risk of a spiral of disengagement in physical activity and a negative health trajectory. (This deprivation gap is highlighted in the recommendations)

This is why I so delighted to see the recommendation in the report to roll out programmes such as SKIP-Cymru© across Wales.  SKIP©, which stands for Successful Kinaesthetic Instruction for Pre-schoolers (which is why we call it SKIP) was developed from over 30 years of research in the USA by Professor Jackie Goodway, specifically aimed at addressing issues of poor motor development in early childhood.  Working with Professor Goodway, we took the principles of SKIP© and developed a programme of professional development (which is a further recommendation in the report) which involves training and mentoring for early year practitioners that fits into the play based approach of the Foundation Phase and also incorporates parental and family engagement (as also recommended in the report).

Children chasing a ball

In the SKIP-Cymru© programme that we have developed at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David, we work with both pre-school settings and staff from the Foundation Phase. We teach the staff in a programme of professional development about some of the theory of motor development so they are able to analyse the children in their classes and know developmentally what stage they are at in terms of their physical competence. Then through practical workshops the staff learn how to select the right types of equipment and set up play based activities that will specifically support the children in improving their skills.  A system of mentoring supports the staff to embed the SKIP-Cymru© work into their practice.

We know from evaluations of the pilots of this work that children make significant improvements in their motor skills, but more than that, staff and parents have reported increased levels of confidence, increased physical activity in school and at home and higher engagement in learning. So, if Welsh Government act on the recommendations in this report and roll out the SKIP-Cymru© programme across Wales, perhaps with money from the soft drinks industry levy (as recommended later in the report) then we may see some positive changes in health outcomes for children in Wales.