How can provision be improved to support children’s physical development?


Research carried out by Lily Rice


On entering my second year of teaching I was working in the same year group of the same school as my first. I wanted to actively research how I could amend my practice in that setting, as well as impact on my colleagues’, to ensure all children were being supported in the right way across the curriculum. On analysis of the end of year data from the academic year 2015-16 it was evident to see that physical development (PD) was an area of learning which could be supported better by practitioners because outcomes were on par with the local authorities average, whereas outcomes for the other areas of learning were above the local authorities average. I therefore set out to seek what could be done to raise attainment in this prime area.

Progress in the specific areas of learning are heavily dependent on progress in the prime areas of learning, thus, if children do not achieve the expected or exceeding level of development in PD, this could have a negative impact on their level of development in other areas such a self-confidence or writing; because of this, I thought about how focusing on developing the teaching and learning of PD could have a positive impact across the curriculum. I feel that by further researching the importance of PD and identifying what best practice looks like, I will be able to pinpoint some specific actions to implement within my setting and involve the whole team in the journey, this in turn should have a positive impact on children’s progress.

Context of the setting

This school in East London has three classes in each year group (reception – 6) as well as a nursery. There are 706 pupils on roll and the majority of them use English as an additional language. Our current cohort of reception children are supported by one class teacher and one teaching and learning assistant per 30 children all of whom are experienced in the early years. There are five additional adults who work within the year group to provide 1:1 support for specific children with identified special educational needs, however, they do interact with other children regularly.


I will be using a mixed method approach to carry out this investigation which includes both ethnography and action research.

Ethnographic Research

“Ethnography literally means ‘a portrait of a people’. Ethnography is a written description of a particular culture – the customs, beliefs, and behaviour – based on information collected through fieldwork.” –Marvin Harris and Orna Johnson, 2000.

Ethnography is a qualitative research method often used in social sciences, particularly in anthropology and in sociology. It is often employed for gathering empirical data on human societies/cultures. Data collection is often done through participant observation in which the researcher becomes a part of the community on which research has to be done. Data can also be collected through interviews, questionnaires, etc. Ethnography aims to describe the nature of those who are studied through writing. It can also be called a “case report”. Ethnography can be widely used in education. It helps in addressing the educational problems of a particular group. The researcher has to become a part of the particular group in order to conduct ethnographic study where the focus is to get familiar with group’s culture to then sense the underlying problems.

Action research

“Action research is a disciplined process of inquiry conducted by and for those taking the action. The primary reason for engaging in action research is to assist the “actor” in improving and/or refining his or her actions” –

In schools, action research refers to a wide variety of evaluative, investigative, and analytical research methods designed to diagnose problems or weaknesses—whether organizational, academic, or instructional—and help educators develop practical solutions to address them quickly and efficiently. Action research may also be applied to programs or educational techniques that are not necessarily experiencing any problems, but that educators simply want to learn more about and improve. The general goal is to create a simple, practical, repeatable process of iterative learning, evaluation, and improvement that leads to increasingly better results for schools, teachers, or programs.

Action research may also be called a cycle of action or cycle of inquiry, since it typically follows a predefined process that is repeated over time. A simple illustrative example:

  • Identify a problem to be studied
  • Collect data on the problem
  • Organize, analyze, and interpret the data
  • Develop a plan to address the problem
  • Implement the plan
  • Evaluate the results of the actions taken
  • Identify a new problem
  • Repeat the process

Research that informed this study

“From grasping your finger to grasping her rattle to grasping the mechanics of crawling, standing, walking, jumping, and those hurtling-headlong hugs, every move a young child makes – intentional or accidental – leads to learning” (Connell & McCarthy, 2014, p.6).

Extensive research has been carried out by the British Heart Foundation (2012) to explore how physical development impacts an individual’s learning as they grow. It is suggested that between birth and five years old, children’s physically active play develops essential movement skills, important brain structures, self-confidence and social as well as emotional skills (p.7), all of which are vital for them to live a happier, healthier and more fulfilled life. The development of movement skills is age related, not age determined (p.14), however, if children don’t engage in an adequate amount of activity during their early years then there can be negative impacts on their cognition (p.17).

Best practice needs to be applied both indoors and out, physical resources need to be appropriately planned for/ poor practice needs to be avoided, being pulled from play for interventions can be damaging… quote from KEYU group about child being pulled from play and that affecting their attitude to learning. define ‘provision’

Importance of adult – child interactions… explore ABC getting ready to write.

Overview of actions

Although this research is a personal journey to develop my own practice, the entire reception team are involved to ensure that the children are being supported appropriately with their learning. There have been several actions carried out over the course of the year:

  • Staff training – discussing the importance of PD, sharing exemplification materials, modelling adult-child interactions and agreeing on expectations of what they should look like.
  • Change of daily timetable – longer periods of uninterrupted time outdoors.
  • Morning focused activity carousel – targeting specific children for fine motor development.
  • Ethnographic observation – an early years’ network of teachers from several local schools visited the setting to observe and feedback their findings.

Ethnographic observation questions:

  • Are practitioners actively engaging with children both indoors and outdoors?
  • Are children’s creative and critical thinking skills being nurtured through interactions with adults?
  • Is there evidence of opportunities for fine and gross motor development, both inside and out?
  • Do children appear to be physically confident?
  • Is good progress of fine motor skills evident in children’s mark making?

Impact of actions

All staff have responded positively to the project, however some are more engaged with it than others. One evident change between this year and last year is the communication between adults, there is much more discussion with regards to specific children in each class who need more support with PD, so all adults across the year group are interacting with them during free flow play to extend their learning. The longer periods of uninterrupted time outdoors allows adults to engage with children in that area where there are lots of opportunities for physical activity.

The focused morning activity carousel allows time for targeted interventions for specific children, which are play based, within the classroom and do not usually require adult support. Because of this allocated time for children to be involved with PD activities, most children have made excellent progress. The graph below compares my class from 2015/2016 to my class from 2016/2017. It shows that a greater percentage of children made more steps of progress from Autumn 1 to Summer 1.

chart 1

This higher percentage of accelerated progress has had an overall positive impact on end of year expectations, as demonstrated in the table below. There was still a child who did not achieve a ‘Good Level of Development’ this year (that child has some developmental delay), however, there were 10 children who were ‘exceeding’ the ‘early learning goal’, which is 6 more than last year.

chart 2

Feedback from the ethnographic study was overall positive…


The outcomes of this action research show a positive impact on supporting children’s PD. There have been several actions carried out over the year which have contributed to the increase in children exceeding the moving and handling ‘early learning goal’. Next year I will be the team leader in the nursery and will be continuing to support my team to support the children with their PD, though it will be a new team. For this reason, the same staff training will need to be delivered to them that the reception team received. If the impact of better progress for PD is evident in the nursery, then even more impact of progress should be evident with that cohort in reception the following year.


For this project to be maintained in the setting, or carried out in a different setting, several considerations need to be taken into account.

  • All staff need to receive relevant training to ensure they are confident to support children’s PD skills.
  • Longer periods of uninterrupted outdoor play is a necessity for children to become more physically literate.
  • Targeted interventions for particular individuals can have a positive impact on progress, however they need to be sensitively introduced so as not to disturb their play.