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Can PE at nursery help children become better learners?


Research project looks at physical activity and physical education in early years

At the charity Winning Scotland, we’re all about building confidence and resilience in Scotland's children and young people.

One of our projects, On Our Marks is designed to help communities become healthier by supporting schools and families to be more physically active.

By creating a culture of daily activity in school, we’re seeing better parental engagement, improved pupil behaviour and rising attainment.

With this success, we’re now asking ourselves: can PE at nursery help children become better learners, paving the way for a successful transition into primary schools?

A public health time bomb

In children, physical activity is critical for motor development, cognitive improvement, psychosocial and cardio-metabolic health.

Being physically active also helps to create social bonds and promotes physical and emotional health and wellbeing. Evidence also suggests that there is a positive association between being physically active and academic performance.

According to the NHS website: "Exercise is the miracle cure we've have always had, but for too long we've neglected to take our recommended dose. Our health is now suffering as a consequence."

Conversely, sedentary lifestyles and obesity are a major public health problem – particularly with young children. This is a ticking time bomb for public health.

Poor levels of physical activity during childhood is associated with a number of health problems, including early markers of cardiovascular disease, asthma and breathing difficulties, hypertension and insulin resistance.

Damaging emotional and behavioural impacts have also been noted, including, stigmatisation, bullying, low self-esteem, and school absence.

Worryingly, trends related to physical activity for young children paint a bleak picture. Recent data from Public Health Scotland indicated a significant increase in the overall proportion of Primary 1 children at risk of being overweight or obese

The most deprived have the most to gain

The same data from Public Health Scotland shows that one in three children from the most deprived areas are at risk of being overweight or obese compared to one in five children from the least deprived areas. 

Physical activity levels in Scotland’s most deprived neighbourhoods are also significantly lower. Only three in 10 children in deprived areas achieve the recommended levels of daily physical activity.

Through our partnership working with On Our Marks, we’ve gathered evidence showing that in deprived areas of Scotland: 

  • 69% of children achieve less than the recommended 60-mins activity per day, 
  • 53% do not participate regularly in physical activities outside school, 
  • 35% of parents find it hard to do physical activity with their children,
  • 40% of parents say they get very little or no exercise at all
  • and 41% of parents and 36% of children find physical activity important but not a priority.

Remembering the true meaning of PE

The importance of early childhood education is well documented - NHS guidelines suggest that pre-schoolers should be physically active at least 180 minutes every day.

Given the current trends, the importance of physical development in early years becomes clear.

However in this context it is crucial to recognise the difference between physical activity and physical education.

Physical activity is essential and should always be encouraged. But it is through physical education where children are taught to establish and sustain an lifelong active habits.

Worryingly, from our work with primary schools we identified that, despite their professional qualifications, only 54% of primary school teachers feel comfortable teaching physical education.

On Our Marks is helping to change that for primary children, but what about our infants, toddlers and under-5s?

A step in the right direction

To truly embed physically active habits and change the direction of travel for our children’s health, shouldn’t we start right at the beginning?

That’s why, in partnership with Early Years Scotland, we want to want to consider the need and provision of physical activity in early years settings.

We want to understand if and how physical activity takes place in nurseries and childcare settings.

We want to know if our youngest children are developing the skills and habits they need to maintain a healthy lifestyle.

And we need to know if our early years practitioners are getting the training and support they need to delivery physical activity and physical education.

We’re asking all early years practitioners across Scotland to take part in our research by following the link here:

Having a clearer understanding of these questions will help us learn how we can support early years settings to prioritise the physical development of our youngest children – and ensure they grow up healthy, happy and ready to learn.

Grant Small is Director of Programmes and Impact at Winning Scotland



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