Learning through play, all day long

Tue, Feb 28, 2012, 00:00

The fundamental movement skills programme takes a more holistic view of physical education in our schools, writes  

GIVEN HALF a chance, young children are wonders of perpetual motion: they run, they jump, they climb, they tumble, learning about the world through their physicality.

Yet modern life seems geared towards constraining them. It is too dangerous to let them roam freely – and who has the time to travel at the pace of a child these days? Into the car or buggy they go, clunk click every trip.

Childcare facilities are not required to have an outdoor play space for children (although parents are recommended to choose one that does). By the age of four or five, children are “deactivated” further by being sent to sit in a classroom for half the day, with just an hour in the week devoted to physical education.

Parents may sign them up for the odd hour of structured sport, otherwise children are likely to be spending much of their free time within four walls of home or after-school care.

Fast forward a few years and we wonder why we can’t get our overweight “tweens” and teens off the sofa and away from their screens.

Somewhere along the line, we have created lives for our children where many no longer have the chance to master the art of movement through free play. Without that early foundation of all-round physicality, they are less likely to stay active for life or to enjoy sports – who wants to keep up something they’re hopeless at?

And togging them out for the local GAA, soccer or rugby club from the age of three is not the answer, apparently. Far better to make sure they are grounded in all sorts of physical activities because then they will be more proficient at their chosen sports a little later in life.

Some 22 fundamental movement skills (see table) have been identified as the building blocks for “physical literacy”, defined on physical-literacy.org.ukas “the motivation, confidence, physical competence, knowledge and understanding to maintain physical activity throughout life”. And it is becoming apparent children increasingly need a helping hand to acquire these skills.

There is a “window of opportunity” between the ages of four and eight to lay down the patterns in the brain for these basic movements, which are precursors for more specialised games, says Rachael Jefferson-Buchanan who trained in a fundamental movement skills (FMS) programme developed in Western Australia.

A senior lecturer on health movement and physical education at Bath Spa University in England, she was in Ireland recently to address a fitness convention at the Institute of Technology in Tralee, Co Kerry, about incorporating FMS in early years and primary education.

“It is about ‘physicalising’ the day,” she says, and taking a more holistic view of physical education rather than compartmentalising it into a marginalised subject.

Schools need to see where a more physical approach can be taken, not just to the curriculum but also the hidden curriculum – at playtime, when walking the corridors or standing in a queue.

“Learning through play all through the day” is the programme’s mantra and a few examples of ways to incorporate FMS in schools include: hopping up the corridor to morning assembly; going outside to jump distances for a maths lesson on measurements; practising balancing on one foot and then the other when standing in a queue.

A similar ethos lies behind the Active School Flag programme (active schoolflag.ie) introduced by the Department of Education and Skills in 2009. It is awarded to schools that “strive to achieve a physically active and physically educated school community”.

Schools are given 15 suggested review areas when looking at how to improve their provision of physical education and physical activity, including their PE curriculum, equipment and resources, break times, and working with parents and the local community.

“It is about everybody sharing the load,” says the scheme’s national co-ordinator, Karen Cotter. To date, 92 primary schools have been awarded the flag.

During the upcoming Active School Week, from April 30th to May 4th, schools are encouraged to give extra time to PE and to offer fun ways for children to increase their daily activity levels.

Although the current primary PE curriculum covers fundamental movement skills, the allocation of just an hour week is inadequate.

“If you are not going to get more time , which you are not, you are going to have to encourage it at other times during the day,” says the chairwoman of the Irish Primary PE Association, Caitríona Cosgrave.

The association is opposed to schools handing over their PE lessons for the year to a coach from, say, the local GAA club. “It is seen as an easy option.”

But the biggest motivation for sporting organisations to be in schools is recruitment, Cosgrave points out, rather than giving children an all-round physical education. The best place for these coaches, she adds, is at after-school activities

Jefferson-Buchanan agrees that, if just left to the schools, children are not going to become proficient in all 22 fundamental movement skills. But if you involve the community and family, as well as embedding them in classroom activities, the children have them constantly reinforced and learn to be more physical, which has a knock-on effect of making them more proficient.

“FMS has grown out of some serious flaws in the ways we live as adults,” says Jefferson-Buchanan, who encourages people to look at how they can make exercise an integral part of their lifestyle.

Latest guidelines recommend a daily minimum of 30 minutes for adults, she points out, while children should be clocking up at least 60 minutes of physical activity and the under-fives need three hours on the go each day.

Log your family’s activities across the week, she suggests. “See what you are doing now, and then see what you can squeeze in to raise the level of activity over the week – scooter or bike home from school instead of the car perhaps. What can you do at the weekend?”

Screens are very addictive, she acknowledges. “I don’t think we can fight technology, we just have to adapt.”

Research shows that there is a steep decline in children’s activities just before adolescenceand, when it comes to adolescence itself, there is an even steeper decline.

We need to look at what we can get in place in our children’s lives before that happens so that, yes, they get into gadgets but still value other things, says Jefferson-Buchanan, the mother of two girls, aged 11 and 12.

“I think too many parents fight against couch-potato syndrome and screen gazing and there is disharmony. Or they do the opposite – they are so overworked, they’re tired, they want a break and they just give into it. It is about finding that middle ground.”

She describes as a “popular myth” that to be good at a sport, children need to be dedicated to it from an early age.

“It is adult thinking that the earlier you specialise, the better the child is going to be. A lot of the top athletes did not actually start training to be runners until they were 12, 13, 14 and they had all the basic skills in place prior to that.

“It is about children enjoying physical activity for its own sake,” she stresses, “and having lots and lots of different activity, be it swimming, mini-golf, riding a bike, they are all valuable. It is later on that specialist decisions can be made.”

Research suggests that if you have more proficient motor skills at an earlier age, it can have a very positive impact on your activity levels later in life.

“There is no 100 per cent proof that the FMS programme, or something similar, will ensure your child will be physically active for the rest of their life,” Jefferson-Buchanan adds. “But it is about building those foundations.”


For Caoimhe Whelan, living in a house in Churchtown, south Dublin, with only a small yard out back, it is a daily challenge to keep her two young sons active.

She needs to bring Ruairí (4) and Lorcan (18 months) to a park or playground if they are going to have the chance to run around and let off steam.

When it’s cold and they are stuck indoors, invariably Ruairí starts sliding down the banisters, getting frustrated and angry, she says. “His mood is better when he has had physical activity.”

After picking him up from playschool at noon, she tries to go somewhere for a couple of hours most afternoons. Ruairí has recently started a karate class, which he seems to be enjoying.

“I feel like I consciously need to make an effort to get him involved and active – he is quite highly strung and physical.”

Her own childhood in Virginia, Co Cavan, was very different. “We had the run of the land – we just headed off into the fields, playing.”

She wishes her own children could enjoy that sort of freedom; she still has clear memories of going off on adventures, making houses out of bales of hay and picking blackberries.

Parents often underestimate young children’s physical capabilities, says Ailís Brosnan, a mother of one and senior health promotion officer for physical activity with the HSE.

Living in Castleisland, Co Kerry, she and her husband, Bernard Pabon, take their three-year-old daughter Aisha hiking with them.

The little girl has her own Gortex boots, good waterproof gear and they see no reason why she should not be in the mountains with them, provided weather conditions are not dangerous. “If she is not enjoying it, she is never forced into it,” says Brosnan. “It is always at her pace and at her interest.”

They would not normally stay out for longer than an hour and a half with her and always bring a backpack to carry her if she becomes too tired. They never use a buggy now when they are out and about, so Aisha is well used to walking.

“We are exposing her at a young age to a wide variety of activities and hoping she will enjoy them and continue them,” says Brosnan.

Parents are of vital importance as role models for physical activity, she points out. “Research shows that where both parents are active, children are six times more likely to be active.”

One of the reasons they moved to Co Kerry from the greater Dublin area, she adds, is the easy access to the great outdoors.


There are 22 fundamental body skills, divided into three categories:

Body management skills

Balance on one foot

Line or beam walk


Forward roll

Locomotor skills

Sprint run


Jump for distance

Jump for height



Side gallop


Continuous leap

Object control skills


Overhand throw

Underhand throw

Chest pass


Punt kick

Two-handed strike

Hand dribble

Foot dribble

Skill set: 'we have to produce more children with better fundamental movement'

Parents are obsessed with the idea of children specialising in a sport from an early age, says Aled Hughes of Co-Dex Kids, a physical education programme for children aged three to 11 that focuses on developing a child’s athletic ability through learning the fundamentals of sport and motor skill development.

If you think of sporting achievement in terms of a triangle, fundamental movement skills (FMS) form the base, and children need to work up through the levels to sporting excellence at the top, he explains.

“In Ireland, they have taken that bottom section away.”

Participating in any sport is better than no physical activity, he acknowledges. A former professional rugby player from Wales and a graduate in human movement studies, Hughes has developed Co-Dex Kids since he moved to Ireland 12 years ago.

He is hired by various schools and sports clubs in south Dublin to coach young children in FMS; he also runs after-school and weekend classes.

Between the ages of four and eight, children are easily motivated to do a lot of FMS exercises in a fun way, he explains. It is all about practice, practice, practice.

“What you are trying to do is create neuron pathways. And the more you challenge children, the more interconnecting neuron pathways you are developing. FMS is vitally important.”

Children drop out of sport if they find they are no good at it, Hughes points out.

“We have to produce more children who have better fundamental movement skills, which precede sport-specific skills.”

Passionate about spreading the word, he is developing the first FMS course for teachers and coaches in Ireland. He is also looking at creating an FMS app for volunteer coaches.

For more information, see codexkids.com