Evidence for Learning: Physical development approaches

Physical development approaches

High impact for very low cost based on very limited evidence
Implementation cost
Evidence strength
Impact (months)

Physical development approaches aim to improve young children’s physical growth, skills and health. Activities in this area may be focused on a particular aspect of physical development, e.g. fine motor skills related to writing, or be more general, for instance, encouraging active outdoor play or integrating physical development approaches with other early years activities.

This evidence summary examines the impact of physical development approaches on cognitive outcomes. However, physical development is important for its own sake and the wider benefits of physical activity include health and wellbeing outcomes.

The Early Years Learning Framework for Australia (EYLF) version 2.0 includes physical development approaches as part of a child’s greater development and wellbeing. It is reflected throughout Outcome 3: Children have a strong sense of wellbeing’, as well as the Practice of Holistic, integrated and interconnected approaches’.

  • Approaches supporting physical development and activity in young children can have a valuable positive effect on their learning of five months’ additional progress, on average. However, the evidence is very limited.

  • Physical development is a core part of early childhood education and has many important benefits beyond the cognitive outcomes summarised here.

  • While the evidence base on cognitive outcomes is weak, positive impacts have been shown for early literacy and mathematics as well as other areas of learning and development, such as geography and science.

  • Research has taken place across a variety of physical development approaches, including sports and games, exercises, and rhythmic movement approaches.

On average, children who take part in physical development interventions make around five additional months’ progress in cognitive outcomes. While the overall picture is positive and the findings are fairly consistent across studies, the security of the evidence is very weak. The weakness of the evidence base means it is not possible to provide a clear account of the reasons why some physical development approaches are effective. Few individual interventions have been evaluated to a high standard.

There is some evidence that programs that combine physical activity with strategies to promote self-regulation can improve executive function and have a positive impact on learning, and that integrating physical development activities in other areas of the early years learning and development can be beneficial.

In the Australasian context, research exploring the impact of physical development approaches on cognitive outcomes is limited. Two Australasian studies have investigated links between physical development approaches within early childhood education settings and preschoolers’ learning or cognition. In Wollongong, researchers found the integration of meaningful, moderate-vigorous physical activity was beneficial in learning specific concepts, such as foreign vocabulary; children who integrated physical activity (e.g., acting out the word using whole-body movement) when being taught 14 Italian words in a four-week teaching program were found to have the best free recall, even up to six weeks later. The other study, from the Hunter region of NSW, assessed the efficacy of a childcare-based intervention where children were given unrestricted access outdoors to active free-play (intervention group) or provided their usual scheduled periods of outdoor play (control group). No significant differences were identified between these groups in terms of total physical activity or measures of cognition.

  • The Toolkit evidence summary is normally able to examine whether certain intervention characteristics or contexts are associated with higher or lower impacts. The small number of studies in this topic area mean that it is not possible to do this analysis securely.

  • Most of the studies integrated physical development into wider programming and activities, rather than delivering standalone physical education.

  • Studies have taken place in a wide variety of countries including Australia, Italy, the USA and South Africa.

The evidence for physical development approaches is too weak and unable to measure any differential impact for children experiencing disadvantage.

It is, however, important to consider how physical development opportunities can be made available to all children. Particular consideration should be given to avoiding costs that place barriers on additional physical development opportunities to families experiencing disadvantage.

Physical development approaches are a core part of early childhood education. As approaches are implemented, it is important to consider:

  • Linking physical development to other approaches, for example those that target self-regulation.
  • Integrating regular opportunities for play or physical development in the day.
  • How to integrate physical development into wider approaches. While physical activity can be delivered as a standalone activity, many of the studies integrated physical development into wider learning and development approaches.
  • Physical development can be delivered through varied activities, including games, opportunities for indoor and outdoor play, puzzles, arts and crafts, and the practice of small tools.

Given the weakness of the evidence base, it may be particularly important to consider how to monitor the efficacy of physical development approaches if you are aiming to improve cognitive outcomes.

Overall, the median costs of implementing physical development approaches are estimated as very low. The costs associated arise from training for staff leading programs, and any additional resources or equipment required, the majority of which are up-front costs and common in Australian early childhood education settings.

Whilst the median cost estimate for physical activity is very low, the possible provision of outdoor space and play equipment can be expensive, but these are not essential for physical activity and exercises, and costs are likely to be spread over a number of years.

The evidence base for physical development approaches impact on cognitive outcomes is rated as very limited. Nineteen studies were identified that meet the inclusion criteria of the Toolkit. Additional padlocks were lost because:

  • A large percentage of the studies are not randomised controlled trials. While other study designs still give important information about effectiveness of approaches, there is a risk that results are influenced by unknown factors that are not part of the intervention.
  • A large percentage of the studies were not independently evaluated. Evaluations conducted by organisations connected with the approach – for example, commercial providers – typically have larger impacts, which may influence the overall impact of the strand.

Low security of evidence is not the same as evidence of no impact. Many approaches may have low evidence, not because they are ineffective but because high quality research has not yet taken place. Given the very limited evidence in this area, it is important to evaluate the impact of any new physical development approaches. Early years professionals should be cautious about the claims of new interventions that do not appear to have been evaluated.

As with any evidence review, the Toolkit summarises the average impact of approaches when researched in academic studies. It is important to consider your context and apply your professional judgement when implementing an approach in your setting.

Evidence strength
Number of studies19
Review last updatedFebruary 2023