Why P.E. for Preschoolers?

By: Rae Pica

The Council on Physical Education for Children (COPEC, a council within the National Association for Sport and Physical Education), the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services all recommend that physical education be offered to children enrolled in preschool programs. There are a number of reasons why.

First, habits are formed early in life. We don't wait until children are in elementary school to teach them to brush their teeth, bathe, or eat the right foods. So why should children wait until they're school-aged to learn about physical activity? To begin acquiring the skills they need to successfully participate in it and to understand why it matters? There's evidence to show that even among children as young as three and four, those who are less active tend to stay less active later in childhood than the rest of their peers. And individuals who are less active in childhood remain less active as adults.

Furthermore, early childhood is the best period for the acquisition of fundamental movement skills. Contrary to common belief, motor skills are not acquired and refined without instruction and practice. Not even basic body management skills — body-part identification, spatial awareness, and such abilities as stopping on signal — take care of themselves to the extent that we'd want for our children. Many a child has arrived in the early and even upper-elementary grades not knowing his elbows from his shoulders, unable to line up without getting too close to someone else, or lacking the ability to come to a timely halt when faced with an unexpected (or even an expected!) obstacle. And many a child has failed to develop mature patterns for basic motor skills.

These are the children who eventually lose confidence in their ability to play like the other kids. They feel clumsy and inferior and, to avoid humiliation, avoid physical activity. They grow up with the belief that they "can't throw," "can't dance," are "uncoordinated," or are "lousy at anything physical." They become the couch potatoes among us.

Someone needs to teach children where their elbows and shoulders are, about the space immediately surrounding their bodies (and what it's possible to do within it), how to stop and start, and the many ways in which it's possible to move. Someone needs to offer instruction, practice opportunities, assessment, and the chance to fine-tune. And that someone should have a plan.

Too often, even when early childhood professionals fully believe in the value of movement for young children and, with no false intent, assure parents that movement is very much a part of the program, what they mean is that they let the children go out to play once or twice a day. Maybe they put on a CD during "circle time" and encourage the children to dance for a few minutes. Or they might set up an obstacle course once a week and give the children some time to explore it.

However, these scenarios don't begin to meet children's fitness and motor development needs. Even if the children were doing all of the above, these scenarios couldn't be considered physical education. Movement lessons need to be planned and taught just as other lessons are taught in early childhood. As Linda Carson, professor at West Virginia University and director of the West Virginia Motor Development Center, writes in the September 2001 issue of Teaching Elementary Physical Education:

"Many preschool children in homes, agencies, centers, and schools participate in physical activities that are "unplanned" and self-selected. While self-selected play is important for young children, so is movement instruction that has been planned, sequenced, and delivered by an informed teacher….Without planned instruction and teacher-directed practice opportunities, the under-informed staff is really leaving movement learning and the acquisition and improvement of motor skills to chance."

Dr. Carson goes on to say that simply offering toys, props, and a "gross motor area" is not enough — that parents and teachers would never leave children's cognitive development to chance. She insists, "They would not advocate learning to read or communicate by having their children enter a ‘gross cognitive area' where children could engage in self-selected ‘reading play' with a variety of books."

She's absolutely right! The notion of leaving cognitive or, for that matter, social/emotional development to chance is completely ludicrous. (Do we thrust children out into the world and let them figure out how to get along in it on their own?) Yet we feel no similar sense of absurdity at the idea of leaving physical development to chance — that all we need to do is let the children play and they'll become ready for all the physical challenges life will bring their way.

COPEC has developed a position statement titled "Appropriate Practices in Movement Programs for Young Children Ages 3-5." The introduction includes the following paragraph:

"Childhood is the time to begin the development of active, healthy lifestyles. The development of skills, knowledge and attitudes leading to active, healthy lifestyles must be taught. Placing the child on the road to a lifetime of movement should begin early to ensure a lifetime of good health."

Rae Pica has been a children's movement specialist for 24 years. A former adjunct instructor with the University of New Hampshire, she is the author of 14 books, including the text Experiences in Movement, the Moving & Learning Series, and Your Active Child, written for the parents of children birth to eight. Rae is nationally known for her workshops and keynotes and has shared her expertise with such groups as the Sesame Street Research Department, the Head Start Bureau, Centers for Disease Control, Nickelodeon's Blue's Clues, and a number of state health departments throughout the country. Rae served on the task force of the National Association for Sport and Physical Education (NASPE) that created Active Start: A Statement of Physical Activity Guidelines for Children Birth to Five Years. She is also the author of "Kids in Action," a booklet of movement activities parents can do at home with their children, sponsored by Kellogg, NASPE, and the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. Visit Rae at www.movingandlearning.com.

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