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Association of California School Administrators
Association of California School Administrators
Prekindergarten programs
Using physical activity to promote joyful and engaged learning
By Andrea Golloher, Amy August, Maria Fusaro, Jihyun Lee, Emily Slusser and Julie Sliva Spitzer | January | February 2023
There is a lot of excitement and anxiety surrounding the expansion of Universal Pre-K (UPK) access in California. San Jose State University faculty at the Early Childhood Institute, who have long been involved in advocacy for universal access, have now turned their attention to supporting the field in ensuring that California State Preschool Programs, Transitional Kindergarten and other early childhood programs utilize curriculum and instructional practices that are developmentally appropriate for the younger children now able to access these classrooms.
The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC, 2020) defines “Developmentally-Appropriate Practices” (DAP) for children as approaches that encourage a focus on the whole child as teachers “promote each child’s optimal development and learning through a strengths-based, play-based approach to joyful, engaged learning.”
What we know is that overemphasizing school readiness in early childhood can overshadow the importance of developmentally-appropriate experiences that lead to the holistic growth of young children. This was well demonstrated in a recent study on the impact of early learning programs for children from low-income backgrounds living in Tennessee. In this study, children were randomly selected to participate in the programs through a lottery system.
Contrary to all expectations, those children who won a spot in the early learning programs performed worse in third and sixth grade compared with their peers who were not selected (Durkin et al., 2022).
What went wrong? While it is difficult to tease apart all potential factors influencing student learning, these researchers hypothesized that the emphasis on “school readiness” — centering early academics and behavioral compliance over child-led learning and discovery — leads to the use of practices that are not developmentally appropriate. Failing to nurture the whole child across developmental domains (i.e., psychomotor, social, emotional, linguistic and cognitive) may have ultimately set the children up to disengage with learning when they entered elementary school. How can early childhood classrooms adopt a holistic approach to early learning and development while avoiding an overemphasis on academic readiness? The first step is to ensure that play is at the heart of any educational program for young children (NAEYC, 2020). This can be easier said than done, especially when schools feel pressured to focus on academic content.
One way to incorporate playful learning opportunities is to intentionally integrate physical activity into learning activities designed to address established standards. While we often think of the importance of physical activity as it relates to health and wellness, the reality is that physical activity supports learning and development across domains, in addition to supporting positive behavior, self-regulation and general cognition (McGowan et al., 2021; Mavilidi et al., 2018, Paas & Sweller, 2012). Further, allowing young students freedom to move within the classroom is an aspect of responsive early childhood teaching that is associated with gains in early language, literacy and working memory (Hamre et al., 2014; Pianta et al., 2008).
Supporting physical activity in early learning classrooms
Despite the value of getting children moving throughout the day, only a few states have comprehensive guidelines for the use of physical activity in early childhood programs or elementary schools (Duffey et al., 2014). This means many early learning classrooms operate without clear guidance on facilitating physical activity to support children’s holistic development. What can school leaders do to support physical activity in the face of this lack of guidance? Let’s consider strategies that can be implemented in any early learning program.
Examine the environment
The Reggio Emilia approach to instruction identifies the environment as the “third teacher” in addition to adults and other children (Strong-Wilson & Ellis, 2007). The classroom environment communicates both what can (and cannot) be done and what is (and is not) valued. A cramped classroom full of furniture communicates to children that they cannot — and should not — be too physically active, while a classroom that includes indoor play equipment, such as a slide or a trampoline, communicates that physical activity is encouraged. An outdoor space with neglected, broken or rusted playground equipment communicates that outdoor play does not matter, while featuring an inviting outdoor space with inclusive and developmentally-appropriate equipment communicates that the school values children’s movement.
The first step is to consider whether the school and classroom environments are conducive to encouraging physical activity. Sando and Sandseter (2020) recommend that young children have access to varied types of spaces, “smaller and bigger, closed and open, natural and built environments” to encourage physical activity and to support children’s well-being.
Does the classroom feature an open space that can be used for physical activities? Does the outdoor space include a variety of toys and play structures that invite children to engage in physical activity? If not, how can this be addressed? While funding is needed for programs to invest in the space and equipment necessary to encourage children’s movement in these settings, California’s investments in UPK can support such efforts (CCSESA, 2022). Creative problem-solving is key. If there isn’t enough space to create a dedicated area for indoor physical activity, it may be possible to invest in furniture that can be easily moved throughout the day.
It is also important to consider different policies and practices that are in place, and whether they promote DAP using physical activity. This includes considering the school’s daily schedule and opportunities to make adults available to provide adequate supervision for more boisterous activities. Counterintuitively, providing long stretches of time for movement does not necessarily increase children’s engagement in physical activity (Brown et al., 2016). Instead of thinking of ways to make recess longer, think about how to provide multiple, shorter opportunities for children to engage in moderate to vigorous physical activity throughout the day. Viewing the outdoor space as part of the classroom can allow teachers to develop learning activities that nurture children’s curiosity while allowing them to move around more. For example, teachers can move art activities outside, allowing children to paint with their hands or feet on butcher paper spread on the ground, or they can create scavenger hunts that encourage children to run around to find letter blocks hidden in the garden.
Think creatively about the ways children move
This leads to the second recommendation — thinking creatively about encouraging movement. Despite how it might feel to their teachers, research suggests that most young children spend the vast majority of their school days engaging in sedentary behavior, with only a few minutes per hour spent engaging in light activity, and rarely any time engaged in moderate to vigorous activity (Brown et al., 2016). As noted above, simply extending recess does not always result in more physical activity because — after the initial flurry of activity — many kids end up engaging in sedentary behavior outside as well. These findings suggest that we need to think more creatively about encouraging children to move.
Getting children to engage in more vigorous activity requires planning, which may start with a brief inventory of the ways in which structured physical activity (i.e., adult-led) and unstructured physical activity (i.e., child-led) are currently used. When teachers offer structured opportunities for physical activity, with an intentional effort to incorporate whole-body (i.e., gross motor) movement, children are more likely to start moving and keep moving. So, one of the first questions to ask is whether and how children are invited to move their bodies throughout the day. In addition to considering current structured and unstructured opportunities for physical activity — both of which can be valuable — teachers can also consider ways to integrate physical activity into learning opportunities to promote “joyful, engaged learning” (NAEYC, 2020, p. 5).
Think of it like this: If teachers want to allow children to move more, they might incorporate more time outside or make space for moderate-to-vigorous activity inside the classroom. To ensure that children make use of these spaces, however, teachers may need to explicitly encourage movement. For example, they might set up a game that requires children to run around the playground or dance in the classroom. This provides a structure that encourages physical activity.
To promote “joyful, engaged learning,” teachers will need to go a step further to integrate opportunities for physical activity with other learning goals. For example, teachers could set up an obstacle course, with different activities to be completed at numbered checkpoints around the classroom. This activity helps children develop number recognition and counting skills while building spatial awareness, including direction, distance and location. For older children, simple modifications of this obstacle course can be applied by using more advanced mathematical concepts — for example, children can work in pairs using dice and a giant number line that they can jump onto in order to indicate their answer. These activities promote physical and cognitive development, but can also incorporate cooperative activities to facilitate social-emotional learning as children cheer on their classmates or work through their frustration if they find one of the tasks to be difficult.
Explore professional development opportunities
Classroom teachers play a critical role in integrating opportunities for physical activity with other learning experiences in the classroom. While educators know that physical health is important and that they should encourage young children to be physically active, they also report experiencing barriers when it comes to incorporating such activity in the classroom (Hesketh et al., 2017). In addition to contextual factors (like school policies that limit opportunities for vigorous movement) and competing work demands, teachers report that the pressure to prioritize academic outcomes limits their use of movement in the classroom. Evidence suggests that professional development can influence the ways teachers approach the use of physical activity in the classroom (Linker & Woods, 2018). It is important for teachers to receive training that focuses on the importance of DAP; how to conceptualize physical activity as an effective instructional tool; ways to deliberately incorporate physical activity in instruction; and how to use physical activity to promote learning and development across domains. Coaching can also be provided to support teachers’ developing use of physical activity in their classrooms, including ways to structure the environment to encourage developmentally appropriate activities.
Think of it like this: If teachers want to allow children to move more, they might incorporate more time outside or make space for moderate-to-vigorous activity inside the classroom.
It’s not just teachers who need this support. Administrators who oversee programming and, importantly, those who evaluate the educators need to be able to recognize the ways in which children are engaging in learning across domains. A principal or administrator who is not familiar with DAP and watches children complete the obstacle course as described above could critique the teacher because the children are “just playing” or because the behaviors of more exuberant children are “too disruptive.” This would discourage the teacher from supporting the holistic development of the child; instead, they may choose to focus more narrowly on academic content while limiting children’s movement to the detriment of the whole child. Meanwhile, a teacher who is praised for the ways in which they facilitate learning across domains and demonstrate flexibility in allowing movement is likely going to continue to provide these opportunities for students in their classroom.
Recognize educators who get kids moving
This leads us to the final important point — recognize educators who get kids moving.
Teachers vary widely in their philosophies and approaches to supporting learning. Using DAP that integrates physical activity may be an existing strength for some teachers and programs. In this case, school leaders should demonstrate that these assets are recognized and appreciated.
Beyond letting the teachers know that their work is respected, consider ways in which teachers can share their expertise with their colleagues who are new to these ideas. Would they be interested in participating in a professional learning community on this topic or sharing their expertise as part of the professional development for other teachers or administrators? These opportunities communicate that this work is important and valued, not just to the teacher but to the entire school community. Finally, consider how to promote the importance of this work with the broader community, including with the families of the children in the program and with policymakers and school board members whose decisions directly influence the policies and practices in our schools. Highlighting the good work happening in our schools can help others appreciate the value and significance of developmentally appropriate practices that integrate physical activity for supporting child learning and well-being.
Despite the recent research out of Tennessee (i.e., Durkin et al., 2022), a wealth of evidence on the impact of early childhood education and prekindergarten programs suggests that high-quality early learning opportunities can be transformative for young children. School leaders can help ensure these programs live up to their potential by centering holistic development that includes plenty of opportunities for children to move their bodies. By creating spaces conducive to movement, and by integrating physical activity into learning, these developmentally appropriate practices can set up children to be “joyful and engaged” learners as they continue in school.
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California County Superintendents Educational Services Association (CCSESA). (2022). Universal prekindergarten planning toolkit: A resource guide for County Offices of Education in California.
Duffey, K. J., Slinging, M. M., & Benjamin Neelon, S. E. (2014). States lack physical activity policies in child care that are consistent with national recommendations. Childhood Obesity, 10(6), 491-500.
Durkin, K., Lipsey, M. W., Farran, D. C., & Wiesen, S. E. (2022). Effects of a statewide pre-kindergarten program on children’s achievement and behavior through sixth grade.
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National Association for the Education of Young Children. (2020, April). NAEYC position statement: Developmentally appropriate practice. shared/downloads/PDFs/resources/position-statements/dap-statement_0.pdf
Paas, F., & Sweller, J. (2012). An evolutionary upgrade of cognitive load theory: Using the human motor system and collaboration to support the learning of complex cognitive tasks. Educational Psychology Review, 24(1), 27-45.
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Strong-Wilson, & Ellis, J. (2007). Children and place: Reggio Emilia’s environment as the third teacher. Theory into Practice, 46(1), 40–47.

Andrea Golloher, Amy August, Maria Fusaro, Jihyun Lee, Emily Slusser, and Julie Sliva Spitzer are faculty members at San Jose State University
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