Preschool Podcast

Physical Skill Development in the Preschool Classroom

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Episode #129: Physical fitness in an early childhood setting is key to supporting cognitive and affective development from birth to five. What can you do as an educator to structure a space that encourages preschoolers to move while learning? In this episode, John Ozmun, faculty member of the Health & Human Performance Division at Indiana Wesleyan University and founder of Preschool Athlete, explains physical development in the frame early education and shares some practical tips on how to create a classroom environment that supports it.

Resources in this episode:

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Episode Transcript

John OZMUN: There’s all these different skills that are very important for them to be successful in some of these later activities. And a lot of kids don’t get that opportunity to be at a proficient level at these skills and it closes a lot of options, a lot of doors for them to participate in some of these sports as they get older.

Ron SPREEUWENBERG: Hi, I’m Ron Spreeuwenberg, co-founder and CEO of HiMama. Welcome to our podcast about all things “early-childhood education”.

John, welcome to the Preschool Podcast!

OZMUN: Thanks for having me, Ron. I appreciate it.

SPREEUWENBERG: Well today we are lucky to have John OZMUN on the show. He’s a Professor of Physical Education in the Department of Health and Human Performance at Indiana Wesleyan University. And we’re here today to talk to John about physical fitness and motor skill development in early-childhood education, something we haven’t covered too much in the Preschool Podcast. [It] has been a part of some other conversations but [we’re] very excited to learn more from John. Let’s start off, John, learning a little bit more about you, your background and the work that you’re doing at Indiana Wesleyan University.

OZMUN: Okay, yeah. I earned my doctorate in motor development and adapted physical education from Indiana University, and as you said I’m currently a Professor of Physical Education at Indiana Wesleyan University. And then I teach courses to help prepare students to be physical and health education, elementary and early-childhood teachers. So I have undergraduate students who are preparing to go into those teaching areas.

I’m the co-author of a textbook entitled Understanding Motor Development: Infants, Children, Adolescents, Adults [by David Gallahue and John C. Ozmun]. I have consulted with Headstart before. And recently I just developed a website as kind of serve as kind of a resource for parents of preschoolers to help them with the fitness and movement skill development needs of their children.

SPREEUWENBERG: Wonderful. And so let’s start off with a basic question, which you can help us answer, I hope, is: Why is physical activity important for our youngest children?

OZMUN: Sure. Well, I think if you consider any early-childhood educator, even a parent understands that they want to help develop the whole child. And when we talk about the whole child we kind of break that down into maybe three different domains. We talk about the cognitive domain – kind of the intellectual functioning, the intellectual development of the child; the affective domain, or sometimes that’s called the social-emotional or psychosocial domain; and then we have our third domain, the psycho-motor domain or the physical domain.

So we want to develop that whole child, so we want to look at all three of those areas and try to help them develop in each of those areas. And physical activity can be really important for those other two, the cognitive domain and the affective domain, even though it’s again the cornerstone of the psycho-motor domain. But with the cognitive domain there’s research evidence that physical activity exercise helps children with memory, with processing speed, attention. And once they kind of get into the school – six years of age and older – it helps them with their academic performance. So there’s a big carryover for physical activity in the cognitive domain.

And we see the same kind of evidence in the affective domain where physical activity helps with an individual child in adolescence. We see that in two different developmental areas that it really helps them with their self-esteem, with their self-concept. It helps them as they develop relationships with others. So it really can play a big role in that affective domain.

SPREEUWENBERG: Certainly a lot of those things we could probably relate to as adults, as well. When we’re getting more exercise and physical activity we feel a little bit more on the ball at work or what have you.

OZMUN: Yeah, there’s a lot of evidence just from my life’s lifelong perspective in regard to physical activity and how that helps in these other areas. So that’s why it’s very important when we think about working with children and wanting to develop the whole child, that whole individual.

And so when we think about the psycho-motor domain we’re talking about physical growth, health, fitness, movement skill development, they all kind of fit under that umbrella of the psycho-motor domain. And so there really are some lifelong health implications with physical activity. Just speaking in overall development, in all different age groups, a sedentary lifestyle leads to over a $100B annually in health care costs. And it leads to 10% of all premature deaths, and that’s what we’re talking about adults that face that.

But it really has some impact on the early-childhood years as well. Just in the last 10, 15 years we’re starting to see some negative, unhealthy behaviors gain kind of a foothold in those early-childhood years. And we see higher levels of obesity, elevated blood pressure, elevated insulin levels, [etc.] So it’s that sedentary lifestyle that we’ve kind of been experiencing as a population is carried down, trickled down to that our early-childhood population. So it’s a big concern in regard to establishing some lifelong, healthy habits.

The good thing is that we see this certainly in the behavioral, affective domain, the cognitive domain, but it’s certainly in the psycho-motor domain. Those early-childhood years are a really good time to help establish some real positive behaviors, to establish some real positive habits in regard to healthy lifestyle. So it’s real interesting, just in the last I think last month the Federal Government’s Department of Health and Human Services just released their second edition of the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. And the first edition came out in 2008 and it started around the age of 6.

The neat thing about this current edition is that they have reviewed research and made recommendations for children aged three to five. So the kind of were kind of able to incorporate this early-childhood group. And they recognized in the research there are some of those negative aspects that we’re seeing with those early-childhood years. But they also concluded that – and I’ll read this because it’s just one sentence – but it’s an important sentence. It says, “Strong evidence demonstrates that higher amounts of physical activity are associated with more favorable indicators of bone health and with reduced risk for excessive increases in body weight and obesity in children ages 3 to 6.” So they’re showing that they are reviewing that research to see [that] physical activity really helps in some of these areas that are very important in regard to lifelong health status for group for these kids. It helps them get started on the right way and helps them establish some really positive behaviors and habits.

SPREEUWENBERG: And this is from the Journal of the American Medical Association?

OZMUN: Correct, correct.


OZMUN: Just released that I believe in November.

SPREEUWENBERG: And so if we’re talking about physical activity from the ages of three to five – or two to five, let’s say – how do we know we’re doing the right physical activities in our classroom? Any guidance you can help provide our audience there?

OZMUN: Yeah, the interesting thing is, I think the term “physical activity”, any early-childhood educator intuitively knows physical activity is important. You kind of have an idea about what it entails. But to help you be systematic in trying to come up with activities, you almost have to kind of break that down. You have to kind of get the definition there and then kind of get a sub-level for another definition until you get to some specifics. And once you know the specifics about that, then you can think about, “Oh, here’s a neat activity, and this is an activity that can incorporate this particular component or this can particular component.”

So let me just, if you don’t mind, if I can take you just through kind of a definition layer and get it down to those specifics: When we talk about physical activity generally we’re talking about – and this is a very broad definition – movement that’s voluntary and intentional, which means it’s a movement that has a purpose and that you’ve initiated that movement. So it’s not movements like where you’re just having your pencil and banging it on the desk or you’re twirling your hair. That’s movement but it’s really not intentional. There’s not a kind of a goal for it. So that’s one factor there.

Then when we think about working with kids we kind of want to break that down to where we have – and this is particularly case when we think about elementary physical education – we have two big areas that we’ve kind of focus on. We talk about physical fitness and we talk about fundamental movement skills, these two areas there. And so the physical education teacher in the elementary schools has to garner their time to try to address both of those areas. And then the early-childhood educator needs to kind of think in regard to those two areas as well.

So that gets us to down another level. So we’ve got physical fitness and we have motor skills, fundamental movement skills. Well, when we go to physical fitness we can break that down even further. So we have what we call our health-related fitness components and our performance-related fitness components. So let me take you through those, and I think once we have those lists then it’ll help the early-childhood teacher to kind of take a look at activities, get an idea that these are some things that can be focused on in in that kind of limited space that they might have.

So we talk about our health-related fitness components, and there are five of those. And these air fitness areas in which we focus on with adults, adolescents and older children and younger children. So we start with what we call our cardiovascular endurance. This is just where we have the functioning of the heart and lungs. Heart and lungs can function efficiently when there’s exertion. And as adults we go out and we run, we get on the treadmill, things like that. Well, kids, they have the function of their heart and lungs, they need activities that help develop their heart and lungs from an endurance standpoint.

The second one is muscular strength, the ability to exert its force. When we think about the different aspects of lifting toys, lifting their bones body weight when they’re climbing, things like that. That’s when muscular strength is important. Muscular endurance is the third one where they exert that force but over an extended period of time. Anytime a parent is taken a child to the grocery store and go up and down the aisles and [the child starts] to drag, that’s a muscular endurance factor. They’re getting worn out.

We have flexibility as an issue where we’re just looking at the range and motion of the joints. And then the fifth one is their body composition, dealing with whether they have a healthy amount of body fat or not. With body fat, we hear the word “fat” and we say, “We don’t want that, we shouldn’t have that.” But our bodies need a certain level of body fat. We have some kids who are malnourished whose body fats are too low and that can have poor health issues. What we tend to see more is they have too much body fat, and then that gets into the overweight and obesity issue.

So we have those five areas there in the health-related fitness – cardiovascular endurance, muscular strength, muscular endurance, joint flexibility and body composition.

SPREEUWENBERG: By the way, John those are all on my New Year’s Resolution list, all five of those.

OZMUN: That’s right, they’re on mine, too. And then there’s the second category within that physical fitness, and this is what we call performance-related fitness. And these things help a little bit more as children perform different tasks. It can be different activities that they’re doing and so forth. And there are six of those, I’ll just go through those quickly: We have speed, agility, power, balance, coordination and reaction time. And so different activities – whether the kids are out playing tag, chasing each other – you have speed, they’re going fast; you have agility, they’re changing directions; if they are jumping, say they’re at a pool and they’re jumping off the side, and that requires power, being to exert your muscles quickly.

Balance is a big factor with young children, their bodies are changing, their center of gravity is changing, they’re trying to learn how to ride a two-wheeler instead of a tricycle there’s all sorts of things that balances come into play. Coordination is just being able to access the muscles at the right time so that their movements are fluid. And then your last on the reaction time is being able to respond quickly to a stimulus. So, like, if they’re trying to catch a ball they’re going to see this visual stimulus of this ball coming at them. They have to take that information in, they have to process this, they have to get their hands up and catch it or otherwise it hits them in the chest. So reaction time is an important one for a lot of success in different types of movements.

So we have those fitness areas, the fitness components that are very important. And then we have that second category of our fundamental movement skills. These are our basic movement skills that kids will develop and then build upon so that they can participate in sports and recreation activities as they get older. But they need to kind of develop these at an early age, and early-childhood years are a very good time, a very important time for those fundamental movement skills to develop at those proficient levels.

And I’ll give an example: So you have skills like throwing, catching, kicking, running, jumping, skipping, all of those are what we call fundamental movement skills. They’re the foundational skills for later, more advanced skills. So if we think about – and always want to think about in regard to kind of sport performance or sport opportunities – but if we would like our kids to be physically active, sports and those recreational activities are a great way for them to develop lifelong physical activity. But if they wanted to go play baseball or softball then they ought to be able to be able to throw at a real proficient level, or catch, or they need to be able to run.

There’s all these different skills that are very important for them to be successful in some of these later activities. And a lot of kids don’t get that opportunity to be at a proficient level at these skills, and it closes a lot of options, a lot of doors for them to participate in some of these sports as they get older. And one of the goals, I think, is to provide them with as much resources and much advantages as possible so that they can make a lot of choices and that they have the ability to make choices and these choices aren’t made for them.

So those fundamental movement skills are very important in their early-childhood years, developing the proficient levels of throwing, catching, running, all of those, kicking, it just really helps them with the giving them an advantage as they get older.

SPREEUWENBERG: And so let’s say I’m a preschool teacher and I would love to, for example, take all my kiddos out and go out on the soccer field and have them running around and chasing a ball which is going to help with a number of these various physical activities, both on the physical fitness and fundamental movement sides. But I don’t have a big soccer field right to go out and do that in, and I have a limited space. What are your thoughts on some activities or ideas that we can apply in maybe a smaller classroom or playground environment where we can still be active but in that much more limited space?

OZMUN: Sure. I think one of the things that – and they you have to kind of consider that in regard to, okay, maybe when you’re in the classroom space you’ve got desks, you’ve got tables, you have different things like that. So there may be some of these of specific things that you can’t emphasize as much as others, and then other, there’s a lot of unique opportunities within a classroom setting. For example with balance, balance is an important component in in sports but also in just everyday life, in carrying out the there’s the activities of daily living that kids do. You’re developing a sense of balance that can be very important.

And you can certainly go spend a lot of money on balance beams – they can be very expensive – or you can kind of build your own. And I have a set that I just built, I’ve used lumber, I just I bought one by about one-by-eight that’s about six foot long, a one-by-six, a one-by-four. So I’ve got different widths, they’re not all very high off the ground. They don’t take up much space, you just kind of stick them up over against the wall. And then I have a two-by-four and a four-by-four. So they’ve got some different heights on it as well. And you can kind of put those in different areas, different pathways in your classroom. And maybe you have on Friday, it’s called Bridge Day, and you have to walk on the bridges all the way round at different areas. And so it just gets them in kind of everyday moving around in the classroom. They’re getting some experience with an exposure to balance and that awareness of how to balance themselves in kind of a narrow footing.

So that’s one. Plus there are so many different activities you can do if you have those balance beams and those boards, that lumber. There’s a lot of different things you can do with that where they’re picking up things, they’re going backwards, they’re going sideways, they’re just really gaining a sense of their body awareness through dynamic balance activities, static balance activities. So that’s kind of one possibility there.

In a classroom setting, too, where you don’t want to be throwing around hard balls or anything like that, I use what I call sock balls. I just take old socks and roll them up kind of tight and they’re pretty soft but you can make them to where they’re firm enough to hold. I use laundry baskets and they can use that for targets so they get developing their throwing skills. So you can put laundry baskets in different areas and they can use sock balls that way. They’re very inexpensive. If you want to spend a little bit of money then you could buy those Nerf balls of different sizes that those can be used as well.

Another activity with the sock balls, you can develop some of the throwing skills in kind of maybe a little station area in the classroom. Certainly if you have a little bit of outdoor space, that helps. I like to use balloons. I know balloons there is certainly an issue sometimes with latex, kind of an allergy to latex, and you have to be kind of careful certainly with that. Certainly have to be careful when balloons pop and you have those little pieces around. But I’ve had it where one day a month or a couple days a month you kind of put several balloons down on the ground and just as they’re walking through their daily pathways they’re just constantly kicking those balloons out of the way. And so it’s just a neat exposures where they’re developing some eye-foot coordination, just making contact with both their right foot, their left foot, their dominant foot, their non-dominant foot.

And so it just exposes them to some of those aspects there. That can also be done with those Nerf balls if you if you wanted to avoid the balloons there. I’ve used balloons but you could also use some other things. I’ve hung balloons from doorways, and so kids as they walk through the doorway then there’s always a few of them up there and they’re at different lengths. So they jump up and they just hit the balloons that are the most challenging. So it helps develop some of that jumping, it helps develop that muscular strength and power. And it’s just kind of a natural inclination for kids to do that – they just want to jump up and hit those balloons. And so that’s kind of an environment that they just do kind of an unstructured type of activity.

SPREEUWENBERG: Yeah, those are some good practical ideas, and the idea about just setting up the environment so that kids can do it naturally as opposed to, it doesn’t even necessarily have to be a planned event but even just setting up the environment to encourage the physical activity is a great idea.

OZMUN: Yeah, because you do have kids at different levels You’re going to have some kids that are four years of age, some whose parents are just sports nuts and their kid has already been down at the Y and they’ve been into early-childhood soccer, early-childhood basketball. Other kids, that’s not something that’s been emphasized in their home. And so you can kind of create kind of different challenge levels in kind of an unstructured, play-based kind of a setting there, that can really… it can incorporate physical activity throughout the day. And that was one of the key things that the guidelines from the Health and Human Services recommended. They said there a reasonable target should be around three hours of activity, and that includes “light, moderate and vigorous”. So trying to get three hours of activity in a day, that can be kind of tough unless you’ve kind of structured the environment so that a lot of it comes about naturally.

SPREEUWENBERG: Absolutely. And so you mentioned your own book, Understanding Motor Development. First of all, where can folks go to find that? And secondly, any other recommendations on resources for early-childhood educators out there who want to learn more about physical activity and physical fitness, fundamental movement development in the early-childhood setting?

OZMUN: Sure. The textbook, we’re in the process of revising it for our eighth edition so it’s going to be coming out in the Fall. It’s a college textbook and it tends to be a little expensive so I usually don’t recommend that necessarily for an early-childhood educator unless they’re in one of my classes. But I do have as I mentioned, I recently started a website that is designed for parents but can be very valuable for early-childhood educators, too, because it shows I have about 60, 70 video clips of different activities that I’m doing with directly with a young child. And all these different areas: balance, jumping, throwing, all of those different areas so they can get some ideas from those video clips. And I also have some descriptions about these different levels of fundamental movement skills and so forth.

That website is a kind of intentionally made that name a little provocative, whereas I don’t think preschoolers are athletes. But the early-childhood years are kind of the beginning of them developing fitness levels and skill levels so that if they would like to be into sports as they get older they have the tools, they have the ability to do that, to have those choices. If they don’t then the choices are not there for them.

SPREEUWENBERG: Yeah, I think like you said before, just really developing those fundamentals like running, jumping, catching, throwing, it depends on what your definition of an athlete is. But certainly developing those fundamentals, as you said, gives you the opportunity then to choose if you do want to participate in sports.

I think the same kind of thing is, like, if I were to say a preschool musician, if I saw a website like that as a parent – I was pretty ignored about music – but a website that might be helpful. So a parent or an early-childhood educator who’s knows it’s important to be physically active but don’t know really what to do with a young child then I’m hoping that that the website can provide that.

SPREEUWENBERG: Cool. Well, thank you so much for sharing that, John. And thank you so much for coming on the Preschool Podcast today. It’s been wonderful having you on the show and having you share your wisdom about physical fitness and motor skill development in the preschool setting.

OZMUN: Well, thank you, Ron. I appreciated the opportunity and enjoyed it.

Ron Spreeuwenberg

Ron is the Co-Founder & CEO of HiMama, where he leads all aspects of a social purpose business that helps early childhood educators improve learning outcomes for children.