United for a healthy start: a mission to revolutionise physical development in the early years

Natalie Weir and Janine Coates

In March 2023, the National Early Years Active Start Partnership (NEYASP) was established to address pressing issues surrounding physical development and inactivity in young children, particularly in a post-pandemic society. This partnership brings together organisations and individuals with extensive experience and expertise in early years physical development, physical education and movement play to create a cohesive and united front to tackle these challenges head-on.

The importance of early years physical development

The first five years of life are critical, laying the foundation for a child’s emotional, cognitive, and physical development. Getting things right during this crucial period of development is fundamental for children’s future health, wellbeing, and overall life outcomes. Physical development in the early years underpins a child’s physical health, by supporting skill development needed for a physically active lifestyle. Increasingly, research is also showing the importance of physical activity for cognitive development, social skills, and emotional wellbeing. Despite its importance, recent evidence indicates a troubling decline in physical activity levels among young children.

Since 2011, the Chief Medical Officer for England has recommended that children aged 1 to 5 engage in at least 180 minutes of varied physical activities spread throughout the day. However, current data shows that only one in five young children meet this target. This alarming statistic highlights a significant public health concern that requires immediate and sustained intervention.

NEYASP: a collective response

Recognising the evidence which underscores the significant decline in physical activity levels among young children, NEYASP emphasises the urgent need for strategic, long-term interventions to reverse this trend and promote a culture of physical activity from an early age. The establishment of NEYASP marks a significant step towards a co-ordinated effort to enhance early years physical development. The partnership aims to bring together the often fragmented and isolated early years sector, providing a collective voice to advocate for better policies and practices in early years, with a mission to create lasting impact on the sector by advocating for improved knowledge, understanding and practices relating to young children’s physical development, physical activity and play. In doing so, NEYASP is proactively ensuring a united sector response to government to address concerns relating to children’s physical health and development.

Helen Battelley, Chair of NEYASP, explains the urgency:

“The decline in access to play and movement is alarming. Individual organisations cannot tackle the issue independently. We believe that coming together as a collective voice and collaborating around the problems is a more effective approach.”

Key principles for early years physical activity

In collaboration with Loughborough University, NEYASP commissioned an Early Years Physical Activity Review to systematically examine the evidence base relating to physical development, physical activity and play in the early years. This review resulted in the development of seven guiding principles to support physical activity in early years settings. These principles provide a comprehensive framework to promote physical activity and address sedentary behaviour among young children.

  1. Practitioner training: Equip practitioners with the knowledge, understanding, and confidence to support physical activity and reduce sedentary behaviour.
  2. Supportive environment: Foster an environment that prioritises physical activity, including formal policies, play equipment, adequate spaces, and frequent outdoor play opportunities.
  3. Balanced activities: Offer a mix of child-initiated and adult-led physical activities.
  4. Structured physical activity: Provide activities that develop fundamental movement skills.
  5. Integrated routines: Embed physical activity into daily routines to support various learning and development areas.
  6. Parental involvement: Engage parents and carers, enhancing their awareness and knowledge of physical activity, and encouraging them to continue these activities at home.
  7. Multi-component interventions: Implement comprehensive interventions to promote physical activity and healthy lifestyles.

Building a sustainable future

The well-established link between physical activity and learning underscores the importance of NEYASP’s initiatives. Chris Wright, Head of Wellbeing at Youth Sport Trust and a founding member of NEYASP, says:

“It is crucial we take positive action to address the decline in children’s health and development and to close the learning gap in our poorest communities. Physical development and being active from birth are essential to making that happen.”

NEYASP has outlined several strategic goals to guide its efforts in promoting early years physical development:

  1. Advocacy and policy influence: Working with government bodies and policymakers to ensure that early years physical development is prioritised in national and local agendas.
  2. Research and evidence: Commissioning and supporting research to build a robust evidence base that informs best practices and policy decisions.
  3. Sector collaboration: Facilitating collaboration and communication across the early years sector to share knowledge, resources, and best practices.
  4. Public awareness: Raising public awareness about the importance of early years physical development and encouraging parents and caregivers to prioritise physical activity in their children’s daily lives.
  5. Training and professional development: Providing training and professional development opportunities for practitioners to enhance their ability to support physical activity in early years settings.

NEYASP is dedicated to addressing the challenges of physical development and inactivity in young children. By uniting the early years sector and advocating for evidence-based practices and policies, NEYASP aims to create a sustainable future where every child can benefit from the lifelong advantages of physical activity and play.

Natalie Weir (University of Derby) and Janine Coates (Loughborough University) on behalf of the National Early Years Active Start Partnership

Follow NEYASP to find out more:

Twitter @NEYASP_comms

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