What is research telling us about children’s physical activity in the early years?

ACECQA’s National Education Leader, Rhonda Livingstone provides insight into National Quality Framework topics of interest.

In the November ACECQA Newsletter, we featured the release of the first national 24-Hour Movement Guidelines for the Early Years. The guidelines take a more holistic view of children’s experience as they reference a 24-hour period, recognising that each movement behaviour is interlinked and integral to health. The guidelines also provide an opportunity to work collaboratively with families and the child at the centre of decision-making about how much time is engaged in sedentary pursuits or physical activity at the service and the home.

In this month’s blog, we share examples of the research being undertaken around the country, with our focus on how best to support Australian children to engage in recommended levels of physical activity.

Research from around the globe is pointing to strong correlations between physical activity and learning. As Pasi Sahlberg, the educator and author who specialises in the progressive approaches undertaken in Finland notes, ‘We also know from research that children’s brains work better when they move’. An experienced Finnish teacher put it this way: ‘Not only do they concentrate better in class, but they are more successful at negotiating, socialising, building teams and friendships together’ (Doyle in Sahlberg, 2018, p.23).

Below is an overview of some of the research and initial findings, as well as questions to prompt your own investigation and practice.

Early Start – University of Wollongong

Early Start is a strategic teaching, research and community engagement initiative from the University of Wollongong. The research associated with Early Start is diverse and focuses on a number of different themes, including physical activity.

In 2017, Early Start was commissioned, in collaboration with researchers from Canada, to develop the new Australian 24-Hour Movement Guidelines for the Early Years. Researchers from Early Start, namely Professor Anthony Okely, are now working with the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Kingdom working party to develop similar international guidelines.

Early Start has been involved in a number of other significant research studies focusing on physical activity in the early years. For example, between 2014 and 2016 Early Start conducted a multi-component physical activity intervention known as Jump Start in 43 NSW early childhood education and care (ECEC) settings from areas of disadvantage. This study, which aimed to increase physical activity during the preschool hours, comprises five components broadly focusing on gross motor skills, facilitation of active energy breaks and incorporating physical activity into other curriculum areas. Data from the study is currently being analysed. Additional information can be found in this recent research paper on increasing physical activity.

Myrto-Foteini Mavilidi and Early Start have recently investigated the effect of incorporating integrated physical activity into learning experiences facilitated in ECEC settings. Irrespective of focus area (numeracy, language, geography etc.), the study found learning was enhanced when integrated physical activity was part of the learning experience. They have published a number research papers, including one on the immediate and delayed effects of integrating physical activity.

Other studies, conducted by Y.G. Ellis and colleagues, have looked into the time children spend in sedentary behaviour in ECEC settings and the potential effectiveness of environment-based interventions on reducing sedentary time.  Their results show children in ECEC spend approximately 50% of their time sitting and that a simple environmental intervention has the potential to modify the amount of time children spend sitting.

Some of the most recent research on the early years facilitated by Early Start focuses on improving the quality of the environment of ECEC settings in relation to movement-play and physical activity. This research involves professional development for educators and uses the MOVERS environmental rating scale.

A critical area of research within Early Start focuses on the role of educators in physical activity learning experiences. K.L. Tonge and colleagues are interested in how high quality interactions between children and educators can enhance physical activity experiences in ECEC settings.

PLAYCE – University of Western Australia

The Play Spaces & Environments for Children’s Physical Activity study (PLAYCE) is a four-year Healthway funded study (2015-2018). PLAYCE is investigating a range of features, including indoor and outdoor space, play equipment, and natural features of the environment, to determine which have the most influence on children’s physical activity and health whilst attending ECEC. The research team is working with the ECEC sector in Western Australia and nationally to develop a checklist to assess whether services are meeting the standards detailed in Quality Area 3 of the National Quality Standard. This will help services identify what they can do to improve the quality of their physical environment to better support children’s physical activity, health and development.

So far, over 115 long day care services and 1400 children (2-5 years) and families have taken part in the PLAYCE study. Preliminary findings show less than one third of children meet the recommended three hours of physical activity per day and less than 8% achieve this recommendation in an average day while attending ECEC.

Physical health and wellbeing project – Gowrie Training and Consultancy and Queensland University of Technology (QUT)

Gowrie Training and Consultancy (Tasmania) are collaborating with the Faculty of Education, QUT, in an Australian Early Development Census (AEDC) funded research project – Physical health and wellbeing: innovative approaches in an inner-city community. Project leader Dr Megan Gibson from QUT, together with Professor Andrew Hills from the University Tasmania, will be working with Gowrie Training and Consultancy and educators from the Lady Gowrie Integrated Child and Family Centre in Tasmania.

The AEDC is a national, population-based evaluation of child development in the first year of full-time schooling. AEDC data can help professionals working with children and families to think critically about how to effectively support children’s development. Early childhood educators are well placed to proactively use AEDC data to support and enhance children’s learning and development.

The project applies action research to support and enhance children’s physical health and wellbeing through:

  • building educator capability in relation to using AEDC data sets to inform professional decisions
  • enacting pedagogical practices that afford children opportunities to engage in challenging physical play, and
  • measuring and communicating about the effects of intentional, sustained and contextual practices to families, the local community and other ECEC services.

The overarching research question is:

How can early childhood educators enable children to flourish in the area of physical health and wellbeing?

The project involves educators applying key elements of action research to explore possibilities for children to flourish physically. Pedagogical documentation is central to the project as a tool for reflective practice that enables different ways of thinking about physical development. Examples of key areas of focus include: physical literacy, risk, the use of the outdoor environment, innovative ways to use equipment and resources, and educator decision-making.

Across the course of the project, educators are exploring resources to inform and shape their thinking about physical health and wellbeing, with examples including Active Healthy Kids Australia and Gooey Brains.

Early research findings have seen enhanced experiences and opportunities for children in the area of physical development.

For further information on the Physical health and wellbeing project, you can contact: Dr Megan Gibson, Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Education, QUT – ml.gibson@qut.edu.au. You can also read about the range of AEDC projects currently funded in Tasmania.

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Now we have taken you through examples of the latest research and studies, how might you engage with their findings to improve quality outcomes for children?

Conducting an action research project at your service is one way to incorporate some of the ideas. The prompt questions below are another means of reflecting on physical activity at your service. You could also use some of the specific questions from any of the above studies or findings.

Questions for further investigation:

  • What innovative ideas could you incorporate into your environments to increase activity? For example, Duplo boards on the walls for construction or taking away chairs from the art area.
  • What skills and knowledge do educators have about physical activity, recommendations and fundamental movement skills?
  • How is risk aversion impacting physical activity?
  • What impact is the provisioning of outdoor environments having on children’s physical activity?

References

Sahlberg, P. (2018) FinnishED Leadership: Four big, inexpensive ideas to transform education, Corwin, California.

Assessment and rating for family day care service providers

The assessment and rating process can be a nervous time for educators and providers.

To coincide with National Family Day Care Week earlier this month, we chatted to Eugenia Gabbiani, a family day care educator at the City of Casey in Victoria, about her experience being assessed and rated and her advice for other educators.

Tell us a little about your service

The City of Casey Family Day Care commenced in 1995 following amalgamations of family day care services in surrounding local government areas that created the largest family day care service in Australia!

Our service remains the largest, currently operating at an average level of 800 equivalent full time places with around 235 educators offering care in their homes to over 2500 children with help from 18 very supportive members of our coordination unit.

How did you prepare for your assessment and rating visit?

The City of Casey has been preparing educators since the commencement of assessment and rating by providing training, advice and information to ensure we are aware of the expectations.

Before the visit, I talked to children in my care about the people coming to see us that day and also spent some time making sure all my documentation was up to date and easily accessible for assessors.

Did you have any concerns or were you nervous about your assessment and rating?

On the day of the visit, I did get nervous. I think it is natural for anybody being assessed on their work performance to be a little nervous. Though once the assessors arrived and the process started, my nerves eased quickly as we were able to show them our service.

Overall I was confident, as we offer high quality education and care every day regardless of being visited.

Do you have any advice for family day care service providers that are due to be assessed and rated?

All educators, not just family day care, have a responsibility to provide the best quality of care every day. When preparing for an assessment, my advice would be to have all your documentation up to date, easily accessible and ensure children’s files are readily available as the assessor will ask to see this documentation.

Make sure that you know what you do – this means know your emergency procedures. Take time to familiarise yourself with regulations as the assessor could ask you questions about this.

Have your activities ready to reflect your program and what your children have chosen for the day. Have your observations available.

We are a multicultural society; include diversity in your activities. I know that children in our service enjoy learning rhymes in other languages. If you have children from other cultures, learn basic words in that language and greet children and families with “good morning” in their mother tongue. Document this so that assessors know you are doing this.

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An Australia Day activity at Eugenia’s family day care service.

Importantly, be proud of the fantastic job you do as an educator. Display your certificates, diplomas, awards and commendations. Not just for the assessor, but for everyone who comes into your service.

Display your children’s artwork as they too are very proud of their work. Have photos of children doing some of the activities planned by you and the spontaneous ones initiated by them. You can also have a ‘community board’ where you can place pictures of the places you frequent with the children.

These recommendations are not just for the assessment and rating process but for your practice. My main advice for family day care educators, and all educators, is to ensure your service is a high quality one all the time, not just when you are being assessed and rated.

Treat assessment and rating as an opportunity to show off your practice to the assessor, let them see that you are prepared and proud of the education that you provide.

You might also like to read our Embracing the assessment and rating process interview from last year with Vashti Hicks, an Authorised Officer with the Queensland Department of Education and Training.

Giving children a voice in their community

Michelle Gujer, Manager of Docklands Children’s Program and Georgie Meyer, Melbourne Museum’s Education and Community Program Manager, share a rewarding project showcasing children’s sense of agency and partnerships with their community.

Gowrie

Michelle Gujer:

The Melbourne Museum is redeveloping its children’s gallery and as part of the project decided to consult with educators, early childhood specialists, designers and health professionals to make the space as unique and innovative as possible. The initial plan was to include children at the testing stage of the project, but we helped the Museum team see the value in including children’s thoughts at the planning stage.

How were children’s voices heard?

The children’s ideas and opinions were captured at every stage of the redevelopment and it’s a real credit to the Melbourne Museum’s commitment to their educational program.

After meeting with our Leaders Group and brainstorming ideas, the Museum team organised workshops and gave each child a design board to create their own unique museum. Educators scribed the children’s thoughts as they talked though ideas.

The Museum team then set up mirrors, cardboard boxes, rope, streamers, lights and animal noises and watched how children of different age groups engaged with different materials and tactile/sensory experiences. The younger children jumped right in to this. At first they were throwing cardboard boxes in their excitement but then settled into making fantastic dens with the boxes and pieces of fabric.

This showed both the Museum team and educators that you don’t always have to be just two steps away. You always have to be mindful and watching, but there’s value in giving children the opportunity to show you what they are thinking in their own way, without prompts and questions. Activities like this are a beautiful way of showing children’s expertise, especially at the pre-verbal stage.

It all starts with a conversation

My advice to Educational Leaders looking to make connections with the community is to start a conversation because you never know where it’s going to take you. We received an initial invitation from a Melbourne Museum through a mutual colleague which kicked this amazing opportunity into motion but the really important thing is there was willingness on both side. We could have provided feedback via email on the initial consultation and left it at that but instead invited the Melbourne Museum team to visit and engage with our Leadership Group. It’s about valuing everybody. Everybody has knowledge and ideas; especially children.

Georgie Meyer:

What Melbourne Museum discovered

Working with Gowrie Docklands has given museum staff a rich understanding of, and respect for, the opinions of young children. Our workshop sessions demonstrated that pre verbal children have a lot to say, and Gowrie staff showed us how to listen.

Our new Pauline Gandel Children’s Gallery is specifically for children aged six weeks to five years.  Through our time spent with the Gowrie children, we’ve seen that this is a very broad and diverse age range and each age and stage of development has particular needs and interests. We’ve also learnt that children are drawn to experiences that offer a balance between the familiar and unfamiliar. For example, they recognise and love a mirror, but even more so if it’s placed on the ground and can be stepped on.

Children are curious about nature, animals, (friendly) monsters, hiding places and surprises. They move, crawl, climb, dance and jump as a way of learning, not just a way of ‘letting off steam’. And the exploration of music and light appeals to all age groups, particularly when children can immerse themselves in the experience.

Listening to this feedback, we have incorporated many of the children’s ideas into the new Children’s Gallery. The space will have activities relevant to each age group, including tactile, hands-on experiences for younger children and narrative, games and social play for older children.

Familiar animal specimens from our collection will be on display, including birds, butterflies, a zebra and a leopard, which will lead children into an immersive multimedia experience. Children will enter this ‘Camouflage Disco’ full of lights, patterns, movements and sounds that will surprise and delight with a crawling crab, tiger stripes, a swimming fish, and giraffe spots.

The garden will be completely renovated allowing for nature play, exploration and outdoor movement. Rocks and minerals representing those in the Museum Collection will form a rock garden and crystal cave. An accessible sandpit will be home to a life-size dinosaur skeleton, the long-necked Mamenchisaurus, inviting children to excavate fossils. And the Victorian Aboriginal creation story of Tiddalik, the thirsty frog, will feature in a series of sculptures that end with a fountain offering water play.

We plan to continue our consultation and evaluation sessions with young children throughout 2016. We also hope our youngest co-creators will attend the launch of the new gallery later this year so we can thank them for their generosity, advice and ideas.

Agency in practice

 ACECQA’s National Education Leader, Rhonda Livingstone provides insight into National Quality Framework topics of interest.

The Early Years Learning Framework and the Framework for School Age Care define children’s agency as ‘being able to make choices and decisions, to influence events and to have an impact on one’s world’ (EYLF p45 and FSAC p41). So what does agency mean for children who attend early childhood services?

Children’s agency is based on the idea that all children:

  • are capable of making choices and decisions
  • can initiate and lead their own learning
  • have a right to participate in decisions that affect them.

In promoting agency, educators enable children with real choices and support them to make decisions about how they participate. Children’s participation is encouraged by shared understandings and collaboration between adults and children.

For educators to support agency they must be aware of the capabilities and interests of the children they work with. Children are competent, capable learners when they are fully engaged and supported to participate in meaningful learning experiences that follow their interests. These experiences can be planned or spontaneous.

Educators can design open-ended learning environments with children, setting up activities of interest together and sharing the outcomes from these activities. This can be as simple as providing a range of materials for children to use as they choose.

For toddlers, as they move towards independence, educators can support agency by offering them real choices in activities and routines. For example, toddlers can participate in preparing and serving morning tea to themselves and others.

Under the United Nations Convention for the Rights of the Child, children have a right to be active participants in all matters affecting their lives. Children with agency develop strong dispositions for learning. They are more:

  • confident in making decisions about their learning
  • able to work successfully with other children in a variety of situations
  • able to persist when there are challenges
  • able to communicate their ideas with adults and their peers.

In some jurisdictions the educator to child ratios are changing and these improved ratios have the potential to provide greater opportunities for educators to give more individual attention to children and support their agency and educational outcomes. Information about ratio changes coming into effect in 2016 is available here.

Children actively explore and make sense of their world from birth. By ‘viewing children as active participants and decision makers opens up possibilities … to move beyond pre-conceived expectations about what children can do and learn’ (EYLF p9, FSAC p7).

Reflecting on your practice, how do educators at your service:

  • encourage children’s agency through meaningful interactions?
  • include children’s perspectives?
  • work with children as co-constructors of curriculum?