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Movement Learning and Development

in Early Childhood

Certain movement skills - or motor skills - develop during early childhood following the movement milestones of the infant and toddler days (e.g. crawling and walking). These important early childhood movement skills are often categorized as locomotor (e.g running), stability (e.g. one foot balance), and object manipulation (e.g. throwing and catching) type movements. The value of successful, timely development of these movement skills is such that they are often considered fundamental motor skills [1] or core developmental activities [2]. Early childhood is considered a critical period for movement competency to develop [3] as these movement skills are often thought to serve as a proficiency threshold to more advanced movement skills, such as those associated with sport specific skills. 

A strong link between movement competency and important social and health-related factors is regularly reported by childhood development experts. Some of these factors being muscular strength and endurance, healthy weight levels, cardiorespiratory fitness, and positive self-perceptions. [4] Researchers have shown that movement competency during the preschool years can predict physical activity and fitness levels in high school. [5,6] This suggests that motor skill development in early childhood is an investment that pays positive health-related dividends later in life. Similarly, early childhood movement skills form a basis for participation in organized games and sports [7] and have been shown to predict more successful academic, social, and emotional adjustment to formal schooling. [8]

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Kids Playing Soccer

Unfortunately, current data indicate motor competency scores in preschoolers are declining. [9] For example, researchers found in a 2019 study that 77% of children aged 3-6 years were classified as at risk for developmental delay. [9] These findings are concerning as a lack of movement skills is thought to limit a child’s ability to effectively play, engage in organized games, and interact with their environment. [9,10] Each of which contribute to how much physical activity a child accumulates on a daily basis, and thus, whether or not they reach daily physical activity guidelines. Therefore, it is important to ensure children acquire the movement skills necessary to reach and maintain physical activity standards to receive the health benefits of physical fitness.

An important point about movement skill competencies is that they do not simply develop on their own as children age, nor do they directly develop out of free play (e.g. playground play). [11] Rather, exposure to developmentally appropriate movement learning and the opportunity to practice these movements is need for movement competencies to form over time.11 These experiences must be consistent and guided to successfully foster movement skill competency.

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Instructor led movement activity for kids

Given that early childhood is a critical time to acquire the movement skills needed for successful transition to formal schooling and support lifespan physical activity, a specific focus should be placed on exposing children ages 3-6 to movement education programs. Parents can work to be intentional at this by regularly providing access to movement learning and development opportunities. This is especially the case for children not enrolled in traditional preschool or daycare programs that specifically allocate time to instructor-guided movement skill training.

Girl doing a movement activity


1. Barnett et al. (2016). Fundamental movement skills: An important focus.  Journal of Teaching in Physical Education, 35, 219-225. 

2. Newell  (2020). What are fundamental motor skills and what is fundamental about them? Journal of Motor Learning and Development, 8, 280-314

3. Iivonen and Saakslahi (2014) Preschool children’s fundamental motor skills: a review of significant determinants. Early Child Development and Care, 184(7), 1107-1126. 

4. Robinson et al. (2015) Motor competence and its effect on positive developmental trajectories of health. Sports Medicine, 45, 1273-1284. 

5. Barnett et al. (2009). Childhood motor skill proficiency as a predictor of adolescent physical activity. Journal of Adolescent Health, 44(3), 252-259.

6. Vlahov et al. (2014). Preschool motor development predicting high school health-related physical fitness: a prospective study. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 119(1), 279-291. 

7. Clark and Metcalfe (2002). The mountain of motor development: a metaphor. In Clark and Humphreys (Eds.), Motor development: Research and reviews, Vol. 2. (pp. 163-190). NASPE Publications: Reston, VA. 

8. Bart et al. (2007). Predicting school adjustment from motor abilities in kindergarten. Infant and Child Development, 16, 597-615.

9. Brian et al. (2019). Motor competence levels and developmental delay in early childhood. A multi center cross-sectional study conducted in the USA. Sports Medicine, 49, 1609-1618.

10. Stodden et al. (2008). A developmental perspective on the role of motor skill competence in physical activity: an emergent relationship. Quest, 60, 290-306.

11. Logan et al. (2012). Getting the fundamentals of movement: a meta-analysis of the effectiveness of motor skill interventions in children. Child: Care, Health, and Development, 38(3), 305-315.

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