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  • Writer's pictureJabadao

Evidence of the power of movement play

In 1998, JABADAO began an independent research project within the early years sector, recruiting early years practitioners to join us in learning more about how adults support children’s physicality.

During the project wellbeing became an important topic when Unicef published a report -‘Child poverty in perspective: An overview of child wellbeing in rich countries 2007’. It caught people’s attention for all the wrong reasons - England was at the bottom of the tables.

  • In measurements for Family & Peer Relationships, and Behaviours & Risks, the UK had the lowest score

  • Subjective Wellbeing was second bottom

  • Educational Wellbeing was fifth from the bottom

Concerned, we included Wellbeing as a focus for evidence gathering in the second 26-month cycle of this research to see what we could learn about movement play and wellbeing.

Evidence was taken from 42 case studies, using the Laevers Wellbeing Scale to focus observations. Practitioners observed children around 7 indicators of wellbeing:

  • vitality

  • enjoyment without constraints

  • openness and receptivity to others and the environment

  • flexibility

  • self confidence and self esteem

  • relaxation and inner peace

  • being in touch with oneself

Practitioners used this 5-point scale to structure two kinds of observation - children in general play and children specifically engaged in free flow, spontaneous movement play.

  • Level 1: extremely low wellbeing: tense, shows emotional discomfort, aggressive / walked over

  • Level 2: low wellbeing: often show signs of tension, emotional discomfort, aggression or lack of assertiveness. These alternate with more moments of more positive wellbeing

  • Level 3: fluctuating or neutral wellbeing: seem ‘quite’ happy; signs of wellbeing. Relatively energetic and enthusiastic. But missing concentration, motivation and pleasure in the activity. In many cases the child is functioning at a routine level.

  • Level 4: high wellbeing: High level of wellbeing. Look happy, occasional signs of discomfort

  • Level 5: extremely high wellbeing: ‘Fish in water’. Thoroughly enjoy themselves. Rarely show emotional discomfort

Observations of movement play

Observations took place within a range of new movement play opportunities and within some changed practices within settings:

Movement Play opportunities

  • all 12 research partner settings created a full-time or part-time indoor movement play area supporting child-led, free-flow spontaneous movement play - in addition to the other physical development activities and opportunities they offered

  • 11 ran some adults-led groups, and 3 ran activities with parents and children together, all informed by a developmental movement play approach

Changes to the environment

  • all 12 cleared tables away and put more activities on the floor

  • all offered new, open-ended resources for movement play

  • 4 bought new floor coverings to invite floor play

  • 11 displayed photographs of movement play in a new way

  • 3 provided family bags for children to take home

What did we find?

Finding 1

Scores of high wellbeing(4) and extremely high wellbeing (5) were higher in all 7 areas in movement play, when compared to general play scores.

  • vitality - 10% higher

  • enjoyment without constraints - 28% higher

  • openness and receptivity to others and the environment - 13% higher

  • flexibility - 29% higher

  • self confidence and self esteem - 50% higher

  • relaxation and inner peace - 28% higher

  • being in touch with oneself - 78% higher

This is important because scores of 4 and 5 indicate that a child is open to deep involvement and engagement in their learning.

Finding 2

It was notable that the three areas of wellbeing which scored lowest in general observations, (being in touch with oneself , relaxation and inner peace, and self-confidence and self-esteem), showed the largest percentage increase in movement play.

When we had crunched the data, some of which really surprised us, we presented it to the practitioners who had gathered it and asked if it felt right to them. They were adamant that it did - especially the two remarkably high scores - self confidence and self esteem - 50% higher and being in touch with oneself - 78% higher.


This gives much food for thought.

Child-led, freeflow, spontaneous Movement Play, informed by developmental movement principles, provides a significant contribution to children’s wellbeing. They love movement play for many reasons - increased feelings of wellbeing is a significant one.

At a time when we are once again really concerned about children’s wellbeing, movement play offers a simple way to enable them to experience, boost and grow their wellbeing.

Each will find their own way.

Our job as early years practitioners is to recognise it, be rigorous in our observations and assessments so we can advocate on their behalf, and gain the support we need from policy makers and curriculum developers to ensure that learning environments value and include more child-led movement play.


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