Lingering effects of lockdown on physical development



Lots of early years practitioners have been telling us that they are concerned about physical development following lockdown.


Three questions emerge:

  • Have children missed out on some really important physical experiences at a crucial time in their physical development?

  • Is this having a lingering effect on their physicality?

  • And, if so, how can we best support them to get back on track?

As ever, we go back to developmental movement theory to look for possible answers.

Different perspectives


The old-fashioned view of physical development used to be that it more or less takes care of itself - nothing much affects it and there isn’t much we adults can do about it. Give a child lots of opportunities to be physical - usually outside - and all will be well.


So lots of running around should do the trick post-lockdown? You've certainly have noticed how much running around lots of your children wanted to do when they first returned.


But there’s more to think about here.

Physical development used to be considered to be entirely maturational - that is, as the brain and nervous system mature, and the muscles strengthen, so a child naturally acquires more physical capabilities regardless of what is going on around them.

However, contemporary theory tells us that physical development doesn’t simply take care of itself and it’s much more subtle than simply offering lots of running, jumping and climbing. Physical development is effectively co-created by children and their adults. It is affected by many things and most of all by the value system around it.


Put bluntly, what we adults approve and disapprove of, what we encourage and discourage, makes a difference to the choices children are able to make, the way they develop and how they feel about their bodies.

Negotiating lockdown conditions within families will have massively affected all of the above. Many children will have had less running and jumping for sure, but that’s not the whole picture.


Think sensation


There are two different aspects of physical development that we need to be thinking about.


Motor development is about developing fine and gross motor control; and that’s the one we notice and value.

Sensory development is about building the capacity to process all the body signals that flood a body every moment and learn to turn this into useful body awareness. We don’t tend to think about this aspect of physical development so much.


But lots of the moving that babies and children do is about creating sensation in their body, so they can get to know it and build a steady, consistent and reliable feeling of me in many situations. Push, pull, stomp, tussle, hang, wriggle, jiggle, writhe, slide, plus movement play that is rich in emotion - anticipation, challenge, daring, celebration, joy are all important.


We call this sensation-driven movement.

And it may be harder to appreciate and support.

It is easy to value and support the movement we feel builds motor control. It is much harder to think of the positive developmental purpose in wriggling, writing, tussling, push-pull kinds of play. And the older children get within the early years, the more tempting it is to think of this kind of movement as regression.

But sensation-driven movement is every bit as purposeful and important as reaching, crawling, running, jumping, hopping and climbing; and children will go on seeking it as long as they need to, regardless of the curriculum or behaviours we have planned for them.

The potential effects of lockdown


As time goes by lots of you are saying that you are continuing to see some, or all of these things amongst your children:

  • more reluctant and timid movers

  • more stiff or rather rigid little bodies

  • children who seem to have lost awareness of their knees and elbows

  • some still finding it harder to sit, (or be less active), at group times

  • some avoiding robust playful physical interaction

  • some craving robust, challenging play

  • and some considerably less independent in their bodies than you would hope - asking for more help to support their physical interactions throughout the day

It will have been harder for some children to get as much sensation-driven movement as they needed during lockdown. (Some, of course, may have got more)

  • it’s often accompanied by lots of sound

  • if their adults didn’t ‘get’ the value of this sort of movement (and most of us don’t), their tolerance for wriggling, jiggling, slithering, rolling etc. may have been understandably limited

  • adults often stop tussling, push-pull between siblings, because it might lead to trouble

  • and they will probably have found this stuff very annoying going on beside them as they were trying to work, or just get by …

All really understandable.


But children will still need to put in the developmental work, seek sensation-driven movement, to create sure foundations. And we need to support them.


So we suggest it might be helpful, in some of your many observations during a day, to forget movement (for a bit) and think sensation.


Forget the action, or what a movement looks like, or which kind of motor control it might be practising, and think about what a movement might feel like. How it might be building a sense of body, the feeling of me. Notice this in big movement and in small movement.

Look again at the wriggling and writing as well as the running and jumping.


Notice which children seem to need this most … and see if you can find ways to include this sensation-driven movement in a really purposeful way within your setting.


If we only focus on the motor control side of physical development, we risk sending our children on to the next stage still needing the sensation-driven movement that is necessary to build some real basics. And the older they get the harder it is to find ways to get it …


This is a really important job for the early years.