How is the physical development curriculum involved in building great foundations for wellbeing? That positive state of feeling good, when we are open to anything, full of vitality and radiating energy and positivity.
Helping children to discover how to feel great in their own body is an important foundation. And, since wellbeing goes up and down depending on how life is going, ways to recognise that - and boost it when it dips - is equally as important.
Back in 2000 the Jabadao team started to explore a specific aspect of children’s physical engagement - we called it Movement Play. Alongside the physical games, role play and skill mastery activities they engage in, children also create free-flow, spontaneous, improvised movement explorations through which they learn about their body, themselves and the world. We felt this was so important we started to explore Movement Play Areas in the indoor learning environment, to give it the value and focus it deserves.
We were quickly struck by the high levels of wellbeing children seemed to experience there - and we wanted to know more.
Learning from the Leuven Scale
Within an extended research project we used the seven indicators of emotional wellbeing within the Leuven Scale to help us understand what was going on in more detail. They are:
Enjoyment without constraints
Openness and receptivity to others and the environment
Self-confidence and self-esteem
Relaxation and inner peace
Being in touch with oneself
What we learnt
There was a substantial increase in ‘high’ (4) and ‘extremely high’ (5) scores, when we compared general play and play in the Movement Play Area
The three areas of wellbeing which had the fewest high scores in general observations, showed the largest percentage increase in the Movement Play Area.These were self-confidence & self-esteem, relaxation & inner peace and being in touch with oneself.
The Movement Play Area was a place where children were going, within the learning environment, to experience and grow the highest levels of wellbeing.
Specific aspects of wellbeing
The fact that vitality showed the lowest score in general observations and the greatest increase in the Movement Play Area gave us pause for thought. Is this because we often strive to create ‘calm’ indoor environments, separating off more exuberant behaviours? ‘Go outside to let off steam’ we say. But children benefit greatly when they can move full-on inside, as well as outside. A carefully created, small Movement Play Area - with rules and support that make it safe for everyone - easily allows this. Placing a Movement Play Area within your continuous provision means that vitality and exuberance can happily co-exist with the kind of focus needed for other kinds of involvement and learning.
Enjoyment without constraints
Most children experience regular adult constraint around their movement. We do it for very good reasons, like safety and other people’s comfort. And sometimes because it seems like better play room/classroom management?
Having a place where children can move entirely as their body suggests, and adults really value and support it, is different. Then children are free to experience enjoyment without constraint - either the constraint of an adult or self-imposed constraint, because they quickly learn which kinds of movement we genuinely respect and which we don’t.
Back to the Body
Vera is lying on her back, arms above her head, kicking her legs in the air. After a while she wriggles closer to the wall and rest her feet against it, then bang, bangs the soles of her feet against its firm surface. Over and over. Vera knows that Jodie (her key worker) is watching. After a while she squirms her head round to look at her. ‘I see you’ says Jodie smiling. And Vera resumes her foot work, smiling too.
When children know they can move as they want, wallowing in that movement with no external aims or goals except the ones they set for themselves - and follow that movement wherever it might take them - they develop ways to check in with themselves, build comfort, safety and self-knowledge, and deep joy in their moving body.
These are such positive aspects of wellbeing and they are entirely led by the child.
Openness & receptivity to others and the environment / Flexibility
So much social play happens in the Area. Children meet in movement and build relationships using rich and potent language - non-verbal language. The very nature of movement, and the small space, supports an openness to each other that may not be so available in other aspects of the learning environment.
But not all children come into the Area able, or ready, to be open, receptive or flexible. Some need to become open and receptive to themselves first, before they can be open and receptive to others. Their wellbeing is centred here, with their own body and their own feelings and the movement that supports them.
Back to the Body
Nettie creeps on to the edge of the mat and curls up on all fours. She is still - only her breath creates movement in a little curl and extends from her centre. This is where she wants to be just now. Focused on herself and no-one else.
Carlo runs into the Area shouting ‘I’m a big Dino’ and roars at the two children already playing there as he runs by. Mykyta, new to nursery and without much English, roars back and runs after him. They run together, then Jaden joins too and they run and run, then fall to the floor and roll on top of each other.
This space allows them to explore at their own pace. In their own way, without the added complexity of words.
When wellbeing is low
As we continue to observe Movement Play Areas we also see many children seek it out when their wellbeing is low or extremely low. This is a place to find and rebuild themselves and start again.
Back to the body
When meltdown threatened, Mattie (4) learnt to take himself to the Area, lie down and roll. And roll and roll. Whole-bodied, big rolling that started with flailing limbs and ended with a restored containment. Clever Mattie. Within a few minutes he would be ready to face the day again. He found out for himself that this is what he needed. It wasn’t an adult intervention. The adults created the space, and valued children’s work there. He knew what to do.
So how can we use the physical development curriculum to set up foundations for high levels of wellbeing?
Noticing the importance of Movement Play as a kind of physical engagement all of its own - and supporting it alongside other kinds of learning - has a very positive effect on wellbeing.
A Movement Play Area is one way to support this. We’ve created an on-line course to share practical experience from lots of settings who have been running Areas for years. Find it here. Together we have found some simple dos and don’ts that make a real difference to how effective it is.
And we’ll tell you more about Movement Play as an aspect of the curriculum in future blogs.