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Child-centered teaching methods enhance early childhood physical education

Excerpted from Early Steps Physical Education Curriculum by Ian Pickup


The methods used by educators in early childhood have been the focus of considerable academic debate throughout the last century. Central to this debate has been the role of the teacher in bringing about learning and the extent to which learning is fully child-centred. Some theorists would argue that as soon as educators begin to plan learning, the focus of the lesson moves from being child-centred and spontaneous to one that is adult led and overstructured. This argument has come under sharp focus in recent years where physical education curricula have been designed to have an impact on the perceived obesity crisis and decreasing rates of physical activity among children. Such concerns, subject to significant media attention and policy rhetoric, together with a view that physical education is synonymous with sport, have led some theorists to question the underpinning rationale of physical education, particularly that which is delivered for young children. As Marsden and Weston (2007, p. 384) ask, “Should it not be the social, emotional, cultural and developmental needs of children themselves that provides the starting point from which to develop a philosophy for early year’s physical education?”

All early childhood educators should therefore take some time to reflect on their own underpinning rationale for physical education and their starting points for planning lessons. Sport, with its adult-relevant rules and regulations, competitive structures, tactics, and coaching, is not the best vehicle for teaching young children. A better starting point may be to build on the broader role of movement in the lives of children, using play and the seemingly natural desire of young children to move within interactive, collaborative, physical, and multisensory approaches to learning (Pickup, Haydn-Davies, & Jess, 2007, p. 9). To most early childhood professionals, the role of play and spontaneity is central to the learning process and is nonnegotiable. This viewpoint has been popularised by educational theorists from the 1800s to the present day and is one that gives value to the educative role of movement in the lives of young children. It is generally accepted that movement helps young children to engage actively with experiences, to construct their own views of the world (Bruner and Haste, 1987), and to take an active, inventive role in reconstructing tasks through their own understanding (Smith, 1993). The educator must therefore aim to build on this and facilitate learning in physical education that

  • is in keeping with a holistic and thematic approach to education;
  • is developmentally appropriate for each child, taking account of social, physical, cognitive, and affective domains;
  • allows for spontaneity and child-centred activity; and
  • is not overly dependent on teacher intervention.

The skilful educator must develop a keen awareness of each child’s learning needs and choose appropriate, relevant, and purposeful teaching methods to support learning. This is complex, not least because each child is unique and a variety of anatomical, physiological, psychological, sociological, and cultural dimensions can influence the learning process in physical education. The methods used by the educator will also be shaped by curriculum frameworks that for many years have assumed that children simply learn physical skills naturally through their play. This viewpoint, advocated by psychologists in the 1920s (see, for example, the work of Arnold Gessell, 1928), has since been criticised by observers who suggest that children are simply not developing the range of physical skills required for lifelong involvement in physical activity (Jess, Dewar, & Fraser, 2004). Advocates of this lifelong approach to physical education stress the importance of developing a broad range of physical skills in childhood, allowing increased specificity and application to a wide range of activities across the life span. The early years are generally thought to be a critical time for the development of fundamental motor skills, and it would appear that for many children, the maturation and subsequent application of such skills is being left almost to chance.

Approaches to early childhood physical education vary enormously from country to country and raise many questions regarding appropriate strategies for the teacher to employ. The approach advocated in this chapter builds on early childhood educators’ existing knowledge and understanding, values the role of skilful observation and task design, and is based on methods that sit within holistic views of early childhood education. In particular, the methods discussed are strategies through which the educator can ensure that learning in physical education remains in “the exploratory world of early childhood . . . allowing for the child to develop skills at their own pace through provision of opportunity” (Marsden & Weston, 2007, p. 390).

This is an excerpt from Early Steps Physical Education Curriculum.



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