Early childhood centres: Making physical literacy the norm

At Mount Royal University’s Child Development Lab, students in the Early Childhood program are learning to play like children again. And play is serious business. After all, it’s an essential learning tool in early childhood education.

Mount Royal’s Dawne Clark has written and spoken extensively on the importance of play in the early years, and she has also connected play-based learning with early physical literacy. The science shows that early movement is essential for the healthy development of our children’s brains and motor coordination, as well as long term confidence in physical activity, so it just makes sense that physical literacy should be a part of early childhood education.

But Clark and others find there are challenges to making it happen.

“Sometimes the challenge is physical in terms of space and the types of equipment and materials available, and sometimes there are policy barriers,” says Professor Clark. “Sometimes the education of early childhood educators (ECE) is the challenge, and sometimes it’s the educator’s own background and experiences.”

Requirements for active play

In relation to policy, different Canadian provinces and territories stipulate different requirements concerning physical activity and physical literacy in early childhood centres.

“For example, the province of Ontario requires that early childhood centres have an outdoor play area, and children in care must spend a minimum of two hours each day outdoors,” she explains. “British Columbia also has requirements how much time children need to be outside.

“Meanwhile in Alberta, we have a policy requirement that there must be an outdoor space accessible to all children, but there is no requirement that the children actually have to go out there every day.”

Policy around injury prevention

Another significant barrier is conflicting policy around safety and injury prevention. While parents, educators, and policy makers all agree that children need to be active in their early years, each party has different ideas on what constitutes safe or appropriate activity.

“Parents are comfortable putting their children in skiing, hockey, soccer, or other sports where there may be injury, but they view childcare as a place where children should not be exposed to risk,” says Professor Clark.

Many ECE workers also worry about injury, and licensing agencies often fuel their fears with safety policies that almost negate the possibility of any movement. For example, while different education and health groups currently promote active outdoor play and adventurous “risky” play for children, many government policy agencies are in fact moving in the opposite direction.

“We are finding that there is confusion about how policies from Child Care Licensing and Alberta Health Services should be implemented”, she continues, “so ECEs run into challenges with the kinds of play opportunities they can provide for children when there is any possibility of an incident.”

Training of early childhood educators

A more fundamental challenge is the education and training of early childhood educators in relation to physical literacy. Education curricula and requirements for ECEs vary significantly across Canada, and few programs have acknowledged the need for regular physical activity, much less physical literacy.

“There are very few ECE training programs across the country that have a concentrated focus on physical literacy and outdoor play,” says Professor Clark. “It’s simply not a part of the standard curriculum.”

Even the basic general education and training requirements for ECEs tends to be quite low across Canada. This presents further challenges to promoting physical literacy in the early years.

“Ontario and British Columbia are stars in terms of the amount of education that they require before an ECE can work in a childcare centre with children, and Quebec is good as well,” she says. “The other provinces have lower requirements. For example, in Alberta, you just need a 50-hour online orientation course and you can start working in childcare as an assistant.”

Certainly, a 50-hour online course will not provide an adequate grounding in physical literacy. But there’s an additional twist. In much of Canada, a disproportionate number of new Canadians enter the childcare field because it’s so easy to get certified, and they often come from cultural backgrounds where physical activity is viewed as less important than reading and writing — or outright inappropriate in the case of girls and women. In Alberta, more than half of childcare workers are new Canadians.

“Consequently we have educators in our centres who themselves are not physically literate,” says Professor Clark. “Physical activity wasn’t supported in their own childhood, so they’re not comfortable catching balls or climbing. They don’t understand why it should be important for children. As well, most of them haven’t come from countries as cold as Canada, so they might not even know how to play in snow.”

Facilities and play spaces

Early childhood centres need appropriate indoor and outdoor play spaces to promote active play, and this presents another set of challenges. In many early childhood centres, the indoor spaces are too small and constricted for physical activity, and often they are deliberately designed to limit active movement. For example, due to safety concerns, play rooms are often set up to eliminate straight pathways where children might be tempted to run.

Getting physical literacy into childcare

According to Professor Clark, getting physical literacy into early childhood centres will come down to three things: Policy pieces such as standards of practice for active play, education of ECEs, and ongoing support to centres and ECEs though resources and mentoring.

“Once the policy pieces are in place, we need to make sure that the ECEs who are charged with implementing those policies have the education to understand what those policies look like,” says Clark. “That comes both with pre-service training, such as our early childhood education programs, and in-service training for those who are already working in the field.

“The in-service piece is very challenging. The current model is often to go out and provide a one-shot workshop, but we know workshops are not effective. You can’t change attitudes and behaviors enough in a three-hour or one-day workshop to make actual change in the play room.”

To this end, Clark and others are looking at ways to improve training in the field, including an ongoing mentorship program where trainers go into centres to support the ECEs.

“Then we need to make simple resources available,” concludes Clark. “Not only simple activities that require very little in terms of space or equipment or preparation, but also guidance on how to fit those activities into the larger holistic development of children. How do you relate a physical literacy activity to the world of the child? Well, if we’re doing an activity about balancing, we might talk about squirrels and how they run up and down trees and along branches. How do they do that? How do they balance? And then we can move into books and art activities that connect the balancing activity with a larger curriculum.”

Making physical literacy a standard part of early childhood education will require coordinated effort. However, given the importance of physical activity to our children’s health, it’s a goal worth building towards.

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