The Decline in Play & Movement in the Early Years and its Impact on Learning

17th January 2020

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Written by Helen Hawes, Director, Sporty Futures

There is a common belief amongst experienced professionals in education that more and more children, regardless of economic background, are lacking basic physical skills needed for every day tasks at home and in the classroom.  Teachers are reporting more children are unable to perform simple tasks such as holding a pencil correctly, putting on coats independently and using cutlery effectively.

Is this a common misconception, or are our children less physically capable than they used to be?

To perform such seemingly easy daily tasks, children must first possess a set of fundamental physical skills, which are developed through movement and play. Some are lesser known than others, and are often not recognised or addressed in education, yet without them, academic success is hugely impeded.

Bilateral coordination, for example, is where both sides of the body are able to coordinate to perform a task such as using a knife and fork or tying shoe laces. Without effective bilateral coordination, a child will struggle to hold a sheet of paper with one hand and write with the other.  Horizontal visual tracking is essential for fluent reading while effective vertical visual tracking enables a child to align columns in maths and judge heights needed for tasks such as stepping onto a moving roundabout.

There is a whole list of essential foundation skills for learning that many children appear to struggle with.  For now though, I want to focus solely on hand grip strength as it is a key player in hand writing and an easy skill to spot if a child is affected.

A comparative study of millennials, published by The Journal of Hand Therapy, found “Strength scores were statistically lower than older normative data in all millennial grip strengths, with the exception of the women in the age group of 30-34 years.”

A study by Dublin City University argues that children at the age of 13 are struggling to perform basic physical skills that were once mastered by many 6 year olds. Meanwhile, Professor Roger Kneebone of Imperial College, London states his students simply don’t have the manual dexterity required for sewing patients up after operations!!!

Sally Payne, head paediatric occupational therapist for the Heart of England foundation NHS trust, notes that children are entering school with less hand strength and dexterity than they were 10 years ago.  In addition, many occupational therapists report to be receiving more referrals than ever before for children with poor hand strength.

Such evidence would support the belief that more children are indeed struggling to acquire essential skills required for learning.

Why are we seeing this decline in hand strength and other fundamental skills?

Children develop these essential skills through play and movement.  In a recent article by the Guardian newspaper, Sally Payne was reported to have said the nature of play had changed,

“It’s easier to give a child an iPad than encouraging them to do muscle-building play such as building blocks, cutting and sticking, or pulling toys and ropes. Because of this, they’re not developing the underlying foundation skills they need to grip and hold a pencil.”

Whilst the nature of play has changed, children are also less active too, but why? wordle

The result?

  • Increasing numbers of children who are overweight and obese
  • Higher percentage of children presenting poorer physical skills
  • Increase in sensory issues
  • More children struggling with focus and attention
  • Increase in anxiety in children


There’s a huge national focus around falling childhood activity levels and the detrimental impact to health, but as educators, we need to recognise the significance movement has on learning too.

In her book, Assessing Neuromotor Readiness for Learning, Sally Goddard Blythe writes “Growth and physical development are as important to education as they are to the field of developmental medicine but have been hugely overlooked by the education system….”

Why is this a problem for children, and schools?

Imagine being a child who experiences difficulties every single day with perceived simple tasks.  Each child is different, buy many will consequently show frequent frustration, give up easily on tasks, become disengaged in learning, display unwanted behaviours or rush to complete a task in the knowledge that they will tire quickly.

When we look at things from the child’s perspective, it is heart-breaking.  Yet often, little is done to address the real underlying causes of delays in learning.

So what can we do as professionals to support our children who struggle with pencil grasp, messy writing and fatigue?

Interventions have their place, and work for some children, but ideally, we want to avoid relying on strategies that may isolate children from their peers and become a big drain on staff time. How much more enjoyable would it be for everyone if children were entering year 2 with correct pencil grasp, able to produce neat and consistent written work over a sustained period without fatiguing?  This is easily achievable for most children……if we get it right in the early years.

The answer: let them play!

Think big:  hanging, swinging from monkey bars, pushing trikes, pulling ropes, lifting crates, rolling tyres, climbing and other activities to build on gross motor skills and strengthen the large muscle groups.

Think small: encourage activities that use the smaller muscles groups. Think LEGO, Play Doh, elastic bands, tweezers, straws, pipe cleaners, twisting bolts, peeling off stickers and other activities that require the hands to squeeze and pinch.

In a school where SLT aren’t sold on the idea of more play?  Consider how else you can facilitate opportunities to develop essential fundamental skills:

Active learning: get children out of their seats!  Do a crab walk to collect 3 numbers to make a specific target.  Doing phonics?  Ask children to use their bodies to make each letter or make letters out of play doh.  Even better, get them to lay on their tummies when making letters with play doh to work on core strength as well as hand grip strength, crossing the midline and bilateral coordination. Working with numbers?  Get children to rearrange themselves on a bench without touching the floor to create an accurate number line.

Personal plans: think of ways to help individual children work on their weaknesses in the classroom.  If a child struggles to sit straight comfortably in a chair, find an opportunity to work on core strength by having them sit up straight, knees bent, feet slightly off the floor and rotate to each side to pick up the correct letters to spell a word or place odd numbers at one side and evens at the other. They could also sit on a wobble cushion during circle time to improve core stability too. If they have poor hand strength, allow them to squeeze a stress ball during circle time.

Movement breaks: add in a short movement break every 30 minutes. Each one can have a different emphasis from core stability and wrist strength to visual tracking and crossing the midline.

Revise your PE curriculum:

  • Does it focus on developing fundamental skills such as hand strength, wrist stability, crossing the midline, bilateral coordination, core stability, visual tracking and such like?
  • Does it provide lots of opportunity to improve attention, balance and coordination; referred to as ‘The ABC of success’ by Sally Goddard Blythe
  • Does it challenge cardiovascular fitness, strength, speed and agility?
  • Does it provide opportunities for leadership and chance to develop a range of personal and social skills?

If your PE curriculum does not do ALL of the above, scrap it now!

Where to go from now?

Check if your children struggle as a result of weak hand grip strength, and then build in lots of opportunities throughout each day to improve. Here’s what to look out for:

  • children may complain of hand hurting or aching when colouring or attempting to write
  • children switch between pencil grasp patterns or use incorrect grasp
  • messy or illegible writing
  • children may rely on whole arm movement to colour
  • jagged rather than smooth lines when cutting with scissors
  • scissors are seen to slip off the fingers due to poor grip
  • general difficulty with fine motor skills required for fastening zips, buttons, threading laces and so on
  • pressure is very light when colouring and writing
  • difficulty handling small objects and manipulating small parts
  • struggle to open food packets, tops on water bottles and lids on lunch boxes

If your children are affected by poor hand grip strength, look out for the Sporty Futures ‘Hand strengthening guide’ for more practical ideas on how to help. For further information about essential skills for learning, follow us on Twitter. Sporty Futures are rebranding so keep your eyes peeled for the launch of the new website and a whole host of FREE resources and information posts.

In the meantime, please contact Helen Hawes on 07854 304881 to find out how she can help your children advance their physical skills for accelerated progress and improved behaviours.

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