Technical Appendix


Physical development approaches aim to improve young children’s physical growth, skills and health. Activities in this area may be focused on a particular aspect of physical development, e.g. fine motor skills related to writing, or be more general, for instance, encouraging active outdoor play.

Exercise and physical activity are important aspects of young children’s development, particularly in terms of their physical growth and health. Exercise and physical activity also contribute to children’s social and cognitive development and their learning more broadly. There are a range of approaches to physical activity and development in early years education from outdoor play and gross motor activity, perhaps involving play and climbing equipment or toys and games, to indoor opportunities for movement and dance exercises, ring games and or other aerobic activity.

This strand focuses specifically on the relationship between physical development approaches and learning. However, it is important to note that in many cases early learning is not the primary focus of the approaches covered. Although in some cases physical development interventions are introduced with a specific learning aim (e.g. the use of number lines to promote ‘number sense’ or movement and vocabulary learning), in many cases early learning outcomes are secondary to physical development itself, to a variety of physical and mental health outcomes, or the relationship between physical development and cognition (regardless of learning outcomes).

Search Terms: physical activity; outdoor/indoor exercise; physical education; PE programs

Evidence Rating

The evidence indicates that greater physical activity is associated with improvements in cognitive performance. However, it is difficult to distinguish between enhancement of performance on cognitive tests after exercise from the longer-term contribution of physical activity and exercise on children’s learning, particularly in terms of impact on academic outcomes. One study suggests the effects of physical activity are mediated by self-regulation. There is one meta-analysis on the relationship between physical activity and cognition in children, but this has relatively few studies to support causal effects. Overall there are only a handful of well-controlled intervention studies undertaken with young children to demonstrate that approaches which focus on physical development and exercise can improve learning. Evidence about the impact of physical development approaches is considered to be limited due to the weak nature of the available data.

Additional Cost Information

The provision of outdoor space and play equipment can be expensive, but these are not essential for physical activity and exercises. Overall the costs are estimated as low.


Becker, D. R., McClelland, M. M., Loprinzi, P., & Trost, S. G
Physical activity, self-regulation, and early academic achievement in preschool children open_in_new
Early Education & Development, 25(1), 56-70
Carlson, S. A., Fulton, J. E., Lee, S. M., Maynard, L. M., Brown, D. R., Kohl III, H. W., & Dietz, W. H
Physical education and academic achievement in elementary school: data from the early childhood longitudinal study open_in_new
American Journal of Public Health, 98(4), 721-727
Sibley, B. A., & Etnier, J. L (Abstract arrow_downward)
The relationship between physical activity and cognition in children: a meta-analysis open_in_new
Pediatric Exercise Science, 15(3), 243-256
Strong, W. B., Malina, R. M., Blimkie, C. J., Daniels, S. R., Dishman, R. K., Gutin, B. & Trudeau, F
Evidence based physical activity for school-age youth open_in_new
The Journal of Pediatrics, 146(6), 732-737
Timmons, B. W., LeBlanc, A. G., Carson, V., Connor Gorber, S., Dillman, C., Janssen, I., & Tremblay, M. S.
Systematic review of physical activity and health in the early years (aged 0–4 years) open_in_new
Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, 37(4), 773-792
Tomporowski, P. D., Davis, C. L., Miller, P. H., & Naglieri, J. A
Exercise and children’s intelligence, cognition, and academic achievement open_in_new
Educational Psychology Review, 20(2), 111-131
Zach, S., Inglis, V., Fox, O., Berger, I., & Stahl, A
The effect of physical activity on spatial perception and attention in early childhood open_in_new
Cognitive Development, 36, 31-39

Summary of effects

Meta-analyses Effect size FSM effect size
Sibley, B. A., & Etnier, J. L, (2003)
0.4 -
Single Studies Effect size FSM effect size
Becker, D. R., McClelland, M. M., Loprinzi, P., & Trost, S. G (2014)
-0.10 - Maths
-0.59 - Emergent literacy
Mears, B. S (2001)
0.78 - Letter sound association
1.75 - Sight word recognition
Zach, S., Inglis, V., Fox, O., Berger, I., & Stahl, A (2015)
0.59 - Spatial perception
Effect size (median) 0.20  

The right hand column provides detail on the specific outcome measures or, if in brackets, details of the intervention or control group.

Meta-analyses abstracts

Sibley, B. A., & Etnier, J. L (2003)

The purpose of this study was to quantitatively combine and examine the results of studies pertaining to physical activity and cognition in children. Studies meeting the inclusion criteria were coded based on design and descriptive characteristics, subject characteristics, activity characteristics, and cognitive assessment method. Effect sizes (ESs) were calculated for each study and an overall ES and average ESs relative to moderator variables were then calculated. ESs (n = 125) from 44 studies were included in the analysis. The overall ES was 0.32 (SD = 0.27), which was significantly different from zero. Significant moderator variables included publication status, subject age, and type of cognitive assessment. As a result of this statistical review of the literature, it is concluded that there is a significant positive relationship between physical activity and cognitive functioning in children.