Increase in physical activity in the first few years

A new study by researchers at the University of Canberra found that three- and four-year-olds increased their total daily physical activity by 28 minutes and moderate to vigorous physical activity by 16 minutes.

According to the findings published in the International magazine of behavioral nutrition and physical activity, a program supported by peer coaches, helped early childhood educators integrate physical activity into their daily routine and existing curriculum.

In today’s Q&A, lead author and Senior Research Fellow Dr. Rohan Telford of the University of Canberra’s Institute of Sport and Exercise Research (UCRISE) and Professor Dick Telford of UCRISE the Active Spring Study (AEL), which children participated in, how they talked about how the study was done, some of the key findings, and what it means physical literacy for the development of primary school entrance qualification.

Why did you decide to do this study in the first place? What were your main goals?

The importance of physical activity for our physical and emotional wellbeing is well known. But in the 21st century, physical activity is often being taken from everyday life, so we need to find ways to reintroduce it. This applies to small children who are not immune to a lack of exercise.

There is compelling evidence that early childhood is a critical time in our lives, with the possibility of developing early habits around regular physical activity that are likely to have a positive impact on lifelong physical activity practices. The aim of our research was therefore to design and evaluate a program that would encourage the development of these early habits and increase the physical activity of children in early intervention centers.

How did you go about conducting this study? Who was involved and how were they selected to participate?

One way to positively influence physical activity behavior is to develop physical competence at an early stage. A physically educated child has the basic movement skills, motivation, and confidence to seek and enjoy a physically active lifestyle.

At the request of the owners of Edge Early Learning, Harmony Early Learning Journey, and Petit Early Learning in southeast Queensland and north New South Wales, our team at the University of Canberra developed a physical literacy program for early childhood educators and conducted a randomized controlled trial by. to see how effective it was.

We recruited 16 of the above centers to conduct a randomized controlled trial. Eight centers received the program for six months, and the remaining eight centers continued their usual practice as a control group. To determine the impact of the program, we compared the changes in the two groups in terms of the children’s physical activity and competence, staff assessment and interaction with the children, and the general environment of the center.

Who was the peer coach and what was his job?

The peer coach in our study, previously unknown to the research team, was recruited from the area in which the study took place. The successful applicant had previous experience of running exercise programs for children in childcare facilities and non-profit organizations. Her role as coach was to listen, teach, support, and provide resources and activities to educators; do so with flexibility and sensitivity so that educators receive educational, rewarding and enjoyable professional development while completing the AEL program.

Can you explain how the peer coach helped educators integrate physical activity into their daily routine and existing curriculum?

The AEL program consists of a series of activities and experiences that promote physical competence. The peer coach visited each center of the study once a week for up to three hours to guide the educators in introducing the program in four components; Group / mat time and transitions, movement education, interdisciplinary movement education and promotion of challenging free play.

The coach was previously trained by the research staff in strategies to help educators embed these daily activities into their routine and to guide educators to think about and improve the way they support children in developing physical competence.

To what extent did this study help educators to develop children’s physical competence? And why is the development of physical competence in childhood so important?

The program motivated and supported educators to incorporate specially designed new activities and experiences into their daily routines aimed at physical competence. We can summarize why, in view of the established principles of child development that show that physical, social, emotional, and cognitive development is interactive, it is important to aim for physical literacy in young children; that the best development of each of these traits occurs alongside the development of the others.

Let’s go over some of the key findings. First, what were they? But also, how do they contribute to the existing literature on the subject?

Our first publication from the randomized controlled study showed that implementing the AEL program increased the children’s total daily physical activity by approximately 28 minutes while visiting their ECEC center. This finding has practical relevance when considered in conjunction with the physical activity guidelines for preschool children. The current World Health Organization recommendation for physical activity for preschoolers is at least 180 minutes per day, of which at least 60 minutes should be vigorous play.

The AEL program has made a significant contribution to achieving the WHO recommendations. Importantly, preliminary, yet-to-be-released evidence also shows that the benefits weren’t limited to physical activity. Improvements in expressive vocabulary and impulse control showed that the AEL approach to physical literacy has broader benefits that extend to the social and psychological aspects of learning that are so important to primary school development.

What practical strategies could educators working in early childhood settings or in schools learn from reading this study?

There are several key takeaways for both center educators and center managers / owners. For educators, our study underscores the importance of their work and shows that by making small daily changes and introducing AEL activities into their daily routine, they can have a major impact on children’s physical competence and levels of physical activity. Our current study in early intervention centers, as well as our previous research in schools, also shows that working with a coach or mentor is an effective strategy for teachers to improve their competence and ability to develop children’s physical literacy.

The lesson for center directors and owners is that investing in supporting educators improves their classroom practice and routine in this area, which in turn increases children’s physical activity – and this can affect their physical activity and thus their health for life.

The AEL program was designed and evaluated by the University of Canberra and is currently being delivered to early childhood education centers across Australia by the Australian College of Physical literacy (ACPL).


Telford, RM, Olive, LS, & Telford, RD (2021). A peer coach intervention in day care centers promotes physical activity in early childhood: the randomized controlled trial of the Active Early Learning (AEL) cluster. International magazine of behavioral nutrition and physical activity, 18th(1), 1-11.

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