4. Improving Opportunities for Physical Play

Teaching Challenge

The lack of self-control in Sam, an overly active four-year-old boy.


Strategy: Creating a fitness center in the classroom.

Context: The action research took place over one semester in a college campus day care center classroom with 4-5 year old children. Full day care was provided for families that worked at the college (custodians, professors and other staff), students attending the college and families that worked in the local community. During the action research, there were 16-18 children in the class, a lead educator, an assistant teacher, a teacher candidate, and a team leader.


  1. The fitness center provided opportunities for Sam’s physical needs to be met.
  2. Sam exercised more self-control over his physical movement.
  3. Sam achieved greater control when there was a purpose to his movement, e.g., moving to the beat of music.
  4. Sam also showed greater self-control when he modeled physical movement for other children to copy.
  5. Other social, emotional, and cultural factors outside of the fitness center affected Sam’s overly active behavior.
  6. Sam commonly chose to use the center as his first activity of the morning before other children arrived in the setting.
  7. Over time, Sam’s ability to control his own behavior without educators’ support improved.
  8. With the addition of the fitness center, Sam’s controlled behaviors were nearly twice as frequent as his uncontrolled behaviors.
  9. Sam’s relationships with other children and with educators also improved with the addition of the center.
  10. Relationships between Sam’s mother and the educators improved with the addition of the fitness center.
  11. Educators recognized that the fitness center provided opportunities for Sam’s and for other children’s, physical developmental needs to be met.
  12. Educators repurposed the fitness center so that Sam could use it as a self-regulation tool. This helped him use his energy so that he could focus on other activities.
  13. Educators were not aware that the fitness center provided social, emotional and intellectual learning opportunities that supported children’s development and learning of content.

Even as this guide defined areas for improvement, the effort to improve had a complementary, or almost parallel, impact on the teacher candidates and their young charges. Everyone involved benefited. This point will be illustrated again and again as we revisit the case studies that emerged in the ELC.

Educators Identify the Teaching Challenge

Fig 4.1: The teaching challenge ~ Sam’s overly active behavior

During the first team meeting, educators identified their teaching challenge as coping with the lack of self-control in the overly active behavior of a 4-year-old boy we will call “Sam.” To investigate the teaching challenge further, the teacher candidate video-taped the boy’s physical play. Educators watched the videotape during the second week’s team meeting. As with other case studies the same action research protocol was followed.

Accommodating Sam’s high energy level was a daily challenge. The team described Sam as a “lovable whirlwind” who was constantly on the move and unable to remain still. Educators reported the whole classroom was affected by his behavior, and wherever he went, chaos ensued. He used materials in play areas inappropriately. His most purposeful play was in the literacy area when he played with toy trains made available there.

Coping with Sam’s uncontrolled physical movements was exhausting for educators. They described him as impulsive and incapable of controlling his own body. He often used his whole body inappropriately to communicate and participate in play. He twirled round and round in circles, used karate chops, kicked his feet, and threw toys around the room. He would “flop” around at circle and lunch times when he was very near other children. Sam accidentally collided with other children. He was sorry when these accidents happened, but was unable to control his physical behavior to suit the classroom conditions around him. Educators reported that each day, Sam slept between 1:00 PM and 3:00 PM. As he lay down, his body collapsed beneath him, and as he fell asleep, he would yell out and “flop around like a fish out of water.”

Educators were concerned about maintaining a safe environment for other children. They held Sam to stop him from running in circles and presenting a physical danger to others. Safety in the classroom was a high concern for educators. Sam was a popular child and other children wanted to copy his high-energy play. However, children complained when Sam hit them accidentally. Teaching Sam self-control strategies was absolutely necessary. He was not to run in the classroom because it was dangerous to others. He had learned when the teacher said “voice,” he was to lower his own voice and calm down. Sam’s “hyper-kinetic behavior” compelled educators to introduce more structure into his daily routine to control his behavior.

Team Values Regarding Physical Development

Educators expected young children to be physically active, but they (correctly) considered Sam’s level of physical activity to be excessive. His frenetic movement was a hazard to other children. After several years in the setting (he had been there since he was an infant) educators expected Sam to have gained some control over his movements. Control strategies were important because, if followed, they could help him manage his body movements—both now and in kindergarten, where behavioral expectations would be greater. Educators judged Sam’s most purposeful play, as when he played quietly with trains in the literacy area.

The participants wondered whether Sam’s busy home life had affected his behavior. He spent 45 hours each week in a childcare setting. Sam’s family had moved into the area and was assimilating into a new culture. He was well mannered, respectful to others, and was already reading at a 1st grade level. Educators wondered if Sam was under pressure to fit in with new routines, unfamiliar cultural norms, and expectations for academic achievement.

Educators were also confused by the philosophy of Sam’s preschool. On the one hand, this child was offered free-choice in his play, but on the other hand, Sam needed more structure to help him function appropriately in the classroom. Educators stated that Sam was an able child and a natural leader. They felt he would excel in the more structured kindergarten environment.

Aims of the Action Research

The aims of this action research were to: (1) accommodate Sam’s highly active physical development needs; (2) improve indoor physical play opportunities in the setting; (3) more closely align physical development opportunities with NAEYC Standards for Early Childhood Professional Preparation Programs (2009); (4) provide teacher candidates with a Practicum field experience that was consistent with NAEYC Standards (2009) regarding physical provision and (5) improve teacher candidates’ opportunities to plan and implement physical play in line with NAEYC Standards (2009).

Alignment with NAEYC Standards

The importance of teacher candidates supporting children’s physical development was emphasized in NAEYC Standards (2009) Standard 1: Promoting Child Development and Learning.

Two elements of Standard 1 were relevant to supporting children’s physical development. In Standard 1a: early childhood practice was based on a sound knowledge and understanding of young children’s integrated areas of development, including physical, cognitive, social, emotional, language, and aesthetic development. In Standard 1c: using developmental knowledge to create healthy, respectful, supportive, and challenging learning environments to promote young children’s physical and psychological health, their safety and sense of security. In Standard 5(c): Using Content Knowledge to Build Meaningful Curriculum, candidates design, implement, and evaluate curricula for each child in the following content areas: physical, language, arts, math, science, physical education, health, safety and social studies.

Baseline Assessment

At the start of the project, a 20-minute video was recorded to form a baseline assessment of the teaching challenge. A checklist devised by educators (see table 4.1) was used to record the nature and frequency of Sam’s physical movements.

Teaching Challenge Frequencies
Moves whole body 12
Body is uncontrolled 13
Accidentally hits children 6
High energy level unused 6
Flops around 3
Is impulsive 6
Runs in circles 2
Other children unsafe 8
Plays without focus 12
Play is not sustained 8
Uses materials inappropriately 15
Table 4.1: A baseline assessment of the teaching challenge

Ninety-one examples of physical movement in 11 categories were observed. The video showed that Sam was constantly active and quickly moved between play areas. He moved in and between the discovery, house, block, library, and lunch table. His body movements were highly physical as he jumped in the air, twisted his torso, knelt down under tables, reached to get materials off shelves and placed them in cupboards. He repeatedly threw a cup with a ball in it into the air and let it fall to the floor. He upended tornado bottles filled with colored water to see the helix move from top to bottom.

Fig. 4.2: Sam on the trampoline in the fitness center

Sam’s erratic movement resulted in his colliding with other children. He stood astride in a karate pose and jumped toward them. For several minutes, he pretended to empty a teapot over another child’s head saying, “The yellow is the hottest.” He followed this pronouncement by throwing the teapot into the air. Sam impulsively took trains from other children and threw them down on the floor. Other children were sometimes hurt when Sam lurched into them and forcibly took their toys away.

The video revealed to the team a lack of purpose in Sam’s play. Rarely did his movements possess any obvious reason, and he did not develop his play into a meaningful sequence. Apart from when he played attentively with trains in the literacy center, Sam’s play consisted of using materials in haphazard ways. The team reflected that although Sam was highly physical and intellectually able, he did not purposefully plan or regulate his own free play.

Selected Literature

Using key words for appropriate, the teacher candidate and college librarian searched for applicable articles. The following journal articles were selected for the team to read and to identify strategies that would help them manage Sam’s physical movements in ways that promoted self-control:

(1) McCall, R. M., & Craft, D.H., (2000). Moving with a purpose: developing programs for preschoolers of all abilities. Champaign, IL. Human Kinetics.

(2) King, M., with Gartrell D. (2003). Building an encouraging classroom with boys in mind. Young Children 58 (4): 33-36.

(3) Leppo, M.L., Davis, D., Crim, B. (2000). The basics of exercising the mind and body. Young Children 78(3): 142-147.

(4) Pica, R. (2006). Physical fitness & the early childhood curriculum. Young Children, 61(3): 12-19.

The article by King with Gartrell (2003) was thought highly relevant to the teaching challenge. It was full of practical suggestions for physical education in the classroom. The strategy required the team to: (1) create a fitness center in the classroom that would provide Sam with physical opportunities to use his energy and learn self-control; (2) add some structure to free-play time, especially first thing in the morning to help Sam during a difficult transition time.

Educators assessed the strategy as developmentally appropriate for 4-year-olds when they read in Wood (2007) that they were,

capable of almost non-stop physical gymnastics, when much learning is transmitted through the large muscles and when parents and educators need vast amounts of energy to keep up with these young dynamos (p. 47-49).

In preparation for the assembly of the fitness center, educators scouted out and procured many appropriate physical education materials. These included bean bags, a tunnel, a balance beam, a rainbow mat, a trampoline, bar, trestle table, music and movement tapes, and, an obstacle course. The team was concerned about the lack of space in the classroom. They decided to close the house area temporarily and set up a fitness center in that space.

Implementation of the Strategy: First Stage

The physical center was completed, and a 20-minute video was recorded two weeks later of Sam using the space. As educators watched the video they created a checklist (see table 4.2 below) of ten areas of desirable physical behavior that they wanted Sam to exhibit. The checklist enabled educators to record the frequency of Sam’s desirable physical behaviors, and analyze the results, giving them the means to assess the impact of the strategy on Sam’s physical behavior.

Desirable physical behaviors Frequencies
Moves appropriately for situation 5
Moves purposefully 8
Moves calmly 5
Maintains reasonable space between himself and others 2
Energy used constructively 2
Movement is controlled 2
Environment is safe for others 2
Plays with focus 2
Play is sustained 2
Uses materials purposefully 3
Table 4.2: Checklist used to analyze videos and to assess the impact of the strategy

Team reflection after video is viewed:

  • Is the strategy working? How?
  • Is the original teaching challenge being improved upon? How?
  • Is children’s learning improving? How?
  • Is your understanding of your teaching changing? How?
  • Is your teaching changing? How?

Video Specifics

While using the fitness center, Sam demonstrated 33 examples of desirable physical behaviors in ten areas. In comparison with the baseline assessment, Sam showed more self-control in his movement. The video showed the team that he acted in ways that were more suited to the classroom situation he was in. For example, while on the trampoline, he bounced in time to music. He jumped and ran across the floor to the beat of music. He moved rhythmically to music as he “swam like a goldfish.” Following music and movement instruction, he mimed cleaning his teeth. He calmly sat on a chair to put his shoes on. With another child, he lay quietly on the floor, waiting for his turn to go on the trampoline again, and then to work on the computer. He maintained a reasonable space between himself and other children, and on only one occasion, was he reminded to “keep his hands to himself.”

Sam used his energy purposefully as he took his shoes off and raised his hand in anticipation of going back on the trampoline. His physical movements showed greater control and poise as he jumped high and upright and alternated his body weight from side to side. He jumped and kicked his legs out sideways like a gymnast. Sam moved backwards and forwards on the trampoline. He jumped off the back of the trampoline, away from other children, showing an awareness of other children’s safety.

Team Reflections

The team was positive about the impact of the physical fitness center. The provision of high quality indoor physical play was increased and improved. Sam’s highly active physical and developmental needs were met in ways that helped him regulate his behavior. Although the physical fitness center was intended primarily for Sam, it was popular among all of the children. Educators liked how materials that had been stored idly by in the cupboard were now being used. This added to the range of materials made available to all of the children, but because of limited space in the classroom, neither all materials, nor all play areas, could be used at the same time.

Educators reported that the original teaching challenge was improved upon. Overall, Sam used the fitness center appropriately. He repeated the activities often and, apart from him kicking his feet in the tunnel, he moved with purpose.

Sam’s learning in the area of physical development was improving. He was calmer and concentrated well. Educators noticed his creative movement and said he was “a great break-dancer and was very responsive to music.” When he followed instructions to “swim to the bottom of the ocean,” Sam showed purpose in his movement and his play was sustained. When Sam used the trampoline, he showed social progress. He accomplished this by encouraging other children to copy his movement and using materials as he did. He said, “Do what I did and make big strides.”

Educators reported how other factors, not recorded on the video, had also affected Sam’s behavior. They took into account that the implementation and impact of the strategy did not happen in isolation, but was affected by other contextual factors. When Sam was reported to be sick and emotionally upset, he was inclined to scream. He also threw tantrums, forgot his coat, and lost his video. Sam jabbed another child with a train. During these episodes, the classroom was not safe for other children. Educators commented that Sam’s apparent lack of proper rest made him tired, and this had resulted in his impulsive behavior. He had to be gently restrained so that other children could have a chance to toss the bean-bags. As a result, Sam’s presence in the fitness center had to be closely monitored by educators.

Fig 4.3: After using the fitness center, Sam regulates his own behavior

Educators reported how they had changed the purpose of the fitness center. It was no longer only used to accommodate Sam’s highly physical needs, but rather as a self-regulation tool to enable Sam to release his energy and calm down. Sam was then able to focus on other activities. One educator repeated what she had said to Sam, “I see that you have lots of energy. Do you need to throw some bean bags?” However, educators’ ability to determine the impact of the fitness center on Sam’s calmer behaviour was made easier than before.

Educators originally saw Sam’s physical activity in the fitness center as a way for him to expend his energy so that he could then participate in other activities. They viewed physical development as a separate area. While they saw that the fitness center provided opportunities for physical activity, they did not see how it simultaneously provided valuable active integrated learning opportunities, e.g., in math, literacy, and in science content areas. Educators’ comprehension of separate areas of development and discrete areas of content resulted in compartmentalized provision, in which some content areas were regarded as more important than others

Educators reported that using the fitness center as a self-regulation tool had made the classroom less stressful. They wanted to find out how often Sam used the fitness center to regulate his own behavior. Even though Sam suffered a set-back in his behavior, the team wanted to continue using the fitness center strategy because “all the kids, including Sam, loved it.” While educators clearly understood the value of physical activity in the curriculum, they were not motivated to provide it. They based their decision to provide these opportunities instead based upon children’s positive responses to the fitness center.

Fitness Center as a Self-Regulation Tool

Over the next week, educators counted the number of times Sam went, or was directed to go, to the fitness center. They used the tally as an indicator of his need to exercise self-control. Each day, for a six-day period, between 8:00 A.M. and 9:00 A.M., educators recorded the number of times Sam either chose, or was directed, to go to the fitness center. The following physical activities were available over the six days: hopscotch. Bean bag toss, football toss, rocking boat, and, magnetic darts. The results are shown in table 4.3.

6 Day Period Sent by Teacher Sam’s choice
Free Play 8:00 AM – 9:00 AM 1 8
Circle Time 9:00 AM -10:00 AM 2 0
Choice Box 10:00 AM -10:30 AM 1 4
Table 4.3: The frequency of Sam’s visits to the fitness center

The tally sheets showed that Sam chose to go to the fitness center eight times on his arrival in the morning during free-play. Sam chose to use the fitness center when few other children were in the classroom and more space was available. This suggested that, on arrival, Sam chose and preferred physical activities over other activities made available to him.

On four occasions, Sam chose the fitness center during choice box times. This was half as often as during free-play times. Again, Sam chose the fitness center when fewer children were around, and when more space was available for him to play.

On one occasion, during free-play time, an educator directed Sam to the fitness center to use his energy and to calm down. On two other occasions, an educator asked him if he needed to go to the fitness center, but he calmed down on his own. This suggested that Sam’s reasons for using the fitness center were different from those of the educators. Sam was motivated by his preference for physical activities, whereas educators saw the fitness center as a way for Sam to use up his energy, self-regulate and then apply himself to other activities.

Educators judged “great days” as those when they did not feel the need to direct Sam to the fitness center. On those days, he was purposefully engaged in other activities. The number of times that he chose to go to the fitness center decreased over the six-day period. Sam never went to the fitness center at all during social circle times. However, the ability to determine how his visits there resulted in calmer behavior was easier.

Team Meeting in Review

When educators reviewed the tally sheet, they commented that Sam no longer needed the fitness center to control his own behavior. Sam “loved the fitness center” and like other children, eagerly participated in the ball toss, beanbag toss, the rocking boat, and the magnetic darts. Sam chose the fitness center whenever he wanted to, and was no longer upset if it was not available to him. The fitness center was clearly a positive addition to the classroom because it provided integrated physical, social, language, intellectual, and emotional opportunities for all of the children, and especially Sam, for whom it was created.

While educators were aware of the physical development opportunities offered by the fitness center, they were less aware that other developmental areas were being supported at the same time. For example, when children counted the number of times they tossed beanbags into buckets, they were naturally exploring mathematical concepts in the fitness center. This explained why educators wanted Sam to be involved in other activities in other play area that to supported his comprehensive development and learning.

Team Reflection

Educators reported that the original teaching challenge was improved upon because Sam was calmer. He did not flail around as much and did not shout out as often. He was less physical and used his words more. Sam was less frustrated and was willing to try new things, including new foods at lunchtime. Educators said Sam had better self-control.

They also reported that Sam’s learning was improving. The fitness center promoted better relationships between Sam and the other children. He socialized with them more easily when he was less physical. There were fewer collisions and other children did not get hurt as often. There was less tattling about Sam because children did not need to run away from him. Educators’ response towards Sam was more positive as they were more relaxed and less frustrated by his behavior. Educators enjoyed seeing him smile and were able to share jokes with him. When Sam’s physical needs were met, educators’ relationships with both Sam and his mother improved greatly.

Regarding educators’ own professional development, their understanding of, and provision for, children’s physical developmental needs improved, and were important for children’s wellbeing. The video was a useful tool because it helped educators see what happened in the classroom. Events were so “in the moment” that educators could not always see what happened or what they meant. Educators said they had to take a different approach, and meet Sam’s physical needs in more integrated and developmentally-appropriate ways. This included regular use and allocation of sufficient space for gross-motor materials in the classroom. Educators realized they had to change their approach to meet Sam’s physical needs rather than expecting him to change his physical needs to meet their expectations about his learning and behavior.

Final Video

Fig 4.4: Sam engaged in calm purposeful play

A 20-minute video was recorded to show the impact of the fitness center on Sam’s physical behavior at four different times during the day: free-play, circle time, choice box, and morning message. A total of 64 positive behaviors were observed in 10 areas:

Desirable Strategy Outcomes Frequencies
Moves appropriately for situation 10
Moves purposefully 10
Moves calmly 10
Maintains reasonable space between himself and others 5
Energy used constructively 4
Movement is controlled 6
Environment is safe for others 4
Plays with focus 4
Play is sustained 5
Uses materials purposefully 6
Table 4.4: Video analysis to show impact of fitness center on Sam’s behavior

The fact that ten frequencies were recorded in each of the first three areas of the table suggested that the fitness center was effective in meeting Sam’s physical developmental needs. More examples of appropriate, purposeful, and calm physical play, showed that Sam was improving his ability to self-regulate. As a result, he demonstrated better use of space, energy, and control of movement which improved his focus, purpose, and sustained his play. There appeared to be a relationship between Sam’s purposeful use of materials, and his ability to control his own behavior. When Sam was engaged in physical activity, his play was focused and sustained. At these times, his energy was used constructively and he automatically maintained a reasonable space between himself and others. During the video, 36 examples of negative behaviors in eight categories were also observed. This was approximately half the number of positive outcomes observed, and suggested that Sam was able to regulate his behavior most of the time.

Teams’ Final reflective meeting

The team determined that the strategy was very successful in meeting Sam’s physical development needs. Sam now took part in physical activity each day apart from when he was overly tired. This resulted in him coping better in all aspects of the daily routine.

Sam did not jump around erratically as he had before. Sam’s better-controlled behavior had implications for the whole class because he was a play leader, and what he did had a ripple effect on others. Children no longer stepped back for fear of colliding with Sam.

Sam was described as more focused and stayed on one task longer. He was calmer and more in control of himself which improved his learning in all areas.

Educators commented how the fitness center strategy affected their own teaching. They understood that provision for gross-motor physical development had to be included in the daily curriculum. The two aims of the action research were largely met as the fitness center had effectively increased and improved indoor physical play provision and Sam’s highly active physical development needs had been provided for. NAEYC Standards (2009) 1c: was adequately met.

Educators’ awareness of the integration of physical development with other areas of development was emerging. However, an emphasis on integrated areas of development in Standard 1 caused confusion among educators who, in Standard 5(c): Using Content Knowledge were required to plan and implement meaningful curriculum in separate content areas. This separate listing of content areas made educators think that content areas should be taught separately and not integrated. As such, educators thought the fitness center provided opportunities for physical development only. They were not aware that the physical center also provided opportunities for social, intellectual, and emotional areas that they could develop into further activity, e.g., sharing, turn-taking, counting and sorting.

As physical provision was given a higher priority in the curriculum, more aspects of NAEYC standard 1c were met: Using developmental knowledge to create healthy, respectful, supportive and challenging learning environments. At the same time, the teacher candidate experienced a Practicum setting that was more consistent with NAEYC Standards and with their college methods course content regarding physical provision. Opportunities for the teacher candidates to plan and implement physical play activities were improved when a greater range of materials and sufficient space was made available. Educators recognized how movement was not just an outdoor activity, but had to be part of what children did indoors as well. Educators commented that the classrooms needed to be much larger in order for this to be done effectively.

Final Reflection

With regard to understanding Sam’s learning requirements, educators reflected that movement played a crucial part in his learning and cultural needs. When his physical development needs were met, he was more able to focus and enjoy other activities too. This was apparent at choice box time when Sam played with magnets, puzzles, bottles, and books. He demonstrated self-control when he manipulated materials, e.g., doing puzzles, attaching balls to magnets, and observing the helix in the “hurricane” bottles. At circle times, he successfully participated in music and movement, and interacted with educators and with other children during singing and acting out of stories. Educators began to see that movement was best integrated throughout the whole curriculum and had to be made available to children indoors as well as outdoors. Through the video, educators observed and recognized Sam’s needs and said, “We had to adapt to him and to his culture. He cannot adapt to us.”


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The ELC: An Early Childhood Learning Community at Work Copyright © 2020 by Heather Bridge, Lorraine Melita, and Patricia Roiger is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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