The importance of exposing children to physical activity in the first ten years

There is one negative consequence of talking shop with world renowned author and coach educator Professor Richard Bailey, which I found out to my cost.

By the end of our 45-minute conversation I had developed a nagging neck ache, as a direct result of nodding vigorously at every point he was making. And he made a lot of good points.

Anyone peering through my office window would have seen what appeared to be a human-sized version of those plastic bobblehead ornaments that sit on car dashboards.

Interwoven with the central discussion theme – the importance of a child’s first ten years in physical activity and sport – are some critically important topics.

We covered early specialisation, fundamental movement skills, growth mindset and the urgent need to reverse an alarmingly lop-sided system so that more qualified coaches and specialist PE teachers are located at ‘ground floor level’ working with children at the earliest stages of their learning and development.

As Head of Research at the International Council of Sport Science and Physical Education (ICSSPE) based in Berlin – the worldwide umbrella body for sport – Professor Bailey is committed to sharing and using his knowledge to maximize the potential of the next generation.

Each and every person working in the coaching and teaching professions will agree that it is our moral duty to ensure this ‘next generation’ is given the best possible start in life.

But are we, as a nation, fully delivering on that commitment?

Ten is the magic number

From the outset, it was clear that playing devil’s advocate in conversation with Professor Bailey would not be easy. I mean, how can anyone object to his opening gambit?

‘The brain goes through a crucial development period in the first 10 years of life. This period has a long-lasting influence on a child’s future interests. Enrolling kids in physical activity programs that are fun, inclusive, educational and appropriate for their age and skill level, helps ensure early positive exposure to physical activity and increases their likelihood of staying active throughout their life.

‘Why else is the first ten years so important? Well, on the one hand fundamental movement skills are developed in the first ten years – the basic building blocks of later development. And if we can offer children opportunities to develop a comprehensive range of fundamental movement skills – running, jumping, twisting, turning, and with poise, with control, with balance –  supported by positive and passionate motivation, positive values and things like this, then what we have done is lay the foundations for everything that follows.’

The ancient adage, ‘Give me a child until he is 7 and I will show you the man’, instantly sprang to mind, and the implication that early childhood is the ideal time to mould a person and anchor in them those behaviour and personality characteristics society deems most worthy.

I ask if certain character traits can really be set so steadfastly in the first ten years of a child’s life?

‘The Jesuits were right, although we would say the first ten years, before the beginning of puberty,’ says Professor Bailey.

‘There is evidence that if we can present children with positive, developmentally-appropriate physical activity in sport in those years then, as I have said, what we have done is essentially lay the foundations for lifelong physical activity.

‘We also suggest that it is important to lay the pattern of physical activity in the first ten years – so if you get children active habitually by playing sport, walking, running, cycling, then that influences what follows.

‘Behaviours are more malleable or changeable during the first 10 years and children are more open to health messages. It also helps that they are in school with one teacher. It makes it possible to combine messages from health, physical education and sport, and a range of other areas, so we can offer synergistic messages and start to build up established behaviours.’

Barriers to change

On the subject of fundamental movement skills, and how they are taught in early years settings, the evidence is pretty conclusive that we need to do it early.

‘The irony is of course that, traditionally, particularly in the UK, the real specialist coaches come in when the children are older. And likewise in a school setting. When do the specialist PE teachers come in? In secondary school. Crazy!’ says Professor Bailey (pictured below).

‘We have to get away from top-loading the system and start early-loading the system with specialists, having the most qualified people giving the richest experience from the very first time that children enter physical activity and sports contexts.’

He maintains there is absolutely no excuse for failing to fuse fun with fundamentals, with coaches also aided by the fact children are enthusiastic and willing learners with naturally inquisitive minds.

‘The problem can be, when developing basic movement skills, you get children practising balancing, running, stopping and changing direction. They are not fundamental movement skills! That is just boring, pointless biomechanics. Fundamental movement skills arise from within the context of games,’ he explains.

‘The taught method of children balancing on one leg is fine, but if you don’t place it in the context of a real game or activity, then the likelihood of them embedding it in their day-to-day practice is rather marginal.’

Professor Richard Bailey

Growth mindset

One of the big advantages of working with young children is that you are working with something of a clean slate – minds that are, in the main, largely uncorrupted by negative outside influences and with little time for bad habits to have been formed.

Their creative potential and creative expression is just waiting to be awoken.

Overwhelming them with robotic, repetitive, regimented routines will only diffuse their enthusiasm, boring them senseless at best and, at worst, instilling a fear or even loathing of sport and physical activity that is the antithesis of the ‘first ten years’ ethos.

Coaches must exploit the fact that young children’s brains process information differently, and look to drive home the advantage research evidence has given us sooner rather than later, so that children can kick on in adolescence, not waste time trying to kick the bad habits they have been led into.

So should coaches and teachers be actively working with young children to establish growth mindset, mindful of the urgency to establish behaviour patterns?

You certainly shouldn’t be promoting growth mindset explicitly, says Professor Bailey, as telling children to behave in a certain way is a notoriously weak way of changing their behaviour. He goes so far as to say ‘a waste of oxygen’.

Implicit instruction is the answer.

‘Coaches and teachers are role models. That’s how you change their behaviour. Primarily you teach children respect by being respectful, you teach children tolerance, kindness, cooperation by being tolerant, kind and cooperative.

‘Growth mindset is an abstract concept so there is no reason to believe younger children would necessarily understand that. So what you do is embody it by rewarding effort rather than success, by talking about and using the language of effort rather than success.

‘Children up to the age of about seven equate ability with experience of practice – they embody growth mindset. What happens is, when they move into later childhood that is when they start to develop these concepts of “naturally talented” or “I’m not good very at this”.

‘That is why you really need teachers and coaches to keep reinforcing these messages about growth mindset and effort and hard work.’

And it is the reason why Professor Bailey despises the Britain’s Got Talent / X Factor culture with a passion, and the dangerously pervading sentiment that ‘All you need is to believe. If you believe enough you will win’.

You can almost see resilience vanishing from people’s bodies at the first sign of failure nowadays, like sweat evaporating off your skin after you exercise on a cold day.

‘The message to children should be to work hard and then you are much more likely to succeed… but there are no guarantees,’ says Professor Bailey.

‘I’ve had coaches say to me that it’s negative and depressing. But at least you are not lying to them.

‘Also, it is more morally defensible for me to say to a child, “Work hard, practice hard. You probably won’t become world champion, but you definitely won’t if you don’t work hard”, than to say to them, “You can do anything you want to achieve”.

His voice starts to rise… ‘This is a cultural meme that is spreading through our society.’

Early specialisation

And it is spreading a lie, is how Professor Bailey sees it.

‘It is why we have got thousands and thousands of children signing up to football academies at the age of six, on this myth of the potential to become a professional. Statistically the chances of them making it to the elite is practically zero.

‘I think we need to start educating children to be realistic and that you hope for the best and you plan for the worst.’

The reality, adds Professor Bailey, is that early specialisation is a very weak strategy and has a very low likelihood of success, with no empirical foundation.

‘Training children earlier has no significant differences in success rates. Start them with diversity, fun and enjoyment and let them specialise later. It’s a no brainer as the latter is compatible with making them more rounded, healthy, happy and educated. The former could ruin your health and blow out your knees.’

Time to act

And so there you have it.

You have heard the reasons why the first ten years are so important in a child’s development and the thrust of the argument for what needs to change if we are to maximise the potential of our future generations.

Here’s hoping that it takes far less than ten years for this body of knowledge to be used to engage, enthuse, inspire and inform a series of industry-wide execution strategies that have the power to transform lives and last a lifetime.

Next steps

UK Coaching (formerly Sports Coach UK) has recently launched two new workshops – ‘How to Coach the Fundamentals of Movement’ and ‘Coaching Children 5–12: The Next Generation’ – that translates cutting-edge research into practical ideas that coaches can use straight away.

Coachwise are experts in enabling sports and physical activity programmes. We relish evolving operations that facilitate growth in participation and ensure community role models feel supported. Find out more about how we can help you.