IELS thematic report: Young children’s physical development in England

Megan Lucas, Chris Hope, and Caroline Sharp

08 July 2021

Research report is available on gov.uk

This study investigated how physical development relates to the learning outcomes of five-year-old children in England, using data from the International Early Learning and Child Well-being Study (IELS). Physical development was measured via teachers’ ratings of children’s fine and gross motor skills.

Key Findings

  • Persistence had the strongest positive relationship with both fine and gross motor skills, after taking account of the influence of other factors, including deprivation.
  • Children’s ability to remain on task during the IELS assessments was positively related to children’s physical development, especially fine motor skills.
  • Having an identified special educational need was a risk factor for children’s physical development.
  • Fine and gross motor development were positively related to four key learning outcomes: emergent numeracy (e.g. numbers, shape and measurement); emergent literacy (oral language and vocabulary); emotion identification (the ability to recognise others’ emotions); and metal flexibility (the ability to adapt your thinking to changing circumstances).
  • Greater fine motor development was equivalent to about five months of development in emergent literacy and emergent numeracy, and four months in emotion identification and mental flexibility. Greater gross motor development was equivalent to about four months of difference in mental flexibility, three months in emergent literacy and emergent numeracy, and two months in emotion identification.

This research underlines the importance of supporting young children’s physical development as well as their academic skills as part of the Covid-19 recovery. Focusing exclusively on cognitive skills runs the risk of less development in that area than a balanced focus on physical, cognitive and social-emotional skills.