Modern Lifestyles and Classroom Ethos in Early and Middle Childhood Development

Original Editor - Jess Bell based on the course by Tracy Prowse
Top Contributors - Jess Bell, Kim Jackson, Naomi O'Reilly, Cindy John-Chu, Oyemi Sillo and Wanda van Niekerk

Introduction to the Modern Day Child[edit | edit source]

In general, children today are moving less and having more screen time. The average screen time for children aged 0 to 8 years is more than two hours per day[1] and for children aged over 10 years, it is 6 to 7 hours (including screen time at school and for homework).[2] In South Africa, children have an average of 3 hours of screen time and are sedentary for 6 hours. Thus, for 9 hours of the day, they are not moving or exercising.[2]

Children today are also less likely to engage in free play and are more likely to be involved in formal sport. However, 70 percent of children drop out of formal sport by the age of 13 years.[3] As a result, the number of children meeting physical activity (PA) guidelines is declining.[4] 81 percent of adolescents aged 11 to 17 years are not engaging in enough physical activity.[5][6]

High drop out rates in sport may be due to:[2]

  • Pushy parents and coaches
  • Burnout
  • Overuse injuries[7]
  • Immature bones[7]
  • Insufficient rest after an injury
  • Poor training or conditioning / muscle strength
  • Specialisation in just one sport
    • Young athletes are specialising in sports much earlier despite research suggesting that it is preferable to have diverse experience and to try different sports[7]
  • Year-round participation
  • Ethos of sport and the “Celebrity of Sport”
  • Less play time and more drill time
  • General changes in society

When looking at activity levels in children, it is also important to consider the notion of the "shrinking backyard". In general, children have less access to space to play now. Because of real or potential danger, they are not playing on the street, at the park, or in the forest. Thus, there is less unstructured, free play.[2]

Increase in Developmental Difficulties[edit | edit source]

In the last ten years, the number of children being diagnosed with developmental disabilities has increased by over 17 percent. There are a range of reasons / theories for this change:[2]

  • Increased awareness
  • Hereditary factors
  • Alcohol consumption during pregnancy
  • Higher rates of preterm babies being born / fertility issues
  • HIV drugs and ADHD
  • Potential for chemical toxicity[8]
  • High stress levels in babies and mothers
  • The time taken to pregnancy

A link has also been found between malnutrition and developmental outcomes in developing countries.[9][10] The first 5 years of a child's life are critical for growth and brain development. However, it has been estimated that over 200 million children aged under 5 do not reach their developmental potential due to malnutrition and other factors such as poverty, lack of access to appropriate childcare and / or child abuse.[9] As Saleem and colleagues[9] state: "Malnutrition constrains rapid brain development by adversely affecting its structural and functional capacity, resulting in developmental deficits among the children in all domains."

Benefits of Physical Activity[edit | edit source]

Research has found that:

  • Physical activity has been linked to cognitive performance in school, including perceptual skills, IQ, achievement, verbal and mathematics test results, academic readiness, especially in children aged 4 to 7 years[11]
  • 26 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity before school can improve reading and maths scores and enhance executive functioning  in children with ADHD[12]
  • 30 to 40 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity can improve executive functioning, cognition and brain health for healthy children[13]
  • 30 minutes of aerobic activity before school can reduce symptoms of ADHD[14]
  • Children with ADHD symptoms use motor activity to help focus
  • Movement and standing in the classroom can promote concentration and focus. It also helps to burn calories in all children[15]

It is, therefore, apparent that children need movement and exercise to be a normal part of their school day.[2]

The Classroom Ethos[edit | edit source]

“Children learn to move and play and they MOVE AND PLAY to learn.”[2]

High Five[edit | edit source]

High Five is a term coined by the educator, Gavin Keller, regarding the ethos and environment of a primary / elementary school, particularly during the early years. Keller's original version had five key elements: posture, place in space, communication, independence and skills.[16] Tracy Prowse has modified Keller's version to include physical activity as the third finger in place of communication:[2][16]

  1. Posture
    • If a child's body is aligned, muscles do not need to work so hard to provide stability
    • This leaves more energy for attention and learning
  2. Place in space
    • Children should feel comfortable with their place in their space in the classroom and on the playground (during activities and on the playground equipment)
    • They should be experimenting and exploring both the environment and what they can do physically
    • The more “unknowns” there are in this space, the better it is for brain plasticity and learning
  3. Physical activity
    • Movement and activity are essential for learning
  4. Independence
    • The more often children choose to participate in activities independently, the more likely they are to be successful at mastering a task
  5. Skills
    • Important skills include:
      • Emergent literacy and numeracy skills
      • Self-awareness, self-regulation, empathy, kindness, self-control (i.e. prosocial skills)

It is essential that the entire school embraces the High Five concept and that the principal drives the ethos, making time for “Wake ‘n Shake" activities.[2] The principal should also:[2]

  • Promote alternative ways of setting up the classroom environment
  • Encourage movement breaks
    • Consider using a school bell as a reminder for teachers and students to take these breaks
  • Pass on information to parents about encouraging movement and play

The following video provides some additional information about learning in children.


The Core Domains of Physical Literacy[edit | edit source]

The Canadian Assessment of Physical Literacy (CAPL) was the first protocol to be developed that can reliably and accurately assess a wide range of skills and abilities that contribute to, and characterise, a child’s physical literacy.[18][19][20]

Physical literacy does not just consider fitness, motor skills and motivation in isolation. Because of this, the CAPL has been designed to evaluate the various components of physical literacy, including:[18]

  • Daily behaviour
  • Motivation and confidence
  • Knowledge and understanding
  • Physical competence


The following inter-related factors can affect a child's physical literacy:[22]

  • Family
  • Free-play
  • Child
  • Community
    • Sports and recreation
  • Peers
  • School
    • School sport
    • Classroom
  • Physical education

Who Benefits Most?[edit | edit source]

The following children will benefit most from organised structured physical activity:[2]

  • Children who struggle with coordination, ball skills, jumping, hopping, skipping
    • i.e. children who are generally clumsy
  • Children who tire quickly and frequently try to avoid physical education (PE), unstructured physical activity or formal exercise
    • These children tend to be unmotivated, have poor self esteem and lack confidence and skills
  • Children who are very ‘bendy’ and often seem to have an ache or pain
    • These children also tend to try to avoid PE regularly
  • Children who do not do 60 mins of physical activity per day
  • Children who struggle to concentrate, have poor handwriting ability and tend to fidget
  • Under 5 year olds (i.e. Grade R, pre-school)

Summary[edit | edit source]

  • Activity levels are declining and screen time is increasing in children
  • Increasing physical activity can have a positive impact on learning in children
  • A classroom ethos that encourages movement can be beneficial for children
  • The assessment and treatment of children, particularly those with developmental disabilities is discussed here

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Madigan S, Browne D, Racine N, Mori C, Tough S. Association between screen time and children's performance on a developmental screening test. JAMA Pediatr. 2019;173(3):244-50.
  2. 2.00 2.01 2.02 2.03 2.04 2.05 2.06 2.07 2.08 2.09 2.10 Prowse, T. The Social, Cognitive and Emotional Development of Children - Modern Lifestyles and Classroom Ethos Course. Plus , 2021.
  3. Gadient W, Hawili R, Strand B. Athlete drop outs, sport specialization, and sport diversification: an argument for late specialization in youth sport. 2020.
  4. Frömel K, Groffik D, Mitáš J, Madarasová Gecková A, Csányi T. Physical activity recommendations for segments of school days in adolescents: support for health behavior in secondary schools. Front Public Health. 2020;8:527442.
  5. Chaput JP, Willumsen J, Bull F, Chou R, Ekelund U,Firth J et al. 2020 WHO guidelines on physical activity and sedentary behaviour for children and adolescents aged 5–17 years: summary of the evidence. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act. 2020;17:141.
  6. Bull FC, Al-Ansari SS, Biddle S, Borodulin K, Buman MP, Cardon G et al. World Health Organization 2020 guidelines on physical activity and sedentary behaviour. British Journal of Sports Medicine 2020;54:1451-62.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 Bergeron MF, Mountjoy M, Armstrong N, Chia M, Côté J, Emery CA et al. International Olympic Committee consensus statement on youth athletic development. Br J Sports Med. 2015;49(13):843-51.
  8. Grandjean P, Landrigan PJ. Neurobehavioural effects of developmental toxicity. Lancet Neurol. 2014;13(3):330-8.
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 Saleem J, Zakar R, Bukhari GMJ, Fatima A, Fischer F. Developmental delay and its predictors among children under five years of age with uncomplicated severe acute malnutrition: a cross-sectional study in rural Pakistan. BMC Public Health. 2021;21(1):1397.
  10. van den Heuvel M, Voskuijl W, Chidzalo K, Kerac M, Reijneveld SA, Bandsma R, Gladstone M. Developmental and behavioural problems in children with severe acute malnutrition in Malawi: A cross-sectional study. J Glob Health. 2017;7(2):020416.
  11. Sibley B, Etnier J. The relationship between physical activity and cognition in children: a meta-analysis. Pediatric Exercise Science. 2003;15(3):243-56.
  12. Smith AL, Hoza B, Linnea K, McQuade JD, Tomb M, Vaughn AJ et al. Pilot physical activity intervention reduces severity of ADHD symptoms in young children. J Atten Disord. 2013;17(1):70-82.
  13. Hillman CH, Pontifex MB, Castelli DM, Khan NA, Raine LB, Scudder MR et al. Effects of the FITKids randomized controlled trial on executive control and brain function. Pediatrics. 2014;134(4):e1063-71.
  14. Hoza B, Smith AL, Shoulberg EK, Linnea KS, Dorsch TE, Blazo JA et al. A randomized trial examining the effects of aerobic physical activity on attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder symptoms in young children. J Abnorm Child Psychol. 2015;43(4):655-67.
  15. Benden ME, Zhao H, Jeffrey CE, Wendel ML, Blake JJ. The evaluation of the impact of a stand-biased desk on energy expenditure and physical activity for elementary school students. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2014;11(9):9361-75.
  16. 16.0 16.1 Keller. High Five Kids – Is my child ready for school? Available from: (accessed 30 July 2021).
  17. Fast ForWord Reading Program. Dr. Michael Merzenich on the Ability to Learn. Available from: [last accessed 30/7/2021]
  18. 18.0 18.1 Canadian Assessment of Physical Literacy. About. Available from: (accessed 30 July 2021).
  19. Longmuir PE, Boyer C, Lloyd M, Yang Y, Boiarskaia E, Zhu W et al. The Canadian Assessment of Physical Literacy: methods for children in grades 4 to 6 (8 to 12 years). BMC Public Health. 2015;15:767.
  20. Longmuir PE, Gunnell KE, Barnes JD, Belanger K, Leduc G, Woodruff SJ et al. Canadian Assessment of Physical Literacy Second Edition: a streamlined assessment of the capacity for physical activity among children 8 to 12 years of age. BMC Public Health. 2018;18:1047.
  21. Canadian Assessment of Physical Literacy. A Practitioner's Guide to Doing the CAPL. Available from: [last accessed 30/7/2021]
  22. Kainz K, Vernon‐Feagans L. The ecology of early reading development for children in poverty. The Elementary School Journal. 2007;107(5):407-27.