Exercise and early childhood education

Selected aspects of the debate on educator training and continuing education

Exercise and early childhood education

This article summarises selected material collected in the context of the BiK – Bewegung in der frühen Kindheit [Exercise in early childhood] joint research project1. This project represents one element of a general endeavour aimed at making early childhood educational programmes more professional and more logically structured throughout Germany. The efforts are being coordinated under the Ausweitung der Weiterbildungsinitiative Frühpädagogische Fachkräfte (AWiFF) [Promotion of early childhood educators’ continuing education] scheme initiated by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research and the Robert Bosch Foundation in collaboration with the German Youth Institute. It is the objective of these three partners to make the system used to train early childhood educators in Germany more coherent, to safeguard the quality of teaching and to promote the use of educational practices that are consistent with the subsequent institutional systems.

In the following, the focus is on the following three issues:
1. To what extent and in what form do the 16 federal states in Germany make provision for physical exercise as a subject in their curricula and guidelines for the preschool sector?
2. To what extent do early childhood educators perceive the need for acquirement of exercise-teaching abilities as part of their professional skills profile?
3. To what extent does exercise as a subject form part of training courses for educators – is there a requirement for continuing education programmes in this subject?

The role of exercise as a subject in educational guidelines

A systematic assessment of the various curricula and guidelines was undertaken using two approaches. On the one hand, the concept of the “multiperspectivity of exercise activities” formulated by Funke-Wienke (2004) and generally accepted in German exercise and sport education theory was applied. Also employed were the theories outlined in the academic discussion of the significance of exercise from the point of view of the disciplines sport/education/neurosciences, medicine and psychology to be found in standard monographs, article collections and specialist journals. The aims, purposes and relevance of exercise in educational and developmental processes specified in the literature were identified and, on the basis of interpretation, were defined in the form of the following four main categories or fields (for more details, cf. Bahr et al., 2012, p. 98ff).

a) Exercise as a taught subject
The main focus here is on providing instruction in exercise. The purpose of this separate educational field is to facilitate the acquirement by children of the physical motor skills that will enable them to participate in the activities of exercise, play and sport. In addition to standard concepts with regard to the training of elementary motor abilities (conditional and coordinating skills), particular attention is paid to making children proficient in the basic activities essential to their psychological and educational development, such as gripping, walking, running, jumping, climbing, throwing etc.

b) Exercise as part of health education
Here the underlying concept is that if children are helped to acquire a positive attitude towards exercise, play and sport at an early age, they are less likely to subsequently suffer from motor maldevelopment and lifestyle diseases. The standard preventative measures, such as fitness, posture and strengthening exercises, are discussed in this connection. More recent theories stress the salutogenic, resource-orientated purpose of exercise: it is postulated that procedures designed to promote both physical and psycho-emotional wellbeing will stimulate resources that will contribute towards the healthy development of the personality as a whole. This innovative approach perceives exercise as one element within a holistic concept of health that involves physical, emotional, social and environmental factors – not forgetting the important role played by healthy diet.

c) Exercise as a means of learning
The basic idea here is that the experience of exercise as part of learning can provide children with the capacity to act and form strategies that will have a positive effect on their general ability to perform and learn in the school environment. Consequently, the main interest is on exercise-related precursor skills and the relevance of exercise and performance capacity to the other educational components of the curricula at the kindergarten and primary school level.

d) Exercise as a means of promoting development
This concept proposes that exercise has a fundamental and consolidating function that is relevant to all developmental processes (cognitive, social, emotional and physical). This means that the experience of exercise has a categorical role to play in a child’s acquirement of the skills relating to self-perception, social interaction, interaction with the physical world and performance capacity that it needs to establish a healthy relationship with the world around it. Through exploration and exercise, a child can become the engineer of its own development. As a result, aspects of the evolution of the self and the personality are at the core of the corresponding discussions.

Subsequently drawn up were differentiated terminology lists that represented each concept and that could thus be used to reveal the fundamental approach of each text and document. Coloured highlighting of text passages made it possible to prepare profiles of the various preschool education guidelines and to compare these systematically with each other2.

In all the curricula and guidelines issued by the states in the years 2004 – 2011, exercise is treated as a separate subject. The terminology most commonly used as a designation for the subject is “Body, exercise, health”. When it comes to the purpose of teaching children this subject, the objective of “Exercise to promote development” is significantly preferred over that of health education as such or the concepts of exercise and physicality. The strategy of linking exercise and performance capacity with other aspects of education (exercise as a means of learning) is rarely accounted for. Those responsible for drawing up guidelines seem to consider exercise and physical movement to be essentially little more than a means to an end; the establishment of a wide ranging programme of exercises is not their primary objective.

The role of exercise from the point of view of early childhood educators

Selected findings of the survey conducted as part of the BiK project1,3 are cited in the following in order to illustrate this aspect as it applies to the preschool educational sector. The purpose of the empirical study was to undertake a detailed analysis of the actual status of the implementation of and the relevance accorded to exercise strategies at child day care centres and of the extent to which early childhood educators receive training or continued training in this subject. The results obtained during the project were used to redefine specifications for training courses and further education programmes in this area.
Data was collected by means of an online survey of early childhood educators conducted in 2012. The total of 2400 responders can be said to be a representative sample of those educators working in the various states and for the various support organisations. The survey responders were asked about what they associated with the topic of exercise in the case of children in the age range 0 – 6 years. The four categories were listed, and a significant percentage (70.6%) assigned priority to the concept of exercise as a “Means of promoting development”4. The category that was assigned the least importance was “Exercise as a means of learning” (18.2%). The results also demonstrated that the majority of survey participants tended to select possible responses to all four options. This can be seen as an indication that educators do not have a standardised but relatively complex view of the role of exercise in children aged 0 – 6 years. Another significant finding was the fact that “negative associations” were only very rarely selected (cf. Stahl-von Zabern et al., 2013, article in press).

Exercise-related training priorities and the need for continuing education

The results of the survey show that most early childhood educators have a positive view (important to very important) of the relevance of exercise to overall development and its beneficial effects on the health and education of children aged 0 – 6 years. However, in order to incorporate exercise as a feature in the day-to-day running of preschool facilities, certain structural requirements need to be met (availability of keys for the personnel, space and materials etc.) while personnel require the necessary expertise. The question arises of whether educators are being provided with adequate training in this subject. They were thus also asked to specify, on a five-point scale (1 = very little, 5 = a great deal), in what exercise-relevant aspects they had received tuition during their own training. The items listed in the questionnaire were categorised in the three main areas “current topics”, “practice” and “theory” for the purpose of data analysis.

The outcome demonstrates that there is a highly differentiated approach to the various facets of training: “practical implementation of exercise-related games and activities” was accorded the most importance, while other practical training aspects tended to receive less attention. In general, theoretical considerations were taken into account to some extent in training programmes. Topics and concepts that are being afforded considerable significance in the current academic debate, such as “Exercise for children under the age of 3 years”, “Inclusion”, “Transition” and “Internal and external spatial design” tended to be dealt with only cursorily during the training received by the educators. This could be attributable to the fact that most of the educators had undergone their training a considerable time ago (their average age was 45 years), meaning that these topics were not yet included in the curriculum. When it came to comparison of the exercise-related training they had actually received with that they would like to receive, it was apparent that the educators expressed a clear desire for further education in the areas in which they felt there was a shortfall (cf. Stahl-von Zabern et al., 2013, article in press.). Of particular interest to the readers of this journal will be the finding that the educators put the topic of internal and external spatial design in first place when it came to the subjects in which they felt they required further education.

Preliminary implications and conclusions

The results of the survey show that early childhood educators consider exercise to be primarily a “means of promoting development” in children aged 0 – 6 years. However, they also cite other factors relevant to the topic of exercise, so that it can be assumed that they have a rather complex view of the function of exercise. The significance and relevance of exercise were considered to be highly important by the survey participants in the context of children’s development as a whole. At the same time, the results demonstrate that education in exercise-related topics was assigned only a less important to inferior role during the training received by the educators. It is apparent that the content of courses provided at vocational schools and institutes of higher education is somewhat outdated and that these need to be supplemented, particularly with regard to more recent theories and developments. As a result, the educators state that they have considerable interest in further education courses dealing with aspects of exercise.

On the basis of the results, initial hypotheses for the development of a comprehensive concept for the qualification profile required in relation to exercise and for need-orientated training and further education courses can be defined. Specifically aspects such as “Exercise and inclusion”, “Exercise for children under the age of 3 years” and “Internal and external spatial design” need to be taken into account in these. Practice-related topics also need to be assigned a more important role here.

 

Footnotes:
1 The “Exercise in early childhood” project sponsored by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (grant No. 01NV1104) is being coordinated by Cologne University (Prof. Dr. Klaus Fischer). Jointly responsible for project implementation are Dortmund University/University of Applied Sciences (Prof. Dr. Gerd Hölter/Dr. Stefanie Kuhlenkamp) together with Koblenz (Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Beudels) and Niederrhein (Prof. Dr. Christina Jasmund/Prof. Dr. Astrid Krus) Universities of Applied Sciences. http://www.kompetenzprofil-bik.de/
2 The MAXQDA quality data analysis tool was used for this purpose; a detailed description of the methodology employed will not be provided here.
3 The data outlined here was collected and evaluated in collaboration with von Zabern, L.; Kopic, A. and Klein, J.
 

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