THEORY: DAP Developmentally Appropriate Practice (Part 5): The Physical Domain

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We are at a stage in education where we are (some say, again) questioning the physical environments in which we facilitate learning and what is best for our students. I wonder though, whether we think enough about the physical needs of our students, especially when they are in the more “formal” setting of primary school and no longer early years playful environments.

Why is it that some educational settings presume that there is no need for physical considerations for our students development and well-being? Are our curricula missing important learning objectives linked to children’s development and that is why there is a lack of focus for it? Is this changing with the need to have “flexible learning spaces”?

Children’s physical environment is important no matter what year level they are in. Often the physical domain is talk about mostly in the early years. However, I believe and am supported by DAP (Kostelnik, Sideman & Whiren, 2013), that this domain should be a prominent discussion and feature of education all the way through to adolescence, and further. Look at Google who as a company value the positive impact that physical environments can have on their workforce, as well as understand the implications that facilitator’s (and educator’s) beliefs affect the way in which physical environments are shaped and utilised.

Children benefit in many ways from regular physical activity. They access these benefits when they are able to participate in a variety of motor activities and are motivated to engage in regular, vigorous play. Physical activity also plays an important part in children’s social life: their competence as a participant enables them to interact with others; they naturally practice being problem solvers as authentic situations during play arise; and they are able to develop concepts, such as fairness. Physical activities also help to demonstrate, explore, encourage and negotiate safety, health-related fitness and practices.

Within the physical domain, children develop their motor skills: gross, perceptual and fine. There are set progressions for these develops which start from the head to the toe, and from the centre of the body outwards. These form the fundamental skills that children need to develop e.g. for games and more complex skills.

You might be interested to look into Claire Warden’s Nature pedagogy that focuses on the inside, outside and beyond domains in education.

With this in mind, I suggest viewing this TEDtalk by Dr Peter Gray titled: The decline of play.


Gross-motor skills

Between the ages of 3-8 (generally) children become mature enough to acquire movement competencies on there own or with adult guidance. Unfortunately though, not all children experience optimal conditions for this to occur and research has found that if children do not acquire proficiency in some of these skills by 6 or 7 years old, then they may never be able to acquire them. Below is a table to show some of the gross-motor skills that are usually learned between 3 and 7 years of age and therefore, may be useful to facilitators in educational settings as a guide.

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Most of these skills have predictable sequences that begin as exploratory movements and gradually evolve into more mature forms of movement. Children move through these sequences at different rates though and their ultimate performance is affected by maturation, learning, and practice. Once mastered, children continue evolving the movement by building in power and strength, and acquiring style exhibited by skilled players. It is therefore important that children should have the time to explore and practise each stage before moving onto the next stage and educational institutions need to aware of this in order to support their students appropriately (especially those who may not be getting the support out of school).


Perceptual-motor skills

These are movement activities that will lead to academic or cognitive outcomes and the process improves with practise during the early childhood period. It involves children receiving a variety sensations from the environment: sight, sound, scent, taste and touch. Often multiple modes of sensation can come from one source at the same instant, which requires sensory integration and determines how we react to a given situation. The physical environment needs to appropriately allow children to practise this process, sometimes scaffolding the sensations being received so that children take away the new experience and information to store in their memory which will affect future experiences.

There are 5 aspects of perceptual-motor development that are of particular importance and educationalists need to be aware of their role to facilitate their student’s development of these:

  • balance – children require ongoing practice to adjust for changes in height and weight as their centre of gravity changes as they grow.
  • spatial awareness – as children grow their spatial awareness needs adapt also, it also moves towards a more abstract concept of their own and others’ space.
  • figure-ground perception – separating the foreground from the background develops with time and experience, but memory also plays an important part in these skills.
  • temporal awareness – time relations develop more at the end of early childhood and into adolescence but beginnings of the notions of speed and timing begin to emerge e.g rhythm.
  • body and directional awareness.

Fine-motor skills

Is the ability to use the hands to move objects precisely and accurately. Before children are able to hold a pencil and write, their is a process that they must experience to help them to achieve this, involving coordination, muscle strength, spatial awareness etc.

Children need to be able to use all the fundamental motor skills and perceptual-motor competencies together to produce movements of different qualities. As children build their ideas and meanings, they must also learn the vocabulary of movement.


Below are some teaching strategies to help with teaching in the physical domain, but it might also be useful to know of PMP by MovingSmart: Perceptual Motor Program, they have a great DVD that discusses the need for this type of programme in schools, here is a link to a short clip from the DVD.

Gross- and fine-motor skills

  1. Use learning centres to teach skills.
  2. Provide opportunities for children to explore equipment and try out physical behaviours suggest day the equipment or materials.
  3. Observe children’s performance of each skill of interest.
  4. Demonstrate the skill to be mastered and incorporate do-it signals.
  5. Provide suggestions and strategies to support the child’s learning.
  6. Give oral cues. presents one at a time, to help the child attain greater control or efficient. 
  7. Emphasise qualitative movement over quantitative outcomes.
  8. Provide encouragement and feedback to children about their performance.
  9. Use problem-solving strategies and challenges to explore movement concepts.
  10. Encourage suggestions from the children.
  11. Establish guidelines for safety, level of participation and repeat for others.

Perceptual-motor skills

  1. Provide opportunities to practice balance that are simple at first, then move on to more challenging opportunities. 
  2. Incorporate concepts of spatial and time awareness into other domains as opportunities.
  3. Select noncompetitive group games or modify familiar games to reduce or eliminate competitiveness.
  4. Use directional language in contact daily, including left and right for the older children.
  5. Use accurate language for naming body parts.
  6. Provide safety information and guidance to prevent hazards as children explore their bodies’ functions and capabilities.
  7. With younger children, provide an uncluttered background for objects you want them to see.

Health, nutrition and safety

  1. Plan vigorous physical activity every day.
  2. Demonstrate a concern for your fitness and health so that children can imitate what you do. 
  3. Incorporate health and safety eduction when applicable.
  4. Communicate regularly with families.
  5. Use mealtimes to teach nutrition and proper eating habits.
  6. When talking about food choices, use the phrase a better choice  other than good foods and bad foods.


With all this in mind, it is worth making the connection between acquiring these physical skills and the physical environment of schools where these skills can be learnt. There is big business at the moment in redesigning learning spaces and these cannot be isolated from people’s beliefs of best practise pedagogy. It is worth looking at the TEDtalk below for an insight into some of the conversations taking place on this issue and hopefully inspiring you to think about education and design working together to be innovative, and to ask yourself, “where are the children in this discussion?”



Kostelnik, M.J., Sideman, A.K., & Whiren, A.P. (2013). Developmentally Appropriate Curriculum: Pearson New International Edition: Best Practices in Early Childhood Education. Pearson.




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