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Two little girls and one little boy playing in a field on a sunny day.

Improving Fundamental Movement Skills in Young People

A Coventry University researcher has issued a warning that the UK is facing a tsunami of health issues if it does not address a worrying level of physical activity skills in children and teenagers.

Professor Mike Duncan from the Centre for Sport, Exercise and Life Sciences has worked with the International Motor Development Research Consortium and 11 other academics to alert the public to the concerningly low level of fundamental movement skills in children and adolescents, which could lead to increased health issues like obesity, diabetes, and poor wellbeing.

They have shared their concerns in an expert statement which includes data from a study in 2019, highlighting that less than 20% of children in the UK aged 6-9 years had mastered the four key motor skills - running, jumping, throwing, catching - identified by the Physical Education (PE) National Curriculum.

The findings indicated that although there is evidence to suggest motor competence interventions by schools can be effective, there is a need to invest in the development of motor competence beyond schools and PE.

In 2012, when Coventry City Council were looking to find a new way to assess whether children in local schools were acquiring the necessary movement skills from PE during their early years development, Professor Duncan was enlisted by the council in the first instance to help assess the fundamental movement skills in children aged 6-11. 

The results highlighted that a child’s year group influenced seven out of the eight skills, and factors such as weight, status and gender showed significant correlation with levels of mastery over different skills.

Professor Duncan’s work has provided an effective framework for assessments of primary PE – catering for some 82,000 children in the region. His research has also been used to change motor-skill and movement interventions to enhance education opportunities for children with special educational needs, integrating speech therapy with FMS to improve language development.

Sport England (SE), with the backing of the government, commissioned Professor Duncan and Emma Eyre in 2015 to undertake a review of the body’s response to exercise and its impact on the development of 5- to 14-year-olds. The research insights have led to Sport England incorporating the work within their own approach across England, such as continually measuring data against key performance indicators relating to positive attitudes towards sport, physical literacy, and being active, informing the way SE assesses children’s physical development on behalf of the Government.

The research has gone from strength to strength and in 2016, the British Academy provided further funding for Professor Duncan to investigate the understanding of the relationship between FMS, physical activity, weight status and related health statistics in children.

He carried out a six-week study on three groups of children, aged 3 and 4. One group took part in a series of movement activity sessions and another group concentrated on language activities. The third group took part in a combination of both activities, which were based around Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler’s popular children’s book The Gruffalo.

Professor Duncan found the group which took part in combined movement and storytelling activities showed a huge improvement in their motor skills – their ability to run, jump, catch and throw – as well as in their vocabulary.

This work was utilised as a template within teachers’ ‘INSET’ training across Warwickshire and was also utilised by HE institutions Dublin City University (DCU), Mary Immaculate College (MIC), Limerick, and Instituto Universitário da Maia (ISMAI), Portugal to inform teacher education programmes at undergraduate and postgraduate level. 

Overall, the research has provided policy, teachers, coaches, and community sport-providers with new knowledge, which has changed practices at international, national, and local levels. Professor Duncan’s work on FMS and the development of physical literacy amongst young people is ongoing, and he was recently invited to be lead author of an Expert Statement on FMS for children’s health on behalf of the British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences.

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