• A
  • A
Switch colours to view the site as you prefer!

Sophie – active but not physically

The previous blog marked a change of direction (and a change of book) for the blog. Drawing on the twenty chapters (and nineteen cases studies) located in Kathy Armour’s edited “Pedagogical Cases” book the blog started to explore the case studies of nineteen individual (and fictitious) students aged between 5 and 16. These young people were presented as “complex and dynamic young learners who deserve to be taught and coached by practitioners who draw on a wide range of multidisciplinary knowledge to devise appropriate, interdisciplinary learning encounters.” 

This week’s blog explores the case of Sophie and, through the lenses of physical activity, motor development, exercise physiology, and pedagogy, we learn how her daily life may or may not impact on her future. We will look at different research traditions and try to draw a single message from what we find in an effort to support students like Sophie to develop safely at home, school and in the community.


Volume 2.2:

Haerens, L., Cardon, G., Lenoir, M., Bourgo, J., De Medts, C., & Van den Berghe, L. (2014). Sophie: A preschooler who is ‘busy’ – but not very active. In K.M. Armour (ed.) Pedagogical cases in physical education and youth sport (pp. 22-34). London: Routledge.



Sophie is five. She is an only child who lives with her mum and dad on the outskirts of a big city. Her parents both work to support the family and this means adopting different working patterns. Mum works early while Dad works late and work is fitted in around Sophie’s school day (for Mum at least). In the mornings Mum gets up to with Sophie to get her ready for school but out of convenience (i.e. so Mum can get ready herself) Sophie nearly always eats her breakfast in front of the television. Dad can’t help because he gets in late every night and is still asleep. Such is the need for haste that Mum gets Sophie dressed and in front of the television as soon as she can so she can focus on herself.

This pattern is repeated after school and Sophie is kept out from under her Mum’s feet with a snack and the television. This allows Mum to make the evening meal. At the weekend both her parents like to catch up on a little sleep and feel that Sophie needs to as well after her busy week at school. They don’t have a garden but do have a playground nearby but they don’t visit it and Sophie doesn’t do any ‘extra-curricular’ activities (not even learning to ride a bike) because they are very concerned that she might get hurt. In fact Sophie is not encourage, indeed is discouraged, from doing anything that they consider to be remotely risking and they spend their leisure time at home. That said she seems happy to draw, or write, or watch the television and always appears to be very busy. 

At school she is always close to her teacher in the playground – either holding her hand or sitting close by with a friend and chatting. In class she is doing very well, is very responsive, never speaks out of turn and engages with her learning. In fact she is doing very well academically. That said the teacher has noticed that the Sophie struggles to zip up her own coat and is scared of any activity that she (Sophie) considers to be the least bit risky.

Sophie struggles in physical education and cannot throw or catch very well at all and jumping from two feet seems to be almost impossible. When she runs (if she ever runs) she barely uses her arms. She is significantly less well developed and less able in terms of her motor skills than her peers and she takes no risks when it comes to physical activity. She frowns on the other students who she thinks are reckless and dangerous when doing forward rolls and jumping from a platform. The doctor thinks she is a little over weight but has reported no other health problems. Sophie’s parents think she is thriving in all aspects of school because she talks very positively about it and while they have the doctor’s advice on Sophie’s diet the lack of any problems means they are less willing to make any changes.


The Pedagogical Case

Haerens and colleagues (as in all the pedagogical cases) started with a description of their young person and then explored the literature around specific themes before summarising from a pedagogical perspective. In the paragraphs that follow I will summarise their sub-discipline summaries and, at the end, their pedagogical overview. In the case of Sophie the authors looked at (1) Physical Activity (PA) and Sedentary behaviours in pre-schoolers, (2) motor development and learning in pre-schoolers, and (3) exercise physiology, before providing a pedagogical comment on the case study of Sophie based on the expert input.

Regular PA leads to improved motor, musculoskeletal, and psychosocial development and is a good indicator that pre-schoolers will remain active in later life. PA doesn’t mean exercising in an adult form but it does mean that they should be standing up, moving around and playing as well as more vigorous activities like running and jumping. Importantly pre-schoolers learn many of their behaviours from the home environment and their parents play a major role in PA promotion as active parents tend to have more active children. School also plays an important part but it is what children do, in terms of PA, throughout the day that research suggests is important and not just what they do in PE.

Equally sedentary behaviours (i.e. a unique set of behaviours such as sitting, or lying down – indeed anything that requires low levels of energy expenditure) are to be discouraged. Research suggests that it is equally important to disrupt periods of sedentary behaviour, as it is to accumulate sufficient amounts of activity. Significantly while research (and experience) tells us that pre-schoolers are often busy and demanding this doesn’t equate to being active. Indeed, research suggests very clearly “that most pre-schoolers spend the majority of their time being sedentary both at home and in preschool.”

Motor development and learning occurs early in life and develops from there through stimulation, repetition, variability and feedback. After about two years children are active inasmuch as they can sit, stand, walk alone, grasp, and manipulate objects (to name a few). Between 2 and 6 these coordination patterns get faster, more complex and better. Children can cope with more complex and difficult challenges such as climbing, playing ball games and their skills become more manipulative (such as in their writing). These Fundamental Movement Skills (FMS) involve basic movements such as stability, locomotion and manipulation. When these are (albeit crudely) explored through the ability of a 5 year old, we find that basic locomotion skills such as running forwards and backwards, jumping (i.e. hopping, skipping, galloping, forwards backwards and upwards) and manipulation skills such as catching in the hands not using the body, throwing, kicking and striking are ‘typical’.

Yet for this coordination and functionality to develop into more demanding and mature actions the child needs to do more than simply get older. Instead maturation is not a passive process. Haerens and colleagues suggest that while we are hot-wired to develop we need more than that. They suggest that “the brain can be considered as the engine that drives motor development, while the stimulation of the brain to explore new movement possibilities is the fuel feeding the engine.” So having the capacity is not enough. Children need help, in the form of repeated opportunity, stimulus, variability and feedback.

Exercise (and the physiological responses to it) is different to PA. Exercise is planned, structured and repetitive while PA is any body movement that results in energy expenditure above resting. When the idea of exercise physiology is applied to children i.e. pediatric exercise physiology, we learn that we need to consider the variation in growth, maturation and development. In other words we need to think about changes in body size, the progression towards maturity, and different biological changes (such as oxygen uptake) that occur (at different rates) through childhood. As a consequence PE teachers are likely to “be responsible for groups of 5 year olds that are very different in terms of growth, maturation and development”. That said research suggests that most young children will enjoy active play and invent ways of passing time that are active. Consequently physical inactivity is physiologically abnormal and therefore a pre-schooler should be given the best opportunities to be physically active.

When these ideas are combined and viewed through the lens of pedagogy is suggests that the stated aim of PE “to improve motor skill competence and to educate for lifelong engagement in PA for health” needs to be viewed through the lens of individual children. The individual child is in need of our attention and this means uniting the child’s school, home and community lives to provide opportunities for PA and create a positive spiral of engagement. For children like Sophie a lack of activity not only carries the risk of expected health consequences it also causes the brain to receive insufficient stimulus for optimal motor development. As she grows older Sophie will start to notice her lack of motor competence and, in comparing herself with others, could become even more inactive.

PE is not the only place where kids can be active – although it a good place to start with structured activities like running, jumping, catching, throwing, climbing and balancing (otherwise known as locomotion, manipulation, and stability). Drawing at standing desks or multiple short recess breaks (because pre-schoolers activity patterns are typically characterised by short bouts of activity) rather than single longer periods of recess would all help to increase PA (which is different to exercise).

It seems that we have lots to learn from different sub-disciplines of sports science – especially when it is focused through the lens of pedagogy. The question I have though – is does this come as a surprise and will it change your behaviour as an adult (whether it is as a teacher, coach, parent or career)? 


What’s next? As part of this series of blogs I propose the following as a way of considering the implications of this research on your teaching- Think, Act, Change (or TAC for short).

Think about findings of the paper – do they resonate with you? Use the comment box below to ask a question, seek clarification, may be challenge the findings.

Act on what you’ve read. What do you believe? Is it your responsibility to make changes or is this just something else that I’ve put on your plate? Is there action to take? If so, what might it be?

Change what you do in response to your thoughts and actions? Is this a personal undertaking? If you want to do something or are looking for help then please let the community know about it.

I wouldn’t expect every paper to get beyond the T or even the A of TAC but if one paper resonates enough to get to C then hopefully all this is worthwhile. Good luck.

comment avatar
About me
On Monday 15 December at 17:01 @ImSporticus said
Hi Ash. Have to say I really enjoy this new direction you've taken with your blog and this first one has given me some real food for thought. It's got me thinking about all the P's. Provision, participation, physical activity (especially how we can encourage activity throughout the school day especially at break times and lunch) and the purpose of PE. The main 'P' that sticks in my mind though is parental engagement. I suppose what ever schools teach, securing parents as partners in learning is essential for success. This is even more important for a healthy and active lifestyle. Although children spend a significant amount of time at school, we only get chunks of time with them, especially in PE. PE can't be the only source of physical activity in a child's life, parents need to support us on that and assist us in ensuring their child doesn't have a sedentary lifestyle and develop those behaviours. The question is how do we go about doing that and educating the parents without 1. belittling them and 2. telling them how to be a parent. Getting this wrong could have hugely negative consequences for the schooling of the child and the relationship you would have with the parents. I'm not sure I have a solution for this one.

In order to add your comments, you must login or register as a member

You can login or register here