''But We Don't Have Room!'': Creating Places for Children to Move in Small Spaces
By Rae Pica, Movement Specialist

Early childhood professionals know movement contributes to the overall development of young children. In the physical realm, movement not only helps essential motor skills develop and mature properly, but it also promotes physical fitness, which is especially important considering the current childhood obesity crisis and its related health issues. Socially and emotionally, developmentally appropriate movement activities help children learn cooperation skills and how to take turns and share space with others. And recent research shows movement is critical to brain and cognitive development. Still, many early childhood programs don’t include movement activities beyond the daily trip outside or the occasional dance to a children’s recording. Why? The most common reason: lack of space. After all, how can you manage physical activity for several lively children when there’s barely enough room for them to sit at circle time without crowding each other?

Take It Outside!
While it would be lovely to have just the right space in which to conduct movement lessons, such a space is rare. Teachers with access to a gym, multipurpose room, or extra classroom are among the fortunate few. But also lucky are those with ample playground space. The outdoors is undoubtedly the best place for young children to practice and master emerging physical skills and to experience the pure joy of movement. It’s also the place where they’re likely to burn the most calories, which is vital in the fight against childhood obesity.

On paved areas of the playground, children can work on their bouncing and ball-rolling abilities. Grassy areas are perfect for practicing dribbling with the feet (the grass helps keep the ball under control), and any open area is great for throwing, catching, kicking, volleying, and striking. These, of course, are typical playground activities. However, you may not have considered the open areas of your playground for large group activities that are inconvenient or impossible indoors. Games like “Cross Over” (Shipley, 1998, pp. 346-47), for example can be made more challenging with ample space to move and explore. To play “Cross Over,” children form a large circle and note those standing on either side of them. On a signal from the teacher, the children try to cross through the circle to the opposite side without bumping into or touching one another. When they have crossed over, they should be standing next to the same children as they were when on the other side. This excellent activity reinforces the concept of personal space and promotes social development. Cherry (1976) proposed teachers construct “skinny paths” by laying “unit blocks or pieces of rope, wood, or board in parallel rows that allow just enough space for the children to move cautiously between them” (p.71). These narrow walkways provide balancing challenges unlike those fostered by beams or planks raised off the ground. Parachute, hoop, and ribbon activities are often more practical outdoors, too. And the possibilities for obstacle courses, using small and large equipment, are endless. You can start your obstacle course small, changing it often, even daily, and gradually increasing the challenge. The course should give the children experience with such concepts as over, under, through, around, and between. Eventually, the children can even help you design the courses.

But what if outdoor space is limited? How do you get children moving when you only have an indoor environment available to you? Where there’s a will, there’s a way. You simply have to find or create the most open space you can.

The “Inside” Track
If you must use your indoor classroom for movement activities, push the furniture to the walls to create the most open space possible. When you rearrange the furniture, invite the children to help and make the task fun by asking them to pretend to be construction workers, Santa’s elves, or Snow White’s dwarves (Clements & Schiemer, 1993). As you prepare the space, be sure boundaries are clearly defined and that equipment and objects providing either a safety hazard or an overwhelming temptation are removed. If material distractions can’t be removed like tables “begging” to be climbed on, or wheel toys just “asking” to be ridden, consider covering them before your movement sessions to eliminate the temptation. Place safe obstacles along concrete walls and wrap floor-to-ceiling columns in padded material to protect children from injury.           

Sometimes what seems like too little space, like the area set aside for circle time, can actually be adequate for movement; you just have to be a bit clever in how you use it. For example, asking the children to gallop in a circle, rather than back and forth across the area can ensure they have a chance to gallop “full out.” You can also divide a large group in two, inviting half the group to act as the audience while the other half performs an activity. You’ll want to keep the activities brief in this case to avoid too much time spent waiting. You should also ask the audience to watch for something in particular so they’re participating visually.

There Are No Excuses!
Of course, sometimes regardless of what you do, you will never have enough open space, indoors or out. But that doesn’t mean movement can’t be part of the curriculum! After all, not all movement involves traveling through space. Nonlocomotor skills such as stretching, bending, shaking, turning, rocking, swaying, swinging, twisting, and dodging are essential, too, and many locomotor skills like walking, running, jumping, galloping, and hopping can be performed in place. You can guarantee children have valuable experiences with these skills by keeping the elements of movement in mind. For instance, if the children were exploring the locomotor skill of walking in place, there would be a number of ways they could perform the walk. They include turning first in one direction and then the other (space). The walk could be performed with arms or head held in various positions (shape), quickly or slowly (time), strongly or lightly (force), with interruptions (flow), or to altering rhythms (rhythm).

The Importance of Positive Learning Environments
Finally, to ensure movement experiences run smoothly, you’ll want to establish a positive learning environment. As Miller (1995, p. 267) points out, “It is more nurturing and less stressful for everyone involved if adults focus on setting the stage for proper behavior, rather than on reprimanding children after they behave improperly.” To this end, you have to establish ground rules: 1) We will respect one another’s personal space, and 2) We will participate with as little noise as possible.           

As you might expect, the first rule may be difficult to enforce, especially with the youngest children, because they generally enjoy bumping into each other. It’s your challenge to make it a goal for the children to avoid collision. You can accomplish this by asking the children to space themselves evenly at the beginning of every movement lesson and by encouraging the children to imagine that a giant bubble surrounds them. Whether standing still or moving, they should avoid causing any bubbles to burst.           

With regard to the second rule, you can’t expect movement exploration to take place in silence. But you shouldn’t have to raise your voice or shout to have your challenges, directions, and follow-up questions heard. Establish a signal to indicate it’s time to stop, look, and listen (“Stop, look at me, and listen for what comes next”). Choose a signal the children have to watch for (two fingers held in the air or the time-out sign from sports) or something they must listen for (a hand clap, a strike on a triangle, or two taps on a drum).

Is it a lot of work to make movement part of the program? Of course it is, but no more so than including language arts or math into your curriculum. Just as we would find a way to build a library corner complete with wonderful children’s books and to create a math center filled with manipulatives, posters, and puzzles, we can find a way for meaningful movement experiences to take place – with or without a lot of space.


Rae Pica is a movement education consultant and an adjunct instructor with the University of New Hampshire. She is the author of 13 books, including the text Experiences in Movement, the Moving & Learning Series, and the recently released Wiggle, Giggle, and Shake: 200 Ways to Move & Learn. Rae is nationally known for her workshops and keynotes and has shared her expertise with such groups as the Children’s Television Workshop, the Head Start Bureau, Centers for Disease Control, and Nickelodeon’s Blue’s Clues.



Cherry, C. (1976). Creative play for the developing child. Carthage IL: Fearon.

Clements, R.L., & Schiemer, S. (1993). Let’s move, let’s play: Developmentally appropriate movement and classroom activities for preschool children. Montgomery AL: KinderCare Learning Centers. 

Miller, D.C. (1995). Positive child guidance. Albany NY: Delmar. 

Shipley, D. (1998). Empowering children: Play-based curriculum for lifelong learning. Scarborough, Ontario: Nelson Canada.