Physical education at preschools: The meaning of 'physical education' to practitioners at three preschool settings in Scotland

Nollaig McEvilly, Martine Verheul, Matthew Atencio

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background: Preschool physical education has been largely unexplored by researchers. This article examines the meaning of the term ‘physical education’, in relation to preschool contexts, to 14 practitioners working at three preschool settings in Scotland. Our focus on preschool physical education reflects a change in the language associated with young children's physical education in Scottish educational policy. The recently implemented Curriculum for Excellence refers to ‘physical education’ in relation to preschool education, whereas the previous Scottish preschool curriculum referred to ‘physical development and movement’. Methods: The study employed a poststructural type of discourse analysis concerned with identifying patterns in language use. Research methods employed were observations and interviews. Findings: Practitioners generally indicated that they were uncomfortable with the term ‘physical education’ in relation to preschool contexts. Terms they preferred included ‘physical play’, ‘exercise’ and ‘health and wellbeing’. Drawing on developmental discourses, they tended to associate ‘physical education’ with schools, positioning it as something more formal and structured than what preschool children would (or should) experience. It seemed that, for some practitioners, their privileging of play clashed with the notion of ‘physical education’. Conclusion: We suggest that researchers and policy-makers need to be aware that using the terms ‘physical education’ or ‘PE’ with preschool practitioners may be a problematic endeavour. Consulting with preschool practitioners is important for understanding why particular language, discourses and practices associated with physical education may be supported or resisted in preschool contexts. Furthermore, we suggest that preschool practitioners should critically reflect on taken-for-granted developmental discourses that position preschool children as ‘too young’ for particular experiences.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)117-130
Number of pages14
JournalPhysical Education and Sport Pedagogy
Issue number2
Early online date9 May 2013
Publication statusPublished - 4 Mar 2015


  • physical education
  • preschool
  • play
  • Scotland
  • developmental discourses


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