How fundamental are fundamental movement skills?

Fundamental Motor Skills (FMS) are observable patterns of motor behaviours composed of basic locomotor activities such as running and jumping, manipulative activities such as throwing and catching, and stability activities such as balancing on one foot or walking on a narrow beam (Goodway et al, 2020). The development of FMS is considered important as a gateway in building proficiency to access various culturally relevant forms of movement such as sports, games and dances.

Stodden and colleagues (2008) highlighted what they perceive to be the importance of FMS in engaging in lifelong physical activity (PA). They proposed a model where motor competence and PA have a reciprocal and dynamic relationship (Figure 1). In early childhood physical activity drives motor competence, however middle childhood and adolescence there is a stronger relationship with motor competence driving physical activity. Higher levels of motor competence lead to high levels of physical activity (a positive spiral of engagement), and the opposite is true for those with lower levels of motor competence (a negative spiral disengagement).

Figure 1. Developmental trajectory model of motor competence and physical activity.

The model suggests relationships between physical activity, motor competence, perceived motor competence, health-related physical fitness, and obesity. Therefore the development of FMS, especially in early childhood years, is conceptualised to be important for engagement in PA and building positive perceptions of motor competence throughout an individual’s life.

In 2015, Leah Robinson and colleagues looked to review the evidence that supported the model and the relationships. They found that FMS is positively associated with perceived competence and multiple aspects of health (i.e., physical activity, cardiorespiratory fitness, muscular strength, muscular endurance, and a healthy weight status). Figure 2. is a visual guide of the evidence they found. The direction of the relationship is indicated with the arrows. The black arrows demonstrate a consistent relationship which has high levels of evidence; the dark grey arrow a variable relationship with moderate levels of evidence; the partial grey arrow indicates some evidence and the white arrow indicates limited testing and therefore limited evidence.

Figure 2. Research consensus on motor competence and health-related variables.

This growing body of evidence suggests if children obtain mastery in a repertoire of FMS, this will improve their motor competence leading to life long physical activity. In 2014,  academics raised 6 key issues with this taken for granted approach and learning outcome:

FMS are not all fundamental.
Each FMS only leads to a limited number of sports and/or activities and therefore skill transfer is limited.
Skills are learnt by doing rather than being taught.
That a focus on FMS ignores a constraints-based approach.
FMS is a ‘skills and drills’ teaching approach.
There is little data supporting the association between movement competence and physical activity.

This led to a response in 2016 in a paper titled Fundamental Movement Skills: An Important Focus which attempted to address the six key issues one by one by offering evidence to the contrary where possible. A counter was provided on 2018 in a paper titled Meaningful movement behaviour involves more than the learning of fundamental movement skills. In this post I shall attempt to summarise the dialogue and my own thinking that has emerged about how fundamental are FMS. (Warning – If you want an unbiased interpretation than may I suggest you stop reading this now and go and read the papers in order yourself).

FMS are not all fundamental:

How are FMS chosen? Are they all fundamental or are they just fundamental for dominant sports and games?  This contention may be born out of the development of FMS assessment instruments, which look to identify individuals with developmental issues. In doing that some skills may or may not be included, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they aren’t fundamental. This issue with this is a group of children may not be proficient in a proposed FMS, for example kicking, but that doesn’t prevent them from finding a form of meaningful movement that enriches their lives. Heulteen et al (2018) proposes changing FMS to foundational movement skills, which takes into account the cultural relevance of activities and the different reasons why people are physically active. This begins to address some of the concerns raised in this challenge about FMS.

Each FMS only leads to a limited number of sports and/or activities and therefore skill transfer is limited:

Does developing a highly advanced overarm throwing pattern, lead to lifelong movement activities such as kayaking, swimming, mountain biking or dancing? Why indeed do we focus on it when very few forms of movement that require it are participated in by adults as a means of being physically active? On the surface an overarm throw might only be fundamental for example playing a competitive cricket game, but the control, co-ordination, dynamic balance and perceived competence it contributes by developing it might transfer into other skills and activities. Learning these FMS in an isolated fashion though may mean missing the context and intentionality that are needed for transfer to occur. There is also the question of skill stacking. Is helping a child to embrace cricket as a lifetime physical activity just the collection of different FMS such as running, throwing, hitting and catching or is there something else needed besides?

Skills are learnt by doing rather than being taught:

This is a rehash of the play vs. practice debate. From my perspective they aren’t dichotomous but complimentary. The concern is that if FMS is a legitimate outcome of PE programmes, this will lead to decontextualised practice which ignores their interaction with the environment. However quality practice, informed instruction and scaffolding through modelling and questioning can no doubt enhance motor learning, especially in young people that have been movement deprived. Skills are learnt by doing, but good teaching can enrich that experience, especially in PE. The concept of deliberate preparation may take us beyond this ‘play or practice trap’, at least within PE, allowing us to develop psycho-motor and pyscho-behavioural skills so that young people are equipped to both play or practice when they want.

That a focus on FMS ignores a constraints-based approach:

A constraints-based approach proposes that movement behaviours emerge through the interaction of individual, environmental and task constraints. The debate on FMS focuses on the environmental constraint and whether we can provide an authentic learning experience. An authentic learning experience includes the where, when, with whom and why the FMS is being performed, not just a sole focus on the how. The response here is a sound one in my opinion. That an authentic learning environment is also a developmentally appropriate one, based on many constraints of the individual, such as their current ability, previous experience and the skilled that is being learn. That may require the environment to being a closed one. (James Rudd’s excellent podcast on an ecological approach to developing movement skills covers this issue and the next issue very well.)

FMS is a ‘skills and drills’ teaching approach:

This is a pedagogical debate, one that is very current and one that will continue. It can be framed in multiple ways, but one frame from a PE perspective is should we provide movement solutions for children to use or provide movement problems for them to solve? Again it isn’t one or the other, they are complimentary but I would tend to prioritise the latter and move to the former if and when required. If developing FMS is important, then it doesn’t always have to be in a decontextualised drill based approach, look at the work for Boing for example as a way that attempts to develop motor competence through a play.

There is little data supporting the association between movement competence and physical activity:

Does (A) mastery of FMS result in (B) life long physical activity? The growing evidence suggests that there clearly is a relationship between A and B, but there is no evidence I can see that A causes B. If only promoting life long physical activity was as simple at developing a range of FMS. I do think PE’s focus should be to develop actual and perceived motor competence, but that requires also providing contextually rich and meaningful experiences and reasons for children to want to develop them and continue to use and develop them beyond PE.

Motor Competence and Meaning

Research demonstrates that children’s FMS are declining. This then obviously contributes to Stodden’s negative spiral of disengagement. A natural solution is to better teach and improve young people’s FMS. This will no doubt improve their FMS, but the key question is does that lead to a voluntary adoption of meaningful physical activity pursuits in life?

An important mediating factor between the relationship between FMS and PA, is perceived competence, which requires us to consider not just a physically safe but a psychologically safe environment within PE. I propose that another is perceived meaning and personal relevance of forms of movement. I believe that motor competence and meaning found in movement are also in a dynamically reciprocal relationship. Developing competence (beyond a narrow frame of a list of FMS to achieve) helps children to find meaning. Supporting young people to find meaning in forms of movement provides a reason to develop motor competence. Therefore it becomes PE’s role not just to develop motor competence, but to provide meaning for that development. Karen Lambert in a recent paper on Re-conceptualising embodied pedagogies in physical education asks a really important question we need to consider:

“How does our PE storyline and practices match up against many of the other instantly more gratifying social, leisure and extra-curricular pleasures that are regularly, freely and instantaneously available..?”

Motor competence is declining and this is something to be concerned about. In my experience part of the reason it is declining is that movement has lost any real meaning for lots of the young people I have taught. The dominant narratives we adults provide for them to move; of performativity,  of idealised and unrealistic views of fitness, of overcoming pathogenic views of health and of a deficiency of character rectified through playing sports no longer appeals to the young people in the world we have created.

We need to develop motor competence, but that needs to sit within a pedagogy of meaning making. This requires us to not only provide young people culturally relevant meanings why movement may enrich their lives, but to help them find personally relevant ones as well.

4 thoughts on “How fundamental are fundamental movement skills?

  1. Excellent well-researched article which does much to contextualise the development of movement skills across complementary pedagogical approaches such as play-based learning. The connection between FMS and specific games performance could be seen to actually negatively impact on attitude towards lifelong PA for some participants, so there is plenty of food for thought around the curriculum and pedagogy we present, and what is experienced by the children we teach.


  2. I think the perception of how FMS is delivered is key to this argument and what we see as FMS. There has been discussion around the word “athlete” of late and I would like a similar discussion around FMS.
    I we can deliver increased “base” movement skills we can trigger greater accuracy and increase positive outcomes in PA, this will spark higher engagement. The point raised by Lambert is then how do we a PE or practitioners manage the environment in which these learners inhabit. What cultures do we have in place to counter these instantly gratifying experiences.
    FMS should be embedded, it should be like making the game an extension of the warm up, embed the ‘FMS’ in the teaching.
    Maybe I am being naive. But the picture is clear. Get them early. Make it fun. Widen the bubble of saftey. Let them try and fail. Give them the basic tools however you wrap it up FMS or other. Make application of skill fun and engaging. Support the culture and environment with authenticity, the rest is at the feet of the students?


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