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The ABC’s and 123’s of Literacy, Math and Physical Education for Early Childhood

How do you bring the WOW factor when teaching the fundamentals? How do you capture the focus of the youngest wiggliest learners while maintaining educational accountability?  One answer is to tap into their propensity to learn by doing. Exercising students’ gross and fine motor skills can be an engaging, magical, and effective way for early childhood learners to develop foundational literacy skills.  

Students running with their arms linked.

Early Childhood students (ages 3-6) can be an intimidating audience! I remember walking into the gym to teach my very first P.E. lesson. I was so excited about my new role, following twelve years as an academic classroom teacher for grades K – 5. I had done my research and planned out what I thought would be a great lesson for eight thirty-minute classes for preschool and kindergarten students. It was the longest day of my life! The lesson was not a hit with me or the students.  That day made me rethink all the research and all the books that I had read to prepare me for transitioning into the role of a Physical Education Teacher. I realized that the research wasn’t enough. I had to be more creative in how I taught and in what I taught. I began anew by pulling from the content with which I was most familiar – literacy and math!

Over time, I developed an approach to teaching physical education that turns up the volume on creativity and magic – making, utilizes the inherent appeal of games, and is wholly integrated with key math and literacy skills.  The inverse of this approach is an equal opportunity.  By integrating fine and gross motor skills practice during math and literacy lessons, academic teachers can create an inspired learning environment for all students.

Step 1: Creativity & Magic

I found a colorful fairy doll in one of my kid’s closets – I decided I could turn her into “THE FITNESS FAIRY” – colorful, glittery and covered in sparkles  – she would be a perfect addition to the gym to spark the students’ imagination. I hung her from the rafters over the center court.  Then I found an old plastic “pretend” mailbox and placed it in the corner of the gym.  I crafted a  rhyme to introduce her to the students. 

“Hello Fitness Friends,
Our new school year has just begun.
Let’s head to the gym for lots of fun.
There’s so many things for you to do.
The obstacle course may challenge you.
Fun and games on P.E. day.
Once you’re here, you’ll want to stay.
There’ll be balls and hoops and so much more.
You’ll be amazed when you walk in the door.
Beanbags and scarves to catch and throw.  You’ll need to be ready, can’t be slow.  Jumping jacks make your heart beat fast.  Do your best, have a BLAST!  Stretch your arms and touch your toes.  Gotta get down low for a yoga pose.  Square dance, hip hop, and the robot.  Work all the dance moves you’ve got.
Fitness is the name of the game.  You’ll be so excited that you came!”

The Fitness Fairy
P.S. (Teacher reads the P.S. to the students from The Fitness Fairy)

I almost forgot to tell you that I like to spread a little glitter wherever I go.  I am NOT one to sit around in one spot for long.  Always use your “googly eyes” to see for yourself if I move around the gym or leave you some of my fairy favorite clues after I workout!

I decorated an envelope with colorful markers and glitter and placed the letter in the mailbox.   I then sprinkled glitter all over the gym for the students to find once they started working out.  Every day The Fitness Fairy leaves a note, or a clue based on the theme of the day’s workout.  The students can’t wait to be the selected student of the day to “get the mail” and share it with the class and find the clues. 

Step 2: Integrating Literacy, Math and Physical Education

While role playing and glitter can enliven a lesson, standards and core skills always guide learning goals.  The lessons all focus on the following skills and line up with the TEKS Standards:

  • Practice proper foot patterns and form and maintain balance while hopping, galloping, running, sliding and walking
  • Self – toss an object and throw underhand with opposite foot forward
  • Differentiate between personal & general space while moving and maintaining balance
  • Contrast between moving at different speeds and directions
  • Demonstrate safe practices by following rules, procedures, and directions during class and activities
  • Travel in different ways in a large group without bumping into each other or falling
  • Demonstrate non – locomotor movements – bending & stretching
  • Share space and equipment with others
  • Work in a group setting in cooperation with others
  • Volley a lightweight object to self
  • Identify physical activity for personal enjoyment with teacher guidance

My approach is built on both literary standards and physical education standards.

Phonological awareness is critical for learning to read any alphabetic writing system. Research shows that difficulty with phoneme awareness is a predictor of poor reading and spelling development. By fusing these skills with movement, students are more willing to learn and are less inhibited.  

The five components of effective reading instruction supported by the National Reading Panel are intertwined in the lessons.

  • Phonological awareness – rhyming to identification of individual speech sounds into words
  • Basic phoneme – grapheme correspondence rules are introduced
  • Vocabulary is expanded and enriched by developing word relationships by direct instruction in the context of reading
  • Fluency is incorporated within the reading of connected text in phrases and sentences  
  • A combination of instruction in reading comprehension – through listening, question generation, story structure, summarizing and inferencing

Here are a few sample lessons:

Note: teacher can change the locomotor skills per round for all of the games

Game 1: Lowercase Uppercase Relay Race


  • Large Cones to set up the 4 teams
    • Pink
    • Green
    • Orange
    • Yellow
  • 4 buckets to collect the letters in
  • Large foam ABC’s in the center of the basketball court
  • 4 hula hoops at the opposite side of the gym
    • Divide the tile ABC’s equally into the 4 hula hoops – 
    • Make sure each hula hoop has at least 1 vowel

Set Up/Play:

  • Divide the students equally into 4 teams of 3 students or more depending on the class size
  • Each team member stands beside their team’s color cone
  • Change locomotor skills with each round – running, skipping, galloping or use scooters
  • When the music begins
    • Player #1 runs down to their team color hula hoop 
    • Player #1 grabs 1 ABC tile from their team’s hula hoop – lowercase letters
    • Player # 1 shouts out the Letter Name & then races to the middle of the basketball court to find that letters uppercase match
    • Player #1 then races back and places the upper & lower case letter match in the team’s collection bucket
    • Play continues until all of the lowercase letters letters from each teams hula hoop have been successfully matched
  • This leads into Game 2
    • Have the students on each team lay out the letters they scored in a row – matching uppercase letters & lowercase letters
      • Bb, Yy, Oo, Aa, Mm – etc.
    • Have the students work together to try to build a word out of the letters they collected – example B-A-Y= Bay or Y – A – M =Yam
    • Build the word or words and share with the other teams
    • Play again but switch the letters for each team  – encourage the students to figure out that a vowel is needed to build consonant vowel consonant words.  

Game 3: Sight Word & ABC Round Up Game


  • 4 large cones
  • 4 hula hoops on the opposite end of the gym
  • 1 large piece of paper and a marker to write down what each student collected –
    • snap/sight word
    • Magic marker to write down the letters ot CVC words they found

How to Play

  • Player 1 races down ( use different locomotor skills called out by the teacher – running, skipping, galloping- option =  use a scooter)  to the hula hoop at the opposite side of the gym
  • Player 1 picks up one of the cards in the hula hoop & runs it back to their team
  • Then that player must write that word using the magic marker provided on their team sheet & place the letter or word in the baggie before the next team player can take a turn
  • Play continues until all of the letters and sight words have been collected and written down
  • Each team shares the sights they collected

Game 4: Balloon Volley


  • Balloon for each team of 2


  • Students volley the balloon with 5 snap words on it
  • Every Time it lands on the ground, the student must say and spell one of the sight words – switching up the sight word each time until all 5 have been practiced.

Game 5: Parachute Snap Words


  • Beach Ball with Snap Words written on it


  • Whole class shakes the chute
  • Once the ball falls out of the chute, teacher selects 1 student to retrieve the beach ball, that student will say and spell  1 of the words written on the beach ball, student then throws beach ball back into the center of the chute
  • Whole class will have a turn to  say and spell the sight words written on the beach ball each time it falls out of the chute
  • Option – use smaller parachutes with only 4-6 students – game will be faster and more turns available to say and spell the words

Game 6: Bowling for Sight Words


  • Cups with sight words written on it or
    • use ABC foam letters
  • Foam ball


  • Divide students into partners
  • Set up the cups in a triangle pattern 
  • Students use the foam ball to roll towards the cups
  • Count how many the cups are knocked over
  • Students say the letters that they knock over or say the sight word
  • Restack the cups after each round

Game 7: Hot Sticks


  • Popsicle sticks with sight words written on them


  • When the music is playing – the students pass the popsicle sticks around from student to student in a large circle
  • When the music stops playing – the student holding the stick must say and spell the sight word
  • That student will then run a lap around the gym and  then re- enter the game or
    •  the students who said the sight word will continue running laps or any other locomotor movement until all the students are running
  • Game continues until all students have a turn to say a sight word on a popsicle stick

Game 8: Alphabet Soup

Use ABC foam letters – 

Warm Up for this game:

DJ Raphi Left – Right Learn & Dance Exercise

  • sing the Right/Left hand song – place the letter R and the letter L in the gym for the students to find
  • discuss right hand vs left hand
  • play ABC relay
  • divide students into 4 teams

How to Play:

  • 1st student on each team runs to the center line, grabs 1 foam letter & brings it back to their team’s hula hoop
  • game continues for time = 2-3 minutes or until all letters have been collected
  • once time is called or all letters collected  – students try to make a word/words out of the letters they collected from the center court and added to their hula hoops
  • discuss what type of letter is needed to make a word – A VOWEL!  What are the vowels??? A-E-I-O-U
  • share words created
  • return letters to the center and play again – try to collect at least 1 vowel
  • Have each team share the word/words they created together as a team

This is my RIGHT hand,
Tapping on my head.
This is my LEFT hand
Looking far ahead.
RIGHT hand, LEFT hand,
Making a crown.
LEFT hand, RIGHT hand,
Rolling back down.

Game 9: Letter and Number Sorts using tiles ( addition and subtraction and sorting, matching)

  • Scatter all the number and letter tiles across the floor face down
  • Divide the students into 3 teams of 4-5 students
  • One at a time, the students run out and select a tile and place it back in their teams hula hoop
  • After all students have collected the tiles, they sort into letter and numbers
  • The team with the most letters and numbers total wins
  • Variation:
    • Change the locomotor skill each round
    • Encourage the students to
      • Say each letter collected 
      • How many letters were collected?
      • Say each number collected
      • How many numbers were collected?
      • Place the numbers in order from smallest to the biggest based on what your team collected
      • make addition or subtraction problems 
      • Try to make a word out of the letters collected

Math: Subtraction Bowling  – underhand rolling, ball control, eye hand coordination, math skills

  • Set up 10 bowling pins –
  • Students roll the bowling ball to see how many they can knock over
  • 10 – 4 = 6 pins left
  • 10 total pins
  • 4 knocked over
  • 6 still standing – 
  • team performs 6 JUMPING JACKS  
  • However many pins are left is how many of an exercise to be completed – frog jumps, push ups, sit ups, etc.

Balloon Volley

  • Volley the balloon counting by 1, 5, 10 and 2’s
  • Individual or with a partner

Over head line counting with a balloon or beach ball

  • Students stand in a row and pass the balloon or beach ball over head and say the number pattern or skip counting
  • Student in the back of the line now performs a locomotor skill to get to the front of the line
  • Game continues until the first person in the line is now the last person in line

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