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Physical Developmental Milestones: Preschool

This lesson will help you understand typical physical development or, in other words, how children develop and refine motor skills, during their preschool years.  You will learn about the progression of developmental milestones and what to do if you are concerned about a child’s development. 

  • Identify typical physical developmental milestones in preschool children.
  • Discuss what to do if you are concerned about a child’s development.
  • Discuss factors that influence physical growth and development.



The preschool years are a time that seems to be in constant movement. Preschoolers are busy moving in their environments, both indoors and outdoors. They spend large amounts of time running, climbing, jumping, and chasing each other; they scribble, paint, build, pour, cut with scissors, put puzzles together, and string beads. Their motor skills are significantly refined from the time they were toddlers, and they are much more coordinated and purposeful in their actions. They also demonstrate improved speed and strength, and become increasingly more independent.

Physical Growth and Appearance

During the preschool years, there is a steady increase in children’s height, weight, and muscle tone. Compared with toddlers, preschoolers are taller and leaner. Their legs and trunks continue to grow, and their heads are not as large in proportion to their bodies. As preschoolers’ bodies develop over time, the areas in their brains that control movement continue to mature, enabling them to master gross and fine motor skills.


Let’s take a look at preschoolers’ physical development. Read the chart below for a closer look at what preschoolers can do with their bodies. Keep in mind that each child is unique and that individual differences exist in regard to the precise age at which children meet these milestones. Milestones should not be seen as rigid checklists to evaluate children’s development. Rather, as highlighted in the Cognitive Development course, milestones provide a guide for when to expect certain skills or behaviors to emerge in young children based on cognitive development, gross motor development, fine motor development, hearing, speech, vision, and social and emotional development. Think of milestones as guidelines to help you understand and identify typical patterns of development in children and to help you know when and what to look for as children mature. Like a family’s pediatrician, family child care providers should be knowledgeable about children’s developmental milestones. You can use your knowledge of these milestones to meet children’s needs in your program. Even though the skills highlighted in the chart develop in a predictable sequence over the preschool years, each child is unique. Your goal is to help all children grow and learn to reach their maximum potential.

Chart: Movement and Physical Developmental Milestones in Preschool

Age 3
  • Climbs well
  • Runs easily
  • Pedals a tricycle
  • Walks up and down stairs, one foot on each step
  • Washes and dries hands
  • Kicks and throws a small ball
  • Draw a circle with a crayon, pencil, or marker
  • Uses a fork
  • Dresses self in loose clothing
Age 4
  • Hops and stands on one foot up to 2 seconds
  • Pours, cuts with supervision, and mashes own food
  • Catches a bounced ball most of the time
  • Draws a person with two to four body parts
  • Uses scissors
  • Jump over objects and climb playground ladders
  • Starts to copy some capital letters
  • Get dressed with minimal help (zippers, snaps, and buttons may still be a little hard)
Age 5
  • Stands on one foot for 10 seconds or longer
  • Hops, and may be able to skip
  • Can do a somersault
  • Uses a fork and spoon and sometimes a table knife
  • Swings and climbs
  • Can use toilet on own
  • Can print some letters or numbers
  • Copies a triangle and other geometric shapes

Influences on Physical Growth

Physical growth and development entails more than just becoming taller, stronger, or larger. It involves a series of changes in body size, composition, and proportion. Biological and environmental factors also affect physical growth and development. In this section, we will examine factors that affect physical growth in young children.

  • Brain development: Even though motor abilities in preschool emerge as a result of physical growth and development, many new motor skills are also the result of brain growth. In other words, movement involves more than simply using arms or legs. Think about a preschooler kicking a ball back and forth with a peer or caregiver. Being able to do this task can be attributed not only to skill mastery and development, but also to the brain’s ability to organize visual and auditory messages that guide a child to help make decisions, such as adjusting movement, deciding how hard or soft to kick the ball, waiting if needed and kicking the ball back accordingly. As a family child care provider, you can enhance children’s brain development by engaging children in meaningful interactions that enable them to form connections with their environment and create an understanding about how things work, how things are done, how to treat others, how to deal with emotions, and how to go about their daily lives. Ultimately, in doing so, you help children improve existing skills and acquire new ones.

  • Genetic Makeup: Genetic inheritance plays a significant part in children’s physical growth. However, it is important to acknowledge that even though genes influence children’s development, physical growth, like other aspects of development, happens as the result of the interplay between heredity and the environment. Think about your role in creating a rich and stimulating environment that fosters children’s optimal physical development.

  • Nutrition: In order to reach optimal physical growth and development, especially at a time when their brains and bodies are developing so rapidly, young children require healthy, balanced diets that provide them with vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients. As a family child care provider, you serve as a role model for children by promoting these healthy habits yourself.

  • Cultural Diversity: Despite universal patterns in child development, there are variations in how and when children develop motor skills. Children’s environments, family culture, and particular life circumstances can affect how they develop and master motor skills. Always be respectful and sensitive about children’s backgrounds and prior experiences. Your goal is to help each child reach their full potential.


During the preschool years, you will see significant development in children’s motor skills. Watch this video to learn about milestones in physical growth during the preschool years.

Physical Development in Preschool

Watch physical growth and development across the preschool years.


Understanding developmental milestones is an important part of working with young children. Learning about and understanding how preschoolers use their bodies will help you know how to support them in developing their motor skills and will also help you decide what kinds of learning experiences to plan. Keep in mind that each child is different and that you may have to adapt routines and activities to meet each child’s unique needs. Consider the following:

  • Plan meaningfully: In your daily interactions with the children in your care, purposefully plan activities that allow you to observe how children are developing and refining their motor skills. For example, you can observe how children move around during free play, how they follow directions as you lead them through activities, or how they manipulate objects in their hands as you play with them. You should use this valuable observational information to plan activities that promote further development in children or to adapt goals and activities to meet the particular learning needs of any individual child.

  • Be sensitive to individual children’s needs: As you engage in these observations, remember that each child is different and that sometimes children may not reach milestones as expected. If you are concerned about a child’s development, talk with the child’s family. This may be difficult, but it’s important, as it can make the difference in meeting a child’s needs. Share information with families about typical child development and let them know you are available to talk. Always feel welcome to talk to a trainer, coach, or family child care administrator in your program about ways to help a child progress in your classroom.

  • Be responsive to families’ needs and preferences: If a family approaches you and shares concerns about their child’s development, encourage them to talk to their child’s pediatrician. A pediatrician can perform a developmental screening and possibly refer the child to a specialist. Families of children over age 3 should also contact their local school district. The school district can arrange a free evaluation of the child’s development to assess for developmental delays and arrange services and supports.


Consider all the different ways preschoolers can use their bodies and what they learn about themselves, their peers, and the world as they master newly-learned skills and develop new ones. This activity will help you think about the significance of physical development and movement in preschool.  

Read and review the Thinking about Physical Development activity below. Take a few minutes to describe movements you see preschool children make. Think about what children are learning while engaging in these movements. Then, share and discuss your responses with your trainer, coach or family child care administrator.


These tools from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention can help you share information about child development with families.

Read and review the Tracking Your Child’s Development brochure and the Milestone Moments document. Discuss with your trainer, coach, or family child care administrator and consider sharing it with families.

Parents may be interested also in the Milestone Tracker Mobile App from the CDC, which they can access using this link:


Developmental milestones:
A set of skills or behaviors that most children can do at a certain age.
Developmental delay:
This may be suspected when children do not meet developmental milestones at the expected times; delays may occur in any area of development.
Developmental screening:
A tool used to help identify children who are not developing as expected and who may need supports; screening can be completed by pediatricians, teachers, or others trained in child development.
A basic unit of inheritance responsible for some physical or biological characteristics.
The transmission of genes from a parent to their offspring.


Finish this statement: Developmental milestones are ...
Which of the following should not be expected of a 3-year-old child?
What should you do if you think a child is not reaching developmental milestones?
References & Resources

Berk, L. E. (2013). Child Development (9th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2010). The Association Between School-Based Physical Activity, Including Physical Education, and Academic Performance.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021). Developmental milestones.

Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co., Inc. (2002). Ages and stages questionnaire (ASQ).

Schickedanz, J. A., Hansen, K., & Forsyth, P. D. (2000). Understanding Children. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing Company.

Trawick-Smith, J. W. (2014). Early Childhood Development: A Multicultural Perspective, (6th ed.). Upper Saddle River, N J: Pearson Education Inc.