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Physical Development: An Introduction

Infant and toddler physical development includes the physical growth and motor skills that occur during the first three years of life. These skills and abilities affect how a child interacts with other people, objects, and the environment. This lesson will further define physical development of infants and toddlers, as well as offer an opportunity to think about the importance of physical development for infants, toddlers, and adults.

  • Examine the importance of physical activity in your own life.
  • Describe physical development of infants and toddlers.
  • Recognize ways physical development affects other areas of development.



Take a moment to think about activities you participate in regularly. Household chores? Walking? Running? Gardening? Shoveling snow? Do you consider yourself naturally active? You might think to yourself, “I’m so busy, even the thought of adding physical activity seems ridiculous!” Being physically active does not mean we have to run a marathon.

Being physically active is a process that begins by developing an awareness of your personal activity level, and then establishing behaviors that enhance your wellbeing; such as walking for 30 minutes three times a week. Recognizing your current level of physical activity is an important step that can help you better identify your health needs and develop the skills and knowledge to live a healthy lifestyle. Overall, physically active staff members tend to be healthier than those who are not active, and they miss fewer days of work due to illness. Physical activity enables staff to handle the pressures of work and family life by decreasing stress and promoting mental health, which leads to more positive interactions with children and their families. Caregivers and teachers can consider their personal level of activity or inactivity as they plan physical and motor development experiences for the infants and toddlers in their care.

Infant and Toddler Physical Growth and Development

Physical development refers to the advancements and refinements of motor skills, or, in other words, children’s abilities to use and control their bodies. Physical development is one of the many domains of infant and toddler development. It relates to the growth and skill of development in the body, including the brain, muscles, and senses. For example, babies learn about the world as they develop their physical senses of sight, touch, smell, sound, and taste. In fact, babies can even hear before they are born. Very early on newborns are interested in looking at faces, bright colors, and contrasting patterns. Within several days after birth an infant can recognize its mother’s smell and the sound of her voice. From birth, infants are aware of the world around them. Their ability to grow, develop, and learn occurs quickly as they explore the world through their senses and use motor skills.

Gross-motor skills and fine-motor skills develop during infancy and toddlerhood. Gross-motor skills involve the mastery of large muscle movements, as well as the building of strength in muscle groups like the arms, legs, and core. Examples of such skills for infants and toddlers include reaching, rolling, crawling, walking, and climbing. Fine-motor skills involve smaller, more precise movements, particularly movements of the hands and fingers, such as grasping, pointing, and clapping. As their bodies grow, infants and toddlers progressively strengthen their muscles and improve their control and coordination. Each newly-developed motor skill results from skills learned earlier and contributes to the development of future skills. Newborn infants do not have the strength to hold up their heads. However, as they learn and develop muscle control, they become better able to support their heads, and can move them side to side as they explore and observe their environment. Skill mastery and development are also the result of brain growth and development. Consider an infant who is starting to walk while holding on to couches and furniture. This child must have acquired strength in the large muscles and adequate control over their body movement. At the same time, the child also relies on vision to determine where to walk and what to hold onto. As infants and toddlers grow, their bodies and minds become more capable of simple and increasingly complex movements and experiences.

Parents, teachers, and caregivers must stimulate toddlers and infants to encourage the development of gross- and fine-motor skills. For example, you may stimulate physical development by encouraging an infant to walk back and forth alongside a couch. Eventually, the child will become accustomed to the balance and muscle movements that are required to walk and be able to do it on their own. Infants and toddlers depend on their caregivers to meet their needs for safety and security. When infants and toddlers receive consistent, responsive care and attention from nurturing adults, they’re able to establish a sense of trust in the world. This sense of trust and safety in the world is essential to promote growth in all areas of development; including physical development. When infants and toddlers feel safe and secure, they are better able to use their brains, muscles, and senses to explore the world around them.

Below you will find the typical progression of motor skills across the development from infant to toddler for gross- and fine-motor skills, respectively.

ReachTransferPincer GraspPointStackScribble

Importance of Physical Growth and Development

Preparing infants and toddlers for school requires more than developing a set of skills; it includes physical development and health. When an infant or toddler is happy and healthy, they’re more likely to engage with their environment and surroundings. This allows infants and toddlers the ability to further their learning through exploration. Thus, physical development and health can help prepare infants and toddlers for activities that support language development, social skills, and other areas of learning, which result in later success in school.

While there isn’t a specific area of development that determines later school success, research highlights the importance of supporting a strong foundation for development to grow by promoting healthy physical, social, emotional, and cognitive development. During infancy, these foundations of child development begin and continue to be built upon as other areas of development progress. For example, young children are able to develop the ability to sit, crawl, and walk from their primitive reflex responses. Once infants and toddlers are able to move on their own, they are then able to explore and expand their cognitive development through ways that were not possible before they were able to sit, crawl, and walk.

Think about what life might be like for a one-year-old who has not started crawling. While sitting on their own, they struggle to coordinate movements, such as pushing up to a crawling position and propelling themselves forward with their arms and legs. Most objects and people in their environment must be brought close to them by others in order for them to explore. How might the limitations in physical and motor development impact other areas of development for this 1-year-old?

ExplorationLimited or delayed motor development and skills can result in decreased exploration of the environment.
Cognitive DevelopmentLimited exploration can mean limited experiences. For example, their learning about cause and effect (a contributor to cognitive development) may be limited merely because there are less opportunities to engage in “experiments” with objects in their environment.
Social DevelopmentThe one-year-old is only able to observe the play of other children within their range of sight. This may limit their ability to make eye contact with peers, talk, and play with other children or adults. All of which can negatively affect the child’s development of social skills.
Emotional developmentLimited interaction and play with other children influences a child’s emotional development. It may be difficult for a child to develop self-confidence, empathy, and the ability to react and express their emotions.

Notice below some of the different ways that physical development is connected to other areas of development:

How does physical development affect other areas of development for infants and toddlers?

Physical development is connected to cognitive development (thinking skills) in infants.

Seven-month-olds are given a toy. When the infants use their motor skills to push a button, they hear an exciting sound. The infants are presented with the toy again after a period of wait time. They immediately push the button repeatedly, suggesting that they learned how to perform an action to cause a sound (Hauf & Aschersleben, 2008).

Physical development is connected to cognitive development (thinking skills) in toddlers.

Around 18 months of age, toddlers engage in play which involves imitation, such as pushing a toy truck while making engine noises or striking a ball with a bat (Laplante, et. al., 2007).

Motor development is connected to emotional development.

As children develop more motor skills they are able to interact and communicate emotions and needs with adults and peers in more ways than crying. Their growing motor development skills allow them to express their emotions through non-verbal communication like, stomping when angry, clapping when excited, smiling when happy, and pointing at objects to further express their needs.

Motor development is connected to social development.

Children use specific behaviors involving motor skills to connect with their peers. For example, when mobile infants roll a ball back and forth with their caregiver they learn how to take turns and play with others.


Additional examples include:

  • As infants grasp toys with their fingers and hands, they build small-muscle (fine-motor) skills, which help them point to objects and gesture at items they wish to communicate about with others. Fine motor skills are also necessary for early literacy in turning pages and the exposure to various forms of writing utensils. (communication).
  • Toddlers begin scribbling, which later leads to writing their names and other words as they get older (communication).
  • As toddlers push and pull a friend in a wagon while outdoors, they learn about relationships with others and waiting for a turn (social development).

Making an effort to better understand infant and toddler physical development can open up opportunities for you to enhance the care you offer infants, toddlers and families.


Physical Development - Its Connection to Other Areas of Development

Watch this video to learn how physical development is linked to other areas of development.


There are many things you can do to help infants and toddlers develop physically in your program:

  • Support infants’ bodies and heads in an upright position when you hold them to allow better observation of their environment.
  • Allow lots of close face to face time when you talk and play with them.
  • Hold onto the infant’s or toddler’s feet and rotate or massage them gently as you sing songs like “The Wheels on the Bus.”
  • Provide many opportunities to practice and use new skills, such as sitting up on your lap as you support an infant’s chest and back (between 4 and 6 months).
  • Spend time together on the floor and provide lots of tummy time.
  • Place toys and objects nearby and offer opportunities for infants to reach for them.
  • Create safe areas for infants to crawl around and explore.
  • Provide supportive surfaces for children to pull up to stand and walk along to reach new and interesting toys.
  • Offer teething rings, sucking toys, rattles, and other objects for children to reach, grab, and bring to their mouth for exploration.
  • Introduce toddlers to a variety of toys including stacking cups, connecting toys, toys with buttons and knobs, and large puzzle toys.
  • Encourage toddlers to use a wheeled riding toy to move and interact with their environment.

Completing this Course

For more information on what to expect in this course, the Physical Development Competency Reflection, and a list of the accompanying Learn, Explore and Apply resources and activities offered throughout the lessons, visit the Infant & Toddler Physical Development Course Guide. 

Please note the References & Resources section at the end of each lesson outlines reference sources and resources to find additional information on the topics covered. As you complete lessons, you are not expected to review all the online references available. However, you are welcome to explore the resources further if you have interest, or at the request of your trainer, coach, or administrator.


Use the Supporting Physical Development activity below, to reflect on your experiences and the physical development of infants and toddlers. Answer the questions and then share your thoughts and responses with a trainer, coach, or administrator.


Review the Overcoming Barriers to Being Active quiz below from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which lists reasons people give for why they do not get as much physical activity as they think they should. Read through each statement and respond to how likely you are to make these statements. Next, tally the questions to identify any key barriers to your active lifestyle. Is this what you expected? What can you do next to overcome these barriers and strengthen your physical well-being?


Skills that involve the use of smaller muscles in the arms, hands and fingers that allows a child to perform tasks such as drawing, cutting with scissors, stringing beads, tying, zipping or molding clay
Skills that involve the use of large muscles in the legs or arms, as well as general strength and stamina; examples of such skills include jumping, throwing, climbing, running, skipping or kicking
Physical development:
The advancements and refinements in children’s motor skills, or in other words, children’s abilities to use and control their bodies


True or False? Infants explore the world around them through their senses.
A few families in your infant-toddler program have asked what they can do at home to support their infants’ physical development. You suggest the following:
Your co-worker, Talia, moves around the room talking and singing to the babies in her care. What do you say to her about this?
References & Resources

Hauf, P., & Aschersleben, G. (2008). Action–Effect Anticipation in Infant Action Control. Psychological Research, 72: 203–210.

Laplante, D. P., Zelazo, P. R., Brunet, A., & King, S. (2007). Functional play at 2 years of age: Effects of prenatal maternal stress. Infancy, 12, 69-93.

Lokken, G. (2000). The Playful Quality of the Toddling “Style.” Qualitative Studies in Education, 13: 531–542.

Mayes, L. C., & Zigler, E. (2006). An Observational Study of the Affective Concomitants of Mastery in Infants. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 33, 659-667.

Ward, M., Lee, S., & Lipper, E. (2000). Failure to Thrive is Associated with Disorganized Infant-Mother Attachment and Unresolved Maternal Attachment. Infant Mental Health Journal, 21(6): 428-442.

Waters, E., Weinfield, N., & Hamilton, C. (2000). The Stability of Attachment from Infancy to Adolescence and Early Adulthood: General Discussion. Child Development, 71(3), 703-706.

Zeanah, C. (Ed.). (2000). Handbook of infant mental health (2nd ed.). New York: The Guilford Press.