Physical Development: An Introduction
Infant and toddler physical development includes the physical and motor skills that emerge during the first three years of life. These skills and abilities affect connections 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? Being physically active does not mean we have to run a marathon. Do you consider yourself naturally active? You might be saying, “I’m so busy, it’s ridiculous!”
Being physically active is a process that begins first with 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 where you are in terms of physical activity is an important step that can help you identify your health needs and develop the skills and knowledge to live a more healthful life. Physically active staff members are overall 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 further leads to more positive interactions with children and their families. Personal preferences for activity or inactivity can contribute to the types of physical and motor development experiences that teachers make available to the infants and toddlers in their care. By acknowledging the influence of your own physical activity upon children in your program, you can better support their physical development.
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 development of 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 hear well before they are born. Newborns like to look at faces and will seek interesting things to look at very early on. An infant can recognize the mother’s smell and the sound of her voice within days after birth. From birth, infants are aware of the world around them, and the ability to grow, develop, and learn occurs quickly as infants begin to explore through their senses.
Gross-motor skills and fine-motor skills are developed 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, and climbing. Fine-motor skills involve smaller, more precise movements, particularly movements of the hands and fingers, such as grasping. As their bodies grow, infants and toddlers progressively strengthen their muscles and become better able to control their bodies. Each new motor skill that is developed is the result of an earlier skill and a contributor to new skills. Newborn infants do not have the strength to hold up their heads, however as they learn and develop control of muscles, they will be able to support their heads and move them from side to side to explore. 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 round-edged tables. This child must have acquired strength in the large muscles and a certain level of control over body movement. At the same time, the child also relies on vision to determine where to walk and what to cling onto. As infants and toddlers grow, their bodies and minds become capable of simple and mildly-complex movement and experiences.
Parents, teachers, and caregivers must stimulate toddlers and infants and encourage the development of gross- and fine-motor skills. For example, you may stimulate physical development by holding a toddler upright while moving each leg to imitate walking. Eventually, the child will become accustomed to the balance and muscle movements that are required to walk and be able to do it on his 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 are able to establish a sense of trust in the world. This sense of being loved and feeling safe is essential to stimulate areas of development, including physical development. When they feel safe and secure, infants and toddlers use their brains, muscles, and senses to explore the world around them.
Below you will find the typical progression of gross- and fine-motor skills in infants and toddlers, respectively.
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 healthy and happy, he or she is more likely to engage in learning. Physical development and health can help prepare infants and toddlers for activities that support language development, social skills, and other areas of learning for school success.
While there is not one particular area of development that determines later school success, research highlights the importance of supporting a strong foundation by promoting healthy physical, social, emotional, and cognitive development. During infancy, foundations are created and built upon as other areas of development progress, such as physical and motor development. For example, young children will develop the abilities to balance, crawl, and walk from their foundational reflex responses. When infants and toddlers are able to move on their own, they are able to explore and contribute to their cognitive development in a way that was not possible when they were unable to walk or crawl.
Think about what life might be like for a one-year-old who has not started crawling. While sitting on his own, he struggles to coordinate movements, such as pushing up to a crawling position and moving his hands and legs at the same time. Most objects and people in his environment are brought to him to explore. How might the limitations in physical and motor development impact other areas of development for this 1-year-old?
|Exploration||Limited motor development and skills can mean limited exploration of the environment.|
|Cognitive Development||Limited exploration can mean limited experiences. For example, learning about cause and effect (a contributor to cognitive development) can be limited merely because of restricted “experiments” with the things nearby.|
|Social Development||The one-year-old can only observe the play of other children within his range of sight. This can affect the development of particular social skills.|
|Emotional development||The child depends on other people in his environment to provide stimulation. This can affect emotional development, as it may be difficult for the child to make his or her own way in the world and achieve autonomy|
Below, you will see some of the different ways that physical development is connected to other areas of development:
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.
Toddlers, around 18 months of age, 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).
Infant motor development is connected to emotional development.
Mastery motivation is the internal drive to successfully complete tasks, such as mastering motor skills. Infants display more mastery motivation behaviors (e.g., smiling and persistence) when they engage in new, challenging motor tasks rather than when they use familiar and previously learned skills (Mayes & Zigler, 2006).
Motor development is connected to social development in toddlers.
Children use specific behaviors involving motor skills to connect with their peers. For example, one- and two-year olds bounce a ball to capture peers’ attention.
Additional examples include:
- As infants grasp toys with their fingers and hands, they are building small-muscle (fine-motor) skills, which will help them hold crayons and pencils as they get older (communication).
- Toddlers begin scribbling, which leads to writing their names and other words as they get older (communication).
- As mobile infants roll a ball back and forth with their caregiver, they learn how to take turns and play with others (social development).
- 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.
What to Expect in this Course
Upcoming lessons will cover specific topics to help you focus on physical development, such as:
- Developmental milestones and influences on early physical growth and development
- Creating environments and experiences to support physical development of infants and toddlers in your program
- Supporting physical development within routines
- Promoting physically healthy lifestyles
As you work through the content in this course, your trainer, coach or supervisor will use the attached competency checklist to assess and provide feedback about your practices. This competency checklist outlines the essential practices for creating environments and experiences to support physical development in your work with children, families, and coworkers; it offers a guide about what you should be able to do after completing this course.
There are many things you can do to help infants and toddlers develop physically in your program:
- Support infants’ bodies and heads when you hold them.
- Help the infant see your face when you talk and play with her or him.
- Hold onto the infant’s or toddler’s feet and rotate 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 neck and back (between 4 and 6 months).
- Spend time together on the floor and provide tummy time.
- Place things nearby and offer opportunities and chances for infants to reach for things.
- Create safe areas for infants to crawl around and explore.
- Offer teething rings, sucking toys, rattles, and other things to reach and grab.
- Share toys with knobs and buttons.
- Introduce toddlers to stacking and connecting toys.
- Spend time with toddlers using four-wheeled riding toys.
Download and print the handout, Supporting Physical Development, which outlines questions you can ask yourself when considering the physical development of infants and toddlers. Answer the questions and then share your thoughts and responses with a supervisor, trainer or coach.
Download and print the Overcoming Barriers to Being Active quiz from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which lists reasons people give to describe why they do not get as much physical activity as they think they should. Read through each statement and think about how likely you are to say each of the statements. Next, identify any key barriers you might be experiencing. Are they what you expected? What will you do next?
Hauf, P., & Aschersleben, G. (2008). Action–Effect Anticipation in Infant Action Control. Psychological Research, 72: 203–210.
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.