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Physical Development: An Introduction

Physical activity affects physical, emotional and intellectual health. Understanding the importance of this and implementing strategies to support physical activity at your program promotes better outcomes for everyone your program serves. 

  • Reflect on the importance of physical activity in your own life.
  • Articulate the importance of physical activity to staff and families.
  • Apply knowledge to support a culture of wellness at your program.



Take a minute to think about your own physical development. Did you excel at sports, or were you the last person chosen to be on a team? Was physical activity valued by your family? Was there something you always wanted to try but lacked the confidence to do so? Did you mature earlier or later than other kids your age? Do you think these experiences shaped your current feelings toward physical activity? While everyone develops at a different rate, how we feel about ourselves and our approach to physical activity are influenced by experiences that occur very early in our lives. Your program plays a pivotal role in shaping the way that children and youth approach physical activity.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an adult between the ages of 18 and 64 needs at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity movement (like brisk walking) per week and muscle-strengthening activities on two or more days per week. However, Americans are less active in general than they once were. Regular physical activity is one of the most important things you can do for your health. It can help:

Let’s explore each of these benefits of physical activity in more detail, giving you information to help your program promote wellness by supporting physical development of children and youth.

Understanding Physical Development

Physical development is one domain of development. It relates to the changes, growth and skill development of the body, including the brain, muscles and senses. Physical development is evident primarily in gross-motor and fine-motor skills. These skills are essential to children’s overall health and wellness. Gross-motor skills 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. Fine-motor skills involve the use of small muscles in the arms, hands, and fingers and are supported by advancements in perception. Examples of such skills include stringing beads, scribbling, cutting or drawing. Fine-motor skills enable children to perform a variety of self-help tasks such as using utensils or dressing themselves.

image caption: Great Job David! Now pass to Breanna.Children’s motor abilities develop as a result of physical development and growth. As their bodies mature over time, children progressively strengthen their muscles and become able to better control their bodies. Skill mastery and development, however, are also the result of brain growth and development. Consider a preschooler kicking a ball back and forth with a peer. This child must have acquired control over movement and muscles to be able to kick the ball. At the same time, the child also depends on vision to determine the location and direction in which to kick the ball and on hearing for instructions from a peer or caregiver. As children move through the school-age years, their bodies and minds become capable of increasingly more-complex movement patterns and experiences.

Physical Activity for Staff

Physical Health

Physical activity enhances health and increases life expectancy by reducing the likelihood of obesity and disease. Small changes now can lead to big differences in the quality and duration of our lives in the future.

  • Weight Management: Maintaining a healthy weight is one of the best ways you can take care of yourself because body weight impacts other aspects of one’s overall health. Obesity increases medical spending and decreases productivity, quality of life, and life expectancy. If recent trends were to continue, all adults would be overweight or obese by 2048. One in every three youth is overweight or obese, and overweight adolescents have a 70 percent chance of becoming overweight or obese adults, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Physical activity and a healthy diet are key to managing weight. Many people find it difficult to both eat well and exercise however, when coupled together, they are the best prescription for preventing disease and increasing longevity.
  • Lower Rates of Disease: Managing your weight with healthy eating and activity lowers your rate of disease. The rates of heart disease, stroke and certain cancers are lower for people who are physically active. While heredity is a contributing factor to chronic disease, our lifestyle makes an equally large impact on our overall health. When it comes to disease, we can either take a proactive approach by eating well and regularly exercising or we can ignore the value of maintaining a healthy weight and wait for illness to strike. The prospect of one day being a burden to loved ones or being unable to care for yourself as you age is not what most people hope for in their futures. Incorporating physical activity into our daily routine boosts our ability to live longer, healthier lives.

Mental Health

Physical activity not only affects our physical healthy, but it also has a great impact upon mental health as well. Physical activity reduces stress and improves mood. The ability to handle the ups and downs of life with a smile on our face may be just a walk away.

  • Reduce Stress: Stress can be a silent killer. Prolonged levels of stress are associated with weight gain and illness. There is evidence that the most harmful type of fat that gathers around our midsections may be the result of stress. Food often becomes the drug of choice when people are stressed. This leads to a pattern of unhealthy behaviors, none of which get to the root of the problem — stress. Though it isn’t practical to expect to eliminate stress completely from your life, you can reduce the amount of stress you experience and eliminate some of the harmful effects it has on your health with physical activity. Being active will reduce stress and enhance life.
  • Improve Mood: Runners have known for a long time that there is a connection between physical activity and how they feel emotionally. “Runners high” is a term used to describe the euphoria that runners and other athletes experience after engaging in vigorous exercise. This mood-enhancing outcome of exercise is due to the release of feel-good brain chemicals. These natural chemicals are free and available without a prescription. Some other benefits include:
    • Gain confidence. Meeting exercise goals or challenges, even small ones, can boost your self-confidence. Getting in shape can also make you feel better about your appearance.
    • Take your mind off worries. Exercise is a distraction that can get you away from the cycle of negative thoughts that feed anxiety and depression.
    • Get more social interaction. Exercise may give you the chance to meet or socialize with others. Simply exchanging a friendly smile or greeting as you walk around the neighborhood can improve your mood.
    • Cope in a healthy way. Doing something positive to manage anxiety or depression is a healthy coping strategy. Trying to feel better by drinking alcohol, dwelling on how bad you feel, or hoping anxiety or depression will go away on its own can lead to worsening symptoms.

Cognitive Functioning

There is more and more evidence that physical activity positively affects cognitive functioning. Physical activity is important in our early years of development to maximize learning opportunities and it remains essential as we age to ensure that our bodies and brains remain in top shape.

  • Boosting Brainpower: Boosting brainpower is important for children and youth. Studies show that physical activity can strengthen problem-solving and concentration skills, which improves academic performance. In recent years, schools have decreased recess and physical education in an attempt to dedicate more time to structured learning activities. Rather than decreasing or eliminating time specifically for physical activity, centers and schools should realize the value of activity and increase the amount of time that children are active. Children will experience increased concentration and class performance after letting out energy.
  • Prevent Cognitive Decline: Another benefit of remaining active throughout life is that it keeps our memory sharp and supports brain functioning as we age. This helps to prevent the cognitive decline of dementia, which we have a greater chance of experiencing as we age. Worldwide, one new case of dementia is detected every seven seconds. Cognitive decline is hard not only on the person experiencing it but it is also painful for those who assume caregiving roles. Though there is no cure for dementia, researchers have discovered that what is good for the heart is also good for the brain; physical activity enhances brain functioning. There is growing evidence that exercise may be an effective intervention for slowing down and perhaps preventing cognitive decline.

Importance of Physical Activity for Families

  • Being physically active together can be fun for families . A long walk, hike, or bike ride can create meaningful memories for children and parents. Physical activity is also an inexpensive way for families to connect. Choosing to take the stairs together is free!
  • When parents engage in physical activity, they experience health benefits . These benefits might include weight loss and control, reduced risk of cardiovascular diseases, and enhanced mental health. Parents pass these health benefits on to their children when they model physical activity and if the family is active together.

Importance of Physical Activity for Children

Children who are physically active are more likely to stay at a healthy weight, sleep better, maintain strong bones, and reduce the risk of obesity-related diseases. Children who are physically active also have more opportunities to develop muscle strength and endurance. They are more likely to feel confident about themselves and their bodies as they grow (Let's Move Child Care, 2013).

Physical activity also provides children with access to learning across domains. An infant who rolls over or pulls up expands access to the world around him. He can look at, touch, and taste a wider array of objects. A preschooler who jumps in puddles is exploring concepts of physics. A school-age child who joins a group soccer game is broadening her social connections.

The negative consequences of inactivity for children are stark. Children are explorers and their brains develop through activity and movement. Children who are not active are more likely to have behavior problems in school or to have trouble with academics.

Physical Activity: A Life Changer

Physical Activity Impacts Our Overall Health

In Summary

Staff members are role models for the children in their care. It is important for children to see adults engaging in healthy habits like exercise. Children are more likely to participate in physical activities when they are surrounded by others who are interested and engaged.

With all of the compelling reasons to be physically active listed above, why is it so difficult to include more exercise in our daily routines? The answer differs for each individual, but in most cases a little encouragement is all it takes to take that first step. By creating an environment at your program that values wellness, you are influencing the health outcomes of the children, families, and staff that your program serves. The following lessons will:

  • Provide a snapshot of physical development milestones for each age level your program serves
  • Identify your role in supporting the physical development of children and youth
  • Identify ways to encourage everyone to engage in a more active lifestyle

You are the “chief wellness officer” for your program. You are a role model and you set an example for others to follow. When you create a culture that values physical activity, you are more likely to motivate others at your program to do the same. By incorporating physical activity into all aspects of your program, you are sending the message that this is a healthy place to grow, learn and work.

Completing this Course

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

To support the professional development of the direct care staff members or family child care providers you oversee, you can access their corresponding Course Guides:


The Healthy Kids Healthy Future website has developed a variety of tools to help children, adults, and communities become more active. To get a baseline read for how well your program incorporates physical activity into its program, review the Healthy Kids, Healthy Future Checklist Quiz. After you take the quiz, reflect on what your program is currently doing. Make notes about your program’s strengths and where it could improve.


Think about the concepts presented in this lesson. How do you create a culture of physical health in the workplace and model it for staff? Can you include more activity in your daily schedule? How about your program’s schedule? What is one thing you could do right now to apply the concept of increasing the amount of daily physical activity in your life? What about your program?

There are many resources available that can be useful in your effort to encourage and motivate everyone affiliated with your program to become more physically active. For now, explore the following as you consider how you can incorporate some of the strategies in your program:


Physical development:
The advancements and refinements in children’s motor skills, or, in other words, children’s abilities to use and control their bodies


A staff member asks you why so much emphasis is placed on physical activity in your program. She is curious about the proven benefits of physical activity. How do you respond?
True or false? It is not your responsibility to address physical activity with your staff.
Finish this statement: Physical activity not only helps maintain a healthy weight, increase longevity, manage stress, improve mental health, elevate mood, and decrease disease, it also...
References & Resources

Alzheimer’s Disease International. (2017). Dementia statistics. Retrieved from

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved from

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2015). How Much Physical Activity Do Children Need? Retrieved from 

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and SHAPE America—Society of Health and Physical Educators. (2017). Strategies for Recess in Schools. Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, US Dept of Health and Human Services. Retrieved from

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2018). Childhood Obesity Facts. Retrieved from

Let’s Move! Child Care. (2013). 

Let’s Move! (2014). 

Mayo Clinic Staff. (2011). Depression and anxiety: Exercise eases symptoms. Retrieved from

President’s Council on Fitness. Retrieved from

Turn The Tide Foundation. Retrieved from

2018 Physical Activity Guidelines Advisory Committee. 2018 Physical Activity Guidelines Advisory Committee Scientific Report. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved from

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (U.S. HHS). Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. (2018). Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. Retrieved from and