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Physical Developmental Milestones

Physical activity is important regardless of age or ability. As a manager, it is important that you have a working knowledge of the developmental milestones for each of the age groups that your program serves in order to better support your staff in their work with children and youth. 

  • Identify typical developmental milestones for all of the ages your program serves.
  • Discuss factors that influence physical development.
  • Apply knowledge to support your staff’s understanding of physical development.



A quick refresher on children’s physical development can support your efforts to ensure that your program has adequate space and materials both indoors and outside to support the physical development of children and youth. In considering physical development, the specific needs for children vary greatly by age. Strategies to support each age group are outlined in Lesson Three. It’s easier to meet the individual needs of children and youth in group care when you understand that infants and toddlers experience rapid physical growth while older children refine skills already attained. This lesson provides a snapshot of development by age group. A more detailed understanding can be achieved by reading Lesson Two in the Infant & Toddler, Preschool, and School-Age tracks (or Lessons Two, Three and Four of the Family Child Care track).

Influences on Physical Development

While there is a natural progression when it comes to physical development, the pace of that progression can be influenced both positively and negatively by environmental and experiential factors. These factors include:

  • Prenatal care: Lack of prenatal care or prenatal exposure to harmful substances, such as drugs and alcohol, can negatively influence development.
  • Prematurity: Children born before the 38th week of development and children having low birth weight may experience respiration difficulties, vision problems, and feeding and digestive problems.
  • Heredity: Genes influence development, but equally important are the children’s experiences.
  • Basic needs: Failure to meet basic needs such as safety, attachment, housing, and food due to socioeconomic factors or neglect can negatively influence brain development, which in turn impacts physical development.
  • Culture: Because family culture shapes so many parts of a child’s development, you must understand the practices, beliefs, and values of the families your staff support. Without this deep knowledge about a child’s background, it can be to interpret the child’s behaviors and development. For example, across cultures, the rates at which infants and toddlers begin to self-feed may vary. While the family may not have made a conscious decision about feeding as it relates to independence, their culture is likely to influence the value on independence or rather value practices that reinforce reliance on family or community.
  • Temperament and learning styles: There are many types of learners. Some children learn through physical, hands-on activities, while others may prefer to observe and process more internally.
  • Developmental delays, disabilities or health concerns: It’s important to keep in mind that being diagnosed with a disability does not alter children’s innate desires to move.

Developmental Milestones

Individual differences exist when it comes to the precise age at which children meet milestones; each child is unique. Milestones should not be seen as rigid checklists by which to judge or evaluate children’s development. Think of milestones as guidelines to help staff understand and identify typical patterns of development and to know when and what to look for as children mature. It is your responsibility to ensure that staff are knowledgeable about children’s developmental milestones, stay current on best practices, and use assessment data, such as developmental screenings, so they can meet the individual needs of the children in their classrooms.


Infants are dependent on adults to support their emerging physical abilities in a safe and nurturing environment. From the beginning, infants want to explore their world by making connections. While each infant develops skills on their own schedule, they are often eager to move their mouths, eyes, and bodies toward people and objects that comfort and interest them. Nurturing relationships with caregivers are important for all children’s development, but they are especially important for infants and toddlers.

A snapshot of physical development during infancy (birth to 18 months).

  • First movements are reflexive (inborn, automatic behaviors). For example, infants startled by a loud sound or sudden body shift will extend their legs and throw their arms outward and then bring them back toward their bodies. The rooting reflex occurs when an infant’s cheek is stroked near the corner of the mouth and they turn toward the spot being stroked.
  • Young infants begin to use their fine-motor skills and senses to learn more about their world. For example, a young infant may hear a caregiver shaking a rattle and may reach for it. With hands and mouth, the infant further explores the rattle. Mobile infants begin to use their large (gross-motor) and small (fine-motor) muscles to further explore their world and take action to meet their needs. For example, mobile infants may crawl to a chair and pull themselves up or walk across the grass to a sandbox, bend down, and pick up a small shovel.
  • Mobile infants are refining their fine-motor skills, such as using their thumbs and forefingers (pincer grasp) to pick up a Cheerio or to help a caregiver turn the pages of a board book.
  • Older mobile infants are refining their gross-motor skills, such as stacking and lining up blocks and walking while carrying objects in each hand.


Toddlers are on the move. They are determined to master movement, balance and fine-motor (small-muscle) and gross-motor (large-muscle) skills. With practice, they get stronger and their abilities become increasingly more advanced. Toddlers need time for these new experiences. It is essential for toddlers to explore the world around them with a trusting, caring adult who balances the need for exploration with safety. Ensuring safety while exploring and learning is important for all children’s development but it is especially important for toddlers.

A snapshot of physical development for toddlers (18 to 36 months).

  • Toddlers use their bodies to further understand their world and to gain independence; they do not yet understand their limitations.
  • Toddlers use their gross-motor (big muscles) skills in activities such as climbing, running, pushing, pulling, jumping, and throwing.
  • Older toddlers begin to walk up stairs with one foot on each step.
  • Toddlers refine their fine-motor (small muscles) skills by practicing drawing, fitting pieces into simple puzzles, zipping (with help), stacking and building with blocks, turning pages of a book, and holding a drinking cup.
  • Toddlers point to objects as a means of communication.


Preschoolers spend a great deal of time running, climbing, jumping, and chasing each other; they scribble, paint, build, pour, cut with scissors, put puzzles together, and string beads. They are constantly on the move and their skills improve significantly from toddlerhood. As their bodies grow over time, the areas in preschoolers’ brains that control movement continue to mature, enabling them to perform gross-motor skills such as running, jumping, throwing, climbing, kicking, and skipping, and fine-motor skills such as stringing beads, drawing, writing, and cutting with scissors. They become increasingly more independent. Rich experiences are important for all children’s development, and they are especially important for preschoolers.

A snapshot of physical development for preschoolers (3 to 5 years).

  • Three-year-olds are good at running and climbing. They can pedal a tricycle and walk up and down stairs placing one foot on each step. They are able to wash and dry their hands.
  • Four-year-olds can hop and balance on one foot for up to two seconds. They catch a bounced ball most of the time and they are able to pour, cut, and mash their own food. They can use scissors and draw a person with two to four body parts.
  • Five-year-olds can skip and stand on one foot for 10 seconds or longer. They can swing and do somersaults. They can use a fork and spoon and sometimes a table knife.


School-agers mature while refining their gross- and fine-motor skills. They gain more control of their bodies and are better able to coordinate and balance, as seen in activities such as jumping rope, organized sports, obstacle courses, and yoga. School-agers become more proficient in their fine-motor skills and are able to use utensils, tie their shoelaces, use clasps and buttons, and color in lines. A school-age child’s brain is still developing as they learn how to do new things and to think differently. They gradually become less egocentric and are better able to think about and understand things from different viewpoints. School-age children will experience normal body changes as puberty begins. Sometimes these changes can be drastic and sudden—almost as if their growth happened overnight, while other changes happen gradually over months or years. The changes that accompany the onset of puberty can often be confusing and even scary for school-age children. A caregiver’s empathy is especially important for school-agers.

A snapshot of physical development for school-agers.

  • There will be great variety of height and weight in school-age children.
  • Growth spurts are common and can lead to school-age children feeling awkward or clumsy.
  • School-age children will begin to see an improvement in their motor skills and increased muscle mass. They will have better control, coordination, balance, and strength.
  • Hormonal changes in the body can cause acne, pimples and body odor. These changes can sometimes lead to self-esteem issues.
  • Hormone changes can also lead to mood swings and strong emotions. Sometimes children will feel upset or sad and not be able to explain why.

Understanding Individual Differences

It is important to remember that children develop at their own pace, and there is a broad spectrum of what is considered typical. Some children will reach physical milestones more quickly than other children or excel in a particular area more than other areas. Some children may struggle with some aspects of physical development without needing to be diagnosed with a developmental disability. As you observe children moving through your program and engaging with different materials and environments, it is important to remember that the influences on physical development discussed earlier in this lesson overlap to create a diverse range of developmental needs and strengths among children.

The following video depicts children demonstrating skills at different ages and stages of development. Watch carefully to see how infants, toddlers, preschoolers and school-agers move and engage with different environments and materials.

Development: An Amazing Journey

The ages and stages of physical development.

National Physical Education Standards

Another helpful resource regarding physical development and appropriate expectations is SHAPE America’s National Physical Education Standards. These standards offer a comprehensive framework for educators to understand what children and youth should know, understand, and be able to accomplish physically overtime. The standards can be a helpful tool for ensuring consistency and quality in physical education activities and experiences. Different from the CDC Milestones, the SHAPE America Standards set expectations based on grade-span learning indicators, rather than grade-level indicators, as the development of motor skills is influenced by the opportunity to practice skills and the level of encouragement and support provided. Examples of the Physical Education Standards include:

  • Develops a variety of locomotor and non-locomotor motor skills.
  • Develops social skills through movement.
  • Develops personal skills, identifies personal benefits of movement, and chooses to engage in physical activity.

To learn more about the standards and how they apply across grade-spans, you can visit

Supervise & Support

Supporting All Learners

There will be times when your staff or family members of the children in your program share concerns about a child’s development. It is your responsibility to ensure that staff understand your program's procedures for addressing those concerns. Here are a few considerations:

  • Children develop at their own pace. Never compare children and their abilities, as this can harm their self-esteem. If a family member compares their child to a peer or sibling, encourage them not to do so by letting them know children develop at their own pace.
  • Most children will catch up and be on track with their developmental milestones.
  • If your staff have concerns that a child may not be developing in a typical way, have them make observations and document their concerns as well as any unusual behaviors they observe. Always have them come to you or a trainer first before discussing their concerns with a family member.
  • Make referrals as quickly as possible so Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) or Individual Family Service Plans (IFSPs) can be developed, and children can get the supports they need to be successful.
  • Utilize available resources, such as Kids Included Together.

To create an inclusive environment that supports all learners, you must first model an inclusive attitude. Your facility is compliant with the Rehabilitation Act (Section 504), so at a minimum children and families with a variety of physical needs can access your building. You must go beyond access, however. Make sure all children and families feel welcome and involved. Consider the experiences offered in your program and help staff members brainstorm possible modifications and adaptations. When a child with identified disabilities enters your program, work with the disability specialists to make sure you and the staff members know how to support the child’s physical development.

Helping Staff Support Children’s Physical Development

As a Program Manager, you can prioritize your staff’s professional learning by making sure that program professionals have the time and space to complete the Physical Development course through the Virtual Lab School. This ensures that each staff member receives relevant age-group information on physical development. You may also use the Physical Development Milestones resource in the Apply section of this lesson to help staff members strengthen their knowledge of child development in the workplace.

Your role as a leader in your program means that you will likely be called upon to support your direct-care staff in their work helping children meet developmental milestones and navigate situations where staff or a parent suspect developmental delays or disabilities. It is important for you to understand children’s physical development to respond appropriately to concerns about a child’s development and take the appropriate steps to ensure that child receives the care that they need to succeed in life. You will have a chance to explore some scenarios related to this in the Explore section of this lesson.

You and your staff play a critical role in supporting all ages and stages of physical development. Though the progression of skill development is predictable, the pace at which each child reaches milestones is unique. When you and your staff understand what to expect developmentally and when children’s progress is assessed on a regular basis, you can better support their optimal development. Provide staff and families with ongoing training opportunities and information to keep everyone’s knowledge current and provide a basis to ensure that children and youth get the supports they need to flourish. Lesson Three focuses on strategies to meet the physical development needs of the children and youth your program serves.


As a Program Manager, you will likely be called upon to respond to concerns from staff and family members regarding children’s physical development. Children develop at their own pace, and it is important to be able to draw from your understanding of child development to support staff and families in helping children reach developmental milestones. Read and respond to the scenarios in the What Would You Do activity and compare your answers to the suggested responses.


As part of continuing professional education and development, it can be helpful to review and discuss physical developmental milestones and how the professionals in your program use this information to provide high quality care to children. Use the Physical Developmental Milestones List to review what you learned in this lesson with staff members at a staff meeting. The questions below may help your discussion:

  • Did anything in this document surprise you? If so, what?
  • Were there any milestones not included that you think should be included in this document?
  • What are some ways our program supports children in reaching these milestones?
  • Which of these milestones do children in our program struggle to reach? What else can we do to support those areas of their physical development?

Have your staff share their ideas and be sure to take good notes. Work with your Training & Curriculum Specialist to plan ways to support staff members in helping children reach physical developmental milestones.


Developmental delay:
A possible reason children do not meet developmental milestones at the expected times; Delays can occur in any area of development
Developmental milestones:
A set of skills or behaviors that most children can do at a certain age range
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 who know both the child and child development well
When one’s outlook is limited to one’s own needs, wants and activities
Motor skills:
The growth of muscular coordination: Gross-motor skills are actions that use the large muscles in our bodies, like our arms and legs for such skills as walking, running or jumping; fine-motor skills are actions that use the smaller muscles in our bodies, like our fingers and toes for such skills as writing, or using tools
The process of development when a child’s body becomes an adult body


One of your toddler staff members comes to you with concerns about a toddler’s motor development. He is 24 months old and is walking up and down steps by placing both feet on each step. How do you respond?
True or false? A staff member should document observations about a child’s behavior and share their concerns with their coach, trainer, or administrator before sharing their concerns with a child’s family.
You are preparing a professional development in-service for your staff members on physical development. Finish this statement: Some factors that can influence a child’s physical development are...
References & Resources

The American Academy of Pediatrics. (2004). Caring for your school-age child. New York: Bantam Books.

Berk, L. E. (2004). Infants and children: Prenatal through middle childhood (5th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education Inc.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2021). CDC's developmental milestones.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2010). The association between school-based physical activity, including physical education, and academic performance. The Association Between School-Based Physical Activity, Including Physical Education, and Academic Performance |

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2013). BAM! Body and mind.

Kids Included Together. (2021).

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

SHAPE America. (2024, March). National physical education standardsNew National Physical Education Standards (

Trawick-Smith, J. W. (2014). Early childhood development: A multicultural perspective, (6th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education Inc.