- 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 in ensuring that your program has adequate space and materials both indoors and out to support the physical development of children and youth. In considering physical development, the specific needs for children vary by age. Strategies for supporting each age group will be outlined in Lesson Three. Understanding that infants and toddlers experience rapid physical growth while older children refine skills already attained will make it easier to meet the individual needs of children and youth in group care. This lesson provides a snapshot of development by age group. A more detailed understanding can be achieved by reading Lesson Two for each age 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, love, housing, and food due to socioeconomic factors or neglect can negatively influence brain development, which in turn impacts physical development.
- Culture: Some cultures may not value reaching developmental milestones as quickly as others; some may not value the independence that supports physical development.
- Temperament and learning styles: There are many types of learners. Some children learn through physical, hands-on activities, while others may observe and keep to themselves.
- 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.
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 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 has his or her own schedule for development, they are often eager to move their mouths, eyes and bodies toward people and objects that comfort and interest them. Nurturing relationships are important for all children’s development, but they are especially important for infants and toddlers.
Here is 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 he/she 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.
Here is 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 way 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 the time that they were toddlers. As their bodies grow over time, the areas in preschoolers’ brains that control movement continue to mature, thus 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, 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.
Here is 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, seeming to happen 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.
Here is 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.
Supporting All Learners
There will be times when your staff or children’s family members are concerned about a child’s development. It is your responsibility to ensure that staff understand your service’s procedures for addressing those concerns. Here are a few considerations:
- Children develop at their own pace. Never compare children and their abilities. If a family member compares their child to one of the child’s peers, encourage them not to do so. This can be harmful to a child’s development if they feel they are “not as smart” as their peers.
- Most children will catch up and be on pace with their developmental milestones.
- If your staff begin to have concerns that a child may not be developing in a typical way, have them make observations and record their concerns as well as any unusual behaviors they observe. Always have them come to you first before discussing their concerns with a family member.
- Make referrals as quickly as possible and utilize all available resources, such as Kids Included Together, so individualized educational programs (IEPs) can be developed and children can get the supports they need to be successful.
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 special needs enters your program, work with the disability specialists Inclusion Action Team to make sure you and the staff members know how to support the child’s physical development.
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. Providing staff and families with ongoing training opportunities keeps everyone’s knowledge current and provides the basis for ensuring that children and youth are getting the supports they need to flourish. Lesson Three will focus on strategies for meeting the physical development needs of the children and youth your program serves.
There are many resources listed in the reference section that could be useful to both staff and families in deepening their understanding of what to expect in terms of physical development. Take some time to explore those resources and include relevant items in both your staff and family resource areas.
Observation is one of the best ways to see the range of development across the ages. Carve out some time each day for a week to observe the different age groups in your program. You will walk away with a greater understanding and appreciation for the amazing process of development. Another option is to have staff observe in an age group different from theirs, especially a younger group. This can help staff appreciate how far their children have progressed while sharpening their observations skills.
The American Academy of Pediatrics. (1999). Caring for Your School-Age Child: Ages 5 to 12. New York: Bantam Books.
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 (2012). Developmental Milestones. http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/actearly/milestones/index.html
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2010). The Association Between School-Based Physical Activity, Including Physical Education, and Academic Performance. http://www.cdc.gov/healthyyouth/health_and_academics/pdf/pa-pe_paper.pdf
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2013). BAM! Body and Mind. http://www.cdc.gov/bam/
Kids Included Together. (2021). www.kit.org
Schickeadanz, 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, NJ: Pearson Education Inc.