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Supporting Physical Development

As a Program Manager it is your responsibility to ensure that your staff create safe and appropriate environments that support development, have a working knowledge of physical development, and plan experiences that boost developmental outcomes.

  • Identify the universal supports all children require regardless of age or ability.
  • Identify specific supports children require based on their age or ability.
  • Explore strategies for meeting those requirements.



As you have learned in Lesson One, physical activity supports all domains of development and leads to lasting benefits when it becomes part of the daily routine. With the increase in the use of sedentary toys and materials, such as video games and tablets, it is even more imperative that your program provides safe and developmentally appropriate spaces for children to develop and refine their physical skills.

One of your jobs as a Program Manager is to ensure your program is offering children and youth the necessary type and amount of physical activity to support their developmental needs. This includes providing adequate and usable space for play, both inside and outside, and working with staff to ensure that opportunities for physical activity are incorporated throughout the day in routines, activities, and playtime. This lesson will focus on the developmental supports that all children need regardless of age or ability, as well as a snapshot of age-specific requirements. For a more detailed list of age-specific supports, review the direct care tracks for this course.

Universal Supports

When it comes to supporting physical development, all children, regardless of age, need the following:

  • At least an hour of physical activity every day; more is preferable.
  • Accommodations, including materials, modifications and adaptations to the environment and activities, so children of all abilities can participate in physical activity.
  • Ample space to play both indoors and outside that is safe and provides access to developmentally appropriate materials.
  • A variety of planned indoor and outdoor activities linked to their developmental needs, goals, and interests, as well as opportunities for free play.

Physical activity should not be seen as a break in the day or something extra that staff provide without thought. Support for the gross- and fine-motor skills of children and youth should occur in a variety of ways, throughout the day, every day at your program. Children learn best through hands-on experiences that they are physically and actively involved in. Keeping their bodies active keeps children fully engaged in learning experiences. The National Association for Sport and Physical Education (NASPE) includes guidance for children’s physical activity in its position statement: “All children from birth to age 5 should engage in physical activity that promotes movement, skillfulness, and foundations of health-related fitness.”

As a Program Manager, you should ensure that classroom schedules balance planned activities with opportunities for children and youth to engage in free play. Checking classroom schedules and observing children and youth indoors and outside are the best ways to verify that they are getting the amount of physical activity they need.

Supporting All Learners

As you learned in Lesson Two, while the sequence of development is roughly the same for all children, the rate at which it occurs can be influenced by a variety of factors. You should require staff members to observe children and youth on a regular basis and encourage them to use their knowledge of child development to bring forth any concerns they might have. While this is important for all ages, it is especially important for infants and toddlers. Delays in physical development in very young children may be predictive of concerns in other developmental areas. As always, staff should discuss any concerns with a trainer, coach, or supervisor prior to speaking with families. It’s important that staff understand your service’s program’s process for making referrals so children can get the support they need as quickly as possible. If there are concerns about a child’s development and a referral is made to the local evaluation team, a child may be found eligible for an Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP) or an Individualized Education Program (IEP). Children with an IFSP or an IEP will receive special education services and supports.

For children who may not be following the typical rate of development or who have an identified disability, ensure staff do the following:

  • Create realistic expectations. This doesn’t mean to lower expectations, it means to consider each child’s abilities and develop expectations based on where children are developmentally.
  • Align curriculum goals to support children in achieving what is possible for them developmentally.
  • Accommodate so children and youth experience success. Making small changes in the environment or adding adaptive materials can help children feel successful regardless of where they are developmentally.

Some children in your care may have conditions that affect their motor development, including physical and cognitive disabilities, neurological and perceptual disorders, and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. In addition to adaptations to the curriculum, classroom, and daily activities, they may need specialized services to ensure they fully access their classroom and school curriculum, activities, environments, extracurricular activities, and school events. Make referrals quickly so Individualized Education Program (IEPs) or Individualized Family Service Plans (IFSPs) can be developed and children can receive the help they need. Children with IEPs or IFSPs have a specific plan to help them meet their personal goals. It is important that you and your staff reflect on current practices and utilize recommendations from specialists so all children, regardless of ability, can reach their fullest potential.

Safe Environments

Your top priority as a Program Manager is to make sure everyone in your program is protected from harm. Children are naturally curious and maintaining a safe learning environment will help prevent injuries during play and exploration. As described in the Safety course, your best approach is to reduce risk by being proactive. Being proactive means:

  • Use safety checklists to address issues right away.
  • Scheduling staff to ensure adequate supervision indoors and outside.
  • Make sure materials and equipment are developmentally appropriate for the children using them.
  • Providing family and staff handbooks that detail clothing requirements for inclement weather.
  • Maintaining fully-stocked first-aid kits and making certain that they are available for use both indoors and outside.

Program Managers must help staff members understand that the safety of children and youth always comes first. Your safety expectations should be made clear during new-hire orientation, staff meetings, and performance reviews. Performance issues related to safety must be addressed immediately so no one is harmed. When it comes to keeping children and youth safe while supporting physical development, staff should:

  • Scan the environment to make sure hazards are removed before children are allowed to play.
  • Inspect toys and equipment to ensure they are in good condition.
  • Actively supervise children and youth at all times.
  • Be aware of the service’s program’s weather-related policies to ensure that children are appropriately dressed, that they have access to plenty of fluids, and that everyone knows when and where to move children in case of bad weather.
  • Bring all necessary items with them when they take children outdoors, including first-aid kits, attendance sheets, medications, and incident reports.

Development Promoting Experiences

Your staff need to be intentional when it comes to supporting physical development. Staff must be readily available to support emerging skills and enrich learning experiences by engaging with children and youth during their play. Program Managers should provide resources, ideas and feedback when planning activities and selecting materials for children and youth.

Physical Development and the Indoor Environment

For children to understand that physical activity is a priority, there must be spaces designed for physical activity. This can be a challenge in small rooms or spaces that were originally designed for other purposes. However, with some creativity and flexibility, it is possible to create spaces that help children explore and master important physical skills.

We can think of environments on two levels: the center environment and the classroom environment. At the center level, you can work with staff to make sure there are safe indoor spaces dedicated to physical activity. Is there a gym in the school-age program? Is there a gross-motor room in the child-development center? If so, these are ideal spaces to provide opportunities for movement. Make sure the spaces are arranged in a way that children can move freely while still choosing from a variety of options. Consider working with teams to make sure spaces are designed into interesting movement stations: hula hoops in one area, bean bags and buckets in another area, an obstacle course in a third area. Make writing, drawing, and painting materials available in classroom interest areas and help teams be creative with their spaces and materials. For example, masking tape can create quick, simple, and removable “balance beams” on the floor.

At the classroom level, help staff understand the importance of providing some space for physical activity. This will look different at different ages:

  • Infant rooms: areas covered with soft mats where children can climb and explore
  • Toddler rooms: a set of ramps or stairs that children can climb
  • Preschool rooms: an interest area that is aligned to a story book the class is reading (for example, after reading the nursery rhyme “Hey Diddle Diddle,” children go to an area of the room where they can practice “jumping over the moon”)
  • School-age programs: an area with a music player where children can play music and dance, or a yoga area for children to stretch

Physical Development and the Outdoor Environment

Outdoor environments are natural settings for physical activity. In fact, a lot of us may be more likely to associate physical activity with being outdoors. The busy lifestyles of families can result in a lot of indoor time for many children. School-age children might spend the majority of their day in a school setting, only going outside for their limited recess time. Promoting a love and respect for the outdoors will increase the chances of children learning to make physical activity a part of their lives. Encourage as much outdoor time as possible, plan activities that include their natural surroundings and bring the outside indoors to learn and discover.

Children are active learners and physical activity can be incorporated into learning activities. Children can form shapes with their bodies, count as they are hopping, explore nature through active scavenger hunts, listen to their increased heart rates after physical activities, move their bodies like their favorite animals, and explore cultures through dance. Be sure that there are spaces available to accommodate many different activities. A large, open space subdivided for a variety of stations can be very useful: this kind of space can be used flexibly from day to day. Key elements of an outdoor environment that facilitates physical development and learning include:

  • Variety: Make sure there are a variety of surfaces, a variety of materials, and a variety of ways for children to get involved.
  • Safety: Make sure staff members are aware of safety rules and procedures at all times. Check the spaces and materials often. See the Safety course for more information.
  • Participation: Make sure all children have options that interest them. Observe to be sure that children are active.

Sensory Development

The development of our senses is an important part of our physical development. In very young children, sensory development is what helps them gain an understanding of the world around them. As children grow, their sensory development becomes more refined. We all process our surroundings differently. This is why not all children like the same foods or listen to the same music. Each person interprets the world around them differently by processing it through their senses.

When working with staff, encourage them to evaluate their environments through a sensory lens; for example, are there different smells, sounds, sights, and textures? Sensory materials can be found materials from the outside environment or recycled items that families can donate. In addition to a sensory table, here are a few other ideas for staff to try:

  • Go outside and take a nature walk, sit and write in a journal, or roll around in the grass.
  • Provide materials with interesting textures and different sizes, colors, or scents.
  • Move to different types of music.
  • Try different types of food.
  • Explore science-related concepts, such as hot and cold or wet and dry.

For children with disabilities or special needs, it may be necessary to provide adaptations and modifications to support their sensory needs. For example, a child who struggles with loud noises should have access to noise-canceling headphones during activities where loud noise is unavoidable (emergency drills etc.). Families may also choose to send in sensory supports from home like headphones, fidgets or wiggle seats. The use of individual sensory items from home should follow program guidelines and rules, and expectations for their use should be communicated clearly with families and staff before they are brought in for children to use.

Age-Specific Considerations

While there are some common supports that all children need, there are also important differences between the age groups. These differences are important when it comes to equipping the environment and keeping children and youth safe.


The need to connect with the people around them spurs the physical development of infants. To ensure that best practices are implemented, ensure that staff working with infants consider the following:

  • Provide opportunities for younger infants to play on their tummies and backs. When young infants are playing on the floor on their backs, offering toys a little off to the side and above their heads encourages reaching and turning, which can lead to the development of rolling over. When infants are laying on their tummies, supervise them closely and watch for signs of distress.
  • Limit the use of swings and other furniture that contains young and mobile infants. When caring for several children at once, offer toys on the floor for tummy time, space for mobile infants to crawl, or hanging toys for reaching.
  • Firm, washable pads and cubes can be arranged to create interesting and challenging surfaces for crawling, creeping, walking, and climbing.
  • Provide long, low, stable surfaces for “cruisers” to hold on to. The edges of shelves, windowsills, counters and equipment at child-height should have rounded corners so children can move freely without bumping into sharp corners.
  • Play music for connectedness and movement. Infants enjoy being rocked and held while you dance and sway with them.
  • Observe infants on a regular basis to ensure the environment supports their rapidly changing developmental needs.


The need to move spurs the physical development of toddlers. Toddlers are highly motivated to move and to use newly learned skills. You must ensure that staff members working with toddlers provide the following:

  • Constant supervision to prevent injury as toddlers explore and use different materials.
  • A wide selection of materials that support individual needs; they enjoy manipulating objects, carrying materials, stacking blocks and knocking down towers, and filling and dumping containers, such as buckets and play purses.
  • Multiples of popular materials to reduce struggles over toys and objects, as they don’t yet understand the concept of sharing.
  • Materials that can be used for making music, marching, and dancing.
  • Open space where they can run, jump, hop, climb, throw and dump safely.
  • Interest areas where they can move to different activities according to their interests as they get closer to preschool-age.
  • Appropriately sized chairs and tables so that all children can sit, play and eat safely and comfortably.
  • An environment that provides more things that toddlers are able to do instead of things they can’t do; this will reduce frustration and the need for constant limit-setting.


The need to stay busy spurs the physical development of preschoolers. Preschoolers have active bodies and minds. Ensure that staff working with preschoolers provide the following:

  • Materials to cover the age range and abilities from the youngest to the oldest preschoolers including different sizes of pencils, crayons, and brushes, as well as different types of puzzles. Blocks and building materials can help span the age range; Duplos can be used by young 3-year-olds while Legos offer more complexity for 4- and 5-year-olds.
  • Opportunities for children to play together in creative physical play or in games; these activities support physical, social/emotional, cognitive, and language development.
  • Longer periods of structured and unstructured physical activity and fewer periods of “sit time.”
  • Interest areas that address physical development. Skill-building is focused on fine-motor development, such as art materials and manipulatives. Children should be able to practice drawing, printing, painting, manipulating materials, gluing, cutting, and shredding. Stringing beads, shapes and other tasks provide opportunities for children to practice eye-hand coordination and fine-motor dexterity.
  • A writing center in the classroom with pencils, pens, lined paper, journals and print materials, encouraging children’s budding interest in the printed word as well as the use of more refined small-muscle skills.
  • A model of appropriate behaviors in relation to eating, resting and physical activity. Children watch and learn from their caregivers and peers.

School-Age Children

The drive to understand the world spurs the physical development of school-age children. School-age children challenge their bodies and their minds as they mature. You need to ensure that staff members working with school-age children provide the following:

  • An understanding that children going through growth spurts can lack coordination or seem “clumsy.” This can be caused by a variety of reasons. Children may have had growth spurts in isolated parts of their body and may have to work extra hard to excel or master certain athletic skills.
  • Physical activities that are the “right fit,” meaning that they are not too easy and intended for younger children and that they are not too difficult with unachievable expectations.
  • A combination of aerobic activity, muscle strengthening, and bone strengthening exercises or activities that are fun and interactive. These provide opportunities for children to refine their gross motor skills.
  • A team atmosphere by providing encouragement for everyone and by understanding that children at this age can have a range of abilities. When playing team sports, it is important to promote playing for fun and experience rather than winning, which will help alleviate the stress and competitiveness. Allow children who have well-developed skills to take the lead and to be a captain or to share their skills as a trainer by helping all children feel that they have a part to play.

Supervise & Support

Intentionality is key to supporting physical development in your program. Watch and listen as children and staff demonstrate what it can look like to create environments and activities that support physical development across age groups.

Boosting Development

Intentionality builds competence and confidence

As you learned in the Cognitive Development course, learning is supported best when there is an understanding of children’s development and when this knowledge is used to plan experiences. Observation is at the heart of curriculum planning. Taking time to watch and listen is crucial to planning experiences that meet children’s needs. Capitalizing on the interests of children and youth maximizes the impact. For example, when a staff member throws a ball to one of his 4-year-olds, he observes that the student throws it back underhand. The staff member knows that 4-year-olds should be throwing overhand, so he makes a point of throwing it back that way so the student will try to as well, applauding the student’s efforts as he tries something new.

Confirm that staff members understand the relationship between observation, planning, and instruction. It takes time and support for staff to become skilled at implementing the curriculum cycle. Talk with staff about their thought process when planning activities and making decisions about materials and how to set up the learning environment. This will provide you with indications of what’s needed to support their professional growth. Questions can be posed during performance conferences or when you are observing in classrooms.

As a Program Manager, your responsibility is to ensure that staff have the knowledge and materials they need in order to support the individual needs of the children and youth that your program serves. Observing staff both indoors and outside will assist you in evaluating their knowledge of development and their skills in planning and implementing age-appropriate activities. Providing ongoing professional development and maintaining safe and stimulating environments supports your staff as they support children and youth.


So much learning takes place during outdoor play. Play spaces need to be supportive of children’s physical development, and responsive to the diverse needs of the children in your program. Work together with your Training & Curriculum Specialist to complete the Play Space Assessment. While this tool was designed with preschool-age children in mind, the content applies to Infant/Toddler and School Age spaces as well. Once you have completed this assessment, meet with your T&CS to discuss your findings and plan for any action steps or changes that you feel should be made to your play spaces. Use the Play Space Next Steps template to record your reflections and notes for your plans and next steps. The Physical Development Resources document is a tool that can help inform your responses to the other activities included here.


For this Motor Skills Observation, randomly choose a classroom from each age group your program serves and spend at least 30 minutes observing. Watch for evidence that individual physical development needs are being met. Use the Age-Specific Considerations available in this lesson's Learn section as a guide. Based on your observations, develop a plan for supporting staff with the resources they need to better support the physical development of children and youth.


As a Program Manager the most effective way to ensure that your staff provides the correct amount and type of physical activity is to...
A parent asks how your staff helps children with special learning needs or disabilities engage in physical activity indoors and outdoors in your program. You respond by saying ...
True or false? As a Program Manager, you need to ensure that staff have the knowledge and skill set they need to plan and implement safe, developmentally appropriate physical activities.
References & Resources

National Association for Sport and Physical Education. (n.d.). Active Start: A Statement of Physical Activity Guidelines for Children From Birth to Age 5 (2nd ed.).

Centers For Disease Control and Prevention. (2011). Aerobic, Muscle- and Bone-Strengthening: What Counts? Retrieved from

Kids Included Together.

The Frank Porter Grahm Child Development Institute: Access to the Infant-toddler, Preschool, and School-age Environment Rating Scales.

The National Association for Sport and Physical Education (NASPE) has information, resources and guidelines for healthy physical activity. Go to for more information.