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    • Discuss the importance of physical development and physical activity in young children’s lives.
    • Identify examples of gross-motor and fine-motor skills in preschool children.
    • Discuss how physical development is linked to overall health and learning.




    Our bodies go through amazing transformations when it comes to physical growth and development. Think about the vast physical changes that occur between a newborn baby and a young adult. Recall the different things you or children you know were able to do at different stages while growing up. Physical activity is very important for our overall development and growth. Moving the different parts of our bodies, sitting up, rolling, crawling, walking, running, jumping, holding, and manipulating different materials or objects are examples of ways in which we use our bodies to explore our environment and learn about the world. These are also ways to keep our bodies healthy, fit, and well-functioning.

    Physical development refers to the advancements and refinements of motor skills, or, in other words, children’s abilities to use and control their bodies. These advancements are evident in gross- and fine-motor skills, and they 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, and kicking. Fine-motor skills involve the use of small muscles in the arms, hands, and fingers. They are supported by advancements in perception, or the ways in which children use their senses to experience the world around them. Examples of such skills include stringing beads, scribbling, cutting, and drawing. Fine-motor skills enable children to perform a variety of self-help tasks, such as using utensils and dressing themselves. There is a great deal of variation in the development of fine-motor skills (Trawick-Smith, 2014).

    Children’s motor abilities in preschool develop as a result of physical development. As their bodies mature, children progressively strengthen their muscles and are able to better control their bodies. Skill mastery and development, however, are also the result of brain growth and development. For example, consider a preschooler kicking a ball back and forth with a peer or caregiver. This child must have acquired control over muscles and their movement in order to be able to kick the ball. The child also depends upon vision to determine the location and direction in which to kick the ball and on hearing for instructions from a peer or caregiver. We will explore the body-brain connection and its impact on children’s overall learning and growth in more detail in Lesson Two (Developmental Milestones) when we examine influences on physical growth and factors that affect children’s physical development.

    Physical Activity and Children’s Development

    Physical activity is critical for young children’s development. Considering that preschool children learn best when they are actively engaged in their environments, it is essential that we provide them with ample opportunities to explore the environments by moving, touching, experimenting, and manipulating different toys, objects, and materials. Studies indicate that physical activity in young children is linked to brain growth and development. One study that explored body and brain connections found that preschoolers’ motor-play activities activate visual brain centers (James, 2010). Findings like this suggest that motor activity contributes to the general organization of the brain, ultimately supporting the notion that young children need time to be active.

    Moreover, physical well-being is also linked to mental health. The World Health Organization defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” This suggests that physical health is fundamentally linked to mental health, as well as other aspects of life. We must keep that in mind as we think about young children’s physical development and as we engage with them and their families.


    Fostering young children’s physical development helps build lifelong skills necessary for wellness, and a love for physical activity. The Healthy Kids Healthy Future organization provides many tools you will learn about later in this lesson's Apply activity. 

    Movement and Learning in Preschool

    Watch this video to hear a preschool teacher talk about the importance of movement and physical activity for children's learning.

    Understanding physical development in the preschool years creates opportunities for you to enhance the care you offer preschoolers and their families.


    As a preschool teacher, it is your responsibility to help children learn and develop, and to provide developmentally appropriate experiences and activities that meet each child’s needs. As you meaningfully plan and implement your work in preschool, you are setting the foundation for children’s school readiness and success. You have an important role in promoting preschoolers’ gross-and fine-motor skills that will help them reach their full overall potential. This means that:

    • You give all children access to opportunities that promote physical development.
    • You are responsive to children’s individual differences.
    • You establish appropriate expectations about what children should be able to do in terms of physical development and growth.

    Promoting children’s physical development builds a foundation for long-term health and well-being. Learning occurs best when children are actively engaged in meaningful environments and when they use their bodies to explore their surroundings and practice new skills. By encouraging the children in your care to be physically active, you are able to foster in them an enjoyment of physical activity and the skills necessary for maintaining their wellness.

    Completing this Course

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

    Please note the References & Resources section at the end of each lesson outlines reference sources and resources to find additional information on the topics covered. As you complete lessons, you are not expected to review all the online references available. However, you are welcome to explore the resources further if you have interest, or at the request of your trainer, coach, or administrator.



    How does your program support young children’s physical development? Does it encourage and provide opportunities for physical activity for all children? Are there provisions in place to promote active play time? How are staff members supported in promoting children’s physical development? Download the Healthy Kids, Healthy Future Checklist Quiz. Take a few minutes to read the statements on this checklist and think about how your program measures up to these recommendations. Then, share and discuss your responses with an administrator, trainer, or coach. 



    Review the Healthy Kids, Healthy Future Activity and share your thoughts with a colleague, coach, or administrator.


    Fine-motor developmentThe development of skills that involve the use of smaller muscles in the arms, hands and fingers that allows a child to perform tasks such as drawing, cutting with scissors, stringing beads, tying, zipping or molding clay
    Gross-motor developmentThe development of skills that 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
    Physical developmentThe advancements and refinements in children’s motor skills, or, in other words, children’s abilities to use and control their bodies




    At your Preschool Family Night, a parent says that her 3-year-old son is constantly “on the move.” She wonders if he is developing normally or should be evaluated by their pediatrician. What do you say to her?


    Your teaching partner is planning activities that will strengthen fine-motor skills. Some activities she might plan include:


    True or false? Healthy physical development is also linked to children’s brain development and function.

    References & Resources

    Berk, L. E. (2013). Child Development (9th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

    Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2010). The Association Between School-Based Physical Activity, Including Physical Education, and Academic Performance. 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

    James, K. (2010). Sensori-motor experience leads to changes in visual processing in the developing brain. Developmental Science, 13, 279-288.

    Playworks. (2020). Game Library. Oakland, CA: Sports4Kids. Retrieved from

    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.

    World Health Organization.(1948). Official records of the World Health Organization (no. 2). Retrieved from