Physical Developmental Milestones
This lesson will help you understand typical physical development or, in other words, how children develop and refine motor skills during the preschool years. You will learn about developmental milestones and what to do if you are concerned about a child’s development.
- Identify typical physical developmental milestones in preschool.
- Discuss what to do if you are concerned about a child’s development.
- Discuss factors that influence physical growth and development.
The preschool years are a time of what seems like constant movement. Preschoolers are busy moving in their environments, both indoors and outdoors. They spend large amounts of time running, climbing, jumping, and chasing each other; they scribble, paint, build, pour, cut with scissors, put puzzles together, and string beads. Their motor skills are significantly refined from the time they were toddlers; they are more coordinated than toddlers and more purposeful in their actions. They demonstrate speed and strength, and they become increasingly more independent.
Physical Growth and Appearance
During the preschool years there is a steady increase in children’s height, weight and muscle tone (Trawick-Smith, 2014). Compared with toddlers, preschoolers are longer and leaner. Their legs and trunks continue to grow, and their heads are not so large in proportion to their bodies. As preschoolers’ bodies develop over time, the areas in their 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.
Let’s take a look at preschoolers’ physical development. Read the chart below for a closer look at what preschoolers can do with their bodies. Keep in mind that each child is unique and that individual differences exist in regard to the precise age at which children meet these milestones. Milestones should not be seen as rigid checklists by which to judge or evaluate children’s development. Rather, as highlighted in the Cognitive Course, milestones provide a guide for when to expect certain skills or behaviors to emerge in young children based on cognitive development, gross-motor development, fine-motor development, hearing, speech, vision, and social-emotional development. Think of milestones as guidelines to help you understand and identify typical patterns of development in children and to help you know when and what to look for as children mature. Like a family’s pediatrician, preschool teachers must be knowledgeable about children’s developmental milestones. You can use your knowledge of these milestones to meet children’s needs in your classroom. Even though the skills highlighted in the chart develop in a predictable sequence over the preschool years, each child is unique. Your goal is to help all children grow and learn to their potential.
Influences on Physical Growth
Physical growth and development entails more than just becoming taller, stronger or larger. It involves a series of changes in body size, composition, and proportion. Biological and environmental factors also affect physical growth and development (Berk, 2013). In this section we will examine factors that affect physical growth in young children.
- Brain development: Even though motor abilities in preschool emerge as a result of physical growth and development, many new motor skills are also the result of brain growth. In other words, movement involves more than simply using arms or legs. Recall the example we used in Lesson One (Physical Development: An Introduction) of a preschooler kicking a ball back and forth with a peer or caregiver. Being able to do this task can be attributed not only to skill mastery and development, but also to the brain’s ability to organize visual and auditory messages that guide the child and help him or her make decisions, such as adjusting movement, deciding how hard or soft to kick the ball, waiting if needed, and kicking the ball back accordingly. As a preschool teacher, you can enhance children’s brain development by engaging children in meaningful interactions that enable them to form connections with their environment and create understandings about how things work, how things are done, how to treat others, how to deal with emotions, and how to go about their daily lives. Ultimately, in doing all these you help children improve existing skills and acquire new ones.
- Heredity: Genetic inheritance plays a significant part in children’s physical growth. Nevertheless, it is important to acknowledge that even though genes influence children’s development, physical growth, like other aspects of development, happens as the result of the interplay between heredity and environment (Berk, 2013). As you read this, think about the role you can assume in creating rich and stimulating environments that foster children’s optimal physical development.
- Nutrition: In order to reach optimal physical growth and development, especially at times when their brains and bodies are developing so rapidly, young children require healthy, balanced diets that provide them with vitamins, minerals and other nutrients. As you will read in Lesson Five of this course (Promoting Active Lifestyles), you can be a role model for children by promoting these healthy habits yourself.
- Cross-cultural differences: Even though there are universal patterns of development that children follow, there are variations in development, and this also applies to how children develop motor skills. Children’s environments, places of origin and particular life circumstances can affect how they develop and master motor skills. As a preschool teacher, you must be respectful and sensitive about children’s backgrounds and prior experiences, and your goal should be to help each child reach his or her full potential.
During the preschool years, you will see significant developments in children’s motor skills. Watch this video to learn about milestones in physical growth during the preschool years.
Understanding developmental milestones is an important part of working with young children. Learning about and understanding how preschoolers use their bodies will help you know how to support them in developing motor skills and what kinds of learning experiences to plan in your classroom and program. Keep in mind that each child is different and that you may have to adapt goals or activities to meet children’s unique needs. Consider the following:
- Plan meaningfully: In your daily interactions with children in your care, you can purposefully plan activities that will enable you to generate information about children and how they are developing and refining their motor skills. For example, you can observe how children move around the different centers in your room during free play, how they follow directions as you lead them through activities such as circle time, or how they manipulate objects in their hands as you facilitate child-initiated play. You should use this valuable observational information to plan activities that promote further development in children or to adapt goals and activities to meet the particular learning needs of individual children.
- Be sensitive to individual children’s needs: As you engage in these observations, remember that each child is different and that sometimes children may not reach milestones as expected. If you are concerned about a child’s development, talk with the child’s family. This may be difficult, but it can make the difference in meeting a child’s needs. You can share information with families about typical child development and let them know you are available to talk. If your program provides developmental screening tools, these can help you start a conversation about your concerns. You should also talk to a supervisor, trainer, or coach in your program about ways to help the child progress in your classroom.
- Be responsive to families’ needs and preferences: If a family approaches you and shares concerns about their child’s development, encourage them to talk to their child’s pediatrician. A pediatrician can perform developmental screenings and possibly refer the child to a specialist. Families of children over age 3 should also contact their local school district. The school district can arrange a free evaluation of the child’s development for the child to receive services and supports.
Consider all the different things your preschoolers can do with their bodies. This activity will help you think about the significance of physical development and activity in preschool.
Download and print the Thinking about Physical Development activity. Take a few minutes to describe movements you see children in your classroom do. Think about what children are learning while engaging in these movements. Then, share and discuss your responses with a supervisor, trainer or coach.
These tools from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention can help you share information about child development with families.
Download and print the Tracking Your Child’s Development brochure and consider sharing it with families or posting it in your room.
Download and print the Milestone Moments document and consider using it to monitor children’s physical development in your classroom.
|Developmental delay||This may be suspected when 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|
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 http://www.cdc.gov/healthyyouth/health_and_academics/pdf/pa-pe_paper.pdf
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, N J: Pearson Education Inc.