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Physical Developmental Milestones

This lesson will help you understand typical physical development or, in other words, how children develop and refine motor skills, during their preschool years. You will learn about the progression of developmental milestones and what to do if you are concerned about a child’s development.

  • Identify typical physical developmental milestones in preschool children.
  • 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 motion. Preschoolers are busy moving in their environments, both indoors and outside. 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, and they are much more coordinated and purposeful in their actions. They also demonstrate improved speed and strength, and become increasingly more independent.

Physical Growth and Appearance

A steady increase in children’s height, weight, and muscle tone occurs during the preschool years. (Trawick-Smith, 2014). Compared with toddlers, preschoolers are taller and leaner. Their legs and trunks continue to grow, and their heads are not as large in proportion to their bodies. As preschoolers’ bodies develop over time, the areas in their brains that control movement continue to mature, enabling them to master gross and fine-motor skills.


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 to evaluate children’s development. Rather, as highlighted in the Cognitive Development course, milestones provide a guide for when to expect certain skills or behaviors to emerge in young children which are based on their cognitive development, gross-motor development, fine-motor development, hearing, speech, vision, social-emotional development, and other factors. 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 reach their maximum potential.

Chart: Movement and Physical Developmental Milestones in Preschool

Age 3
  • Climbs well
  • Runs easily
  • Pedals a tricycle
  • Walks up and down stairs, one foot on each step
  • Washes and dries hands
  • Kicks and throws a small ball
  • Draw a circle with a crayon, pencil, or marker
  • Uses a fork
  • Dresses self in loose clothing
Age 4
  • Hops and stands on one foot up to 2 seconds
  • Pours, cuts with supervision, and mashes own food
  • Catches a bounced ball most of the time
  • Draws a person with two to four body parts
  • Uses scissors
  • Jump over objects and climb playground ladders
  • Starts to copy some capital letters
  • Get dressed with minimal help (zippers, snaps, and buttons may still be a little hard)
Age 5
  • Stands on one foot for 10 seconds or longer
  • Hops, and may be able to skip
  • Can do a somersault
  • Uses a fork and spoon and sometimes a table knife
  • Swings and climbs
  • Can use toilet on own
  • Can print some letters or numbers
  • Copies a triangle and other geometric shapes

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:

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 in Lesson One of a preschooler kicking a ball back-and-forth with a peer or caregiver. The ability to do this can be attributed not only to their skill mastery and development, but also to the brain’s ability to organize visual and auditory messages that guide the child and help 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 an understanding 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 so, you help children improve existing skills and acquire new ones.
  • Heredity: Genetic inheritance plays a significant part in children’s physical growth. However, 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). Think about your role and how you can create a rich and stimulating environment that fosters children’s optimal physical development.
  • Nutrition: In order to reach optimal physical growth and development, especially at a time 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 a child care provider, you serve as 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 can be variations in how children develop motor skills. Children’s environments, family culture, 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 their 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.

Physical Development Milestones in Preschool

Watch physical growth and development across 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, purposefully plan activities that let you discover information about the children, such as how they are developing and refining their motor skills. For example, observe how children move around different stations 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. Use this valuable observational information to plan activities that promote children’s further development or to adapt goals and activities to meet the particular learning needs of any individual child.
  • 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 important, as it can make the difference in meeting a child’s needs. 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 screenings can help you start a conversation about your concerns. Always feel welcome to talk to a trainer, coach, or administrator in your program about ways to help a 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 to assess for developmental delays and arrange services and supports.


Consider all the different ways your preschoolers can use their bodies and what they learn about themselves, their peers, and the world as they master newly-learned skills and develop new ones. The activity below will help you think about the significance of physical development and movement in preschool.

For the Thinking about Physical Development resource, take a few minutes to describe the movements children in your classroom make. Next, think about what children are learning while engaging in these movements. Then, share and discuss your responses with a trainer, coach, or administrator.


Use the Milestone Moments document to monitor the physical development of the children in your in your classroom. These milestone guides from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are great resources that you can share with families.

Parents may be interested also in the Milestone Tracker Mobile App from the CDC, which they can access here:


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
A basic unit of inheritance responsible for some physical or biological characteristics
The transmission of genes from a parent to their offspring


Finish this statement: Developmental milestones are ...
Which of the following should not be expected of a 3-year-old child?
What should you do if you think a child is not reaching developmental milestones?
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. The Association Between School-Based Physical Activity, Including Physical Education, and Academic Performance |

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021). Developmental milestones

Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co., Inc. (2002). Ages and stages questionnaire (ASQ).

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.