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Supporting Physical Development: Environments and Experiences

In this lesson, you will learn methods of supporting the physical development of school-age children. This lesson will define motor and sensory development and include appropriate activities to support each type of development in a school-age environment. This lesson will also describe "right fit" activity choices and developmentally appropriate activities for school-age children in both indoor and outdoor environments.

  • Identify physical activities that are appropriate for school-age children and their physical development. 
  • Plan developmentally appropriate physical activities for both indoors and outdoors.
  • Discuss sensory development in school-age children.



Part of your role as a school-age staff member will be to support the physical development of the children in your care. In order to do this properly, it is important that you understand what types of physical activities are appropriate and necessary for school-age children.

Motor Development

Motor development, or the growth and improvement of muscular coordination, occurs rapidly during the first five years of a child’s life. School-age children continue to develop and strengthen their motor skills in a more slow and detailed way. Motor development involves two separate components: gross motor skills and fine motor skills. Gross motor skills are actions that use the large muscles in our bodies, such as those in our arms and legs for walking, running and jumping. Fine motor skills are actions that use smaller muscles, such as those in our hands and fingers, to perform tasks such as drawing, cutting with scissors, or writing.

Gross Motor Development

Most school-age children will have developed their basic gross motor skills, but as school-age children grow and develop physically, they continue to refine and improve coordination in their larger muscles. School-age children continue developing their large-muscle skills through practice and repetition. For example, if an 8-year-old wants to learn how to throw a baseball, he or she should practice throwing a ball repetitively over a period of time in order to develop and refine the skill.

Children who are experiencing growth sports often lack coordination and seem clumsy. They may have had a growth spurt in their torso and arms but not yet in their legs, or their feet may fully finish growing before the rest of their body. School-age children are more prone to being clumsy and uncoordinated with their movement because their brain cannot keep up with the rapid change in their body’s dimensions. Researchers in Italy, who studied the way teenagers moved, found those who had gained 3cm in height across a three-month span tended to be more awkward and less coordinated (Bisi & Stagni, 2016). Children going through these phases will have to work especially hard to excel at certain athletic skills. Later in this course, you will learn how you can support the emotional needs and challenges of school-age children who are experiencing this type of development.

You can help support the physical development of gross motor skills by including certain activities in your lesson plans. The table below provides examples of activities that support gross motor development and ideas on how to incorporate them into your program activities.

Activity Planning Idea

Jumping rope

Have a jump rope contest or sing-along to songs. You will find a link to jump rope activities on the resource list attached to this lesson.

Balance activities

Make your own balance beam with lumber and concrete blocks. Children can practice balancing, while remaining a safe distance from the ground to avoid injuries.


Let school-age children create their own hopscotch boards and have a contest. This can also be played indoors by using masking tape on the floor. For hopscotch rules, check the resource list attached to this lesson.

Organized sports

Skills associated with sports such as baseball, football, basketball, soccer, lacrosse, etc. will help with motor development. Depending on the size and age of your group, you can have formal games, or just break out into groups and practice specific skills. Consider having high school or college athletes in your area come demonstrate the proper way to execute specific skills.

Obstacle courses

Obstacle courses can be a great way to incorporate many different skills and actions. You can include running, jumping, balancing, throwing, catching and other fun actions like jump roping or hula hooping. You can encourage children to race against their own time to improve skill, resilience, and intrinsic motivation.


Yoga helps strengthen muscles and develop coordination and balance. There are many books, DVDs and online videos available to help teach yoga to children. You can also find flash cards with pictures of poses on one side and instructions on the other. Have the children pick out several cards and practice the poses one-by-one. Once the children are able to complete each pose then have children put the cards together in an order, and practice moving from one pose to another. The reference list attached to this lesson has some examples of incorporating yoga in your practice.

Movement games

Games like Simon Says and Twister are fun ways to practice gross motor skills.

Dance and aerobics

Plan dance parties or contests to allow children to show off their dance moves. If possible, have an instructor visit to teach steps or skills. If instructors are not available, consider using DVDs or YouTube to help with instruction. Participation in group dances like Cotton Eye Joe, The Electric Slide/Cha-Cha Slide, The Macarena, and The Cupid Shuffle can encourage children with less confidence in dance movement, or those who are introverted, to participate among peers with less fear of judgement or being singled out.

Martial Arts like Taekwondo or Tai Chi

Actions like kicking or punching work to develop core muscle groups. This can help kids with balance and knowing where their body is in space. Tai Chi is a low impact martial art form performed as a group through meditative dance like movements. It is known to reduce stress, improve strength and balance. Movements are slow and require a calm presence and focus. To participate in martial art routines consider inviting an instructor or skilled family member in to the classroom to lead a group. You can also always use DVDs or YouTube to help with your instruction.

Fine Motor Development

Fine motor skills are the actions that involve using the small muscles found in our fingers, hands, and wrists. School-age children will already have a firm grasp on most fine motor skills. They will be able to use utensils, draw, tie their shoelaces, and use clasps and buttons. However, if a child’s hand-eye coordination skills are not as developed or refined, it will be difficult for them to strengthen and improve their fine motor skills. Like all developmental milestones, these tend to even out over time, and by age 12, most children will have mastered hand-eye coordination. Some examples of activities that can help strengthen fine motor skills are:

Writing, drawing, and painting

Write a letter or draw a picture to send to a family member or friend. Creating cards for loved ones can not only provide an opportunity to practice fine motor skills but can also give children the opportunity to practice gratitude and other social and emotional skills. You can also encourage kids to practice their cursive, in addition to print.

Playing musical instruments

Allow children to create their own song with musical instruments and encourage other children to make up words or dance along. If you don’t have access to musical instruments creating your own instruments can add another element to strengthening fine motor skills. Children can work to cut and manipulate objects in order to create and discover ways of producing noise from their hand-crafted instruments.

Using a computer and mouse

Utilize the computer making lists, typing biographies to attach to artwork, finding recipes, and playing educational games. Some children may enjoy games that challenge their typing skill. You can print out a paragraph from a page in a book to have children time themselves on how quickly they can type. Children may compete against their own time or one another.


Provide opportunities to use scissors, sew, crochet, finger knit, and string beads together.


When outdoors, children can pick up and examine objects such as leaves, twigs, and rocks that they find in the environment.


Practice building 3D models out of Lego blocks or utilize a kit to build model airplanes or cars. You can also lay out a large puzzle for a group of children to work on together and socialize around.

Right Fit Activities

When planning physical activities for school-age children, it is important to choose activities that are the “right fit.” This means that they are not too easy or meant for younger children while also ensuring that they are not too difficult with unachievable expectations. You want to set children up for success by giving them the opportunity to reach a goal, win a game, or achieve their personal best. Planning activities that are fun, developmentally appropriate, and designed to keep school-age children physically active will be part of your role as a school-age staff member.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that school-age children be physically active for a minimum of 60 minutes each day. They also recommend a combination of aerobic activity, muscle-strengthening and bone-strengthening exercises or activities. The table below is from the CDC and lists details of activities that fall into these three categories. Because school-age children range from young children to early adolescents, the information should be used accordingly, depending on the ages of the children in your care.

Activity Children (6-10 years) Adolescents (10+ years)
Moderate Intensity Aerobic
  • Active recreation such as hiking, skateboarding, rollerblading
  • Bicycle riding
  • Brisk walking
  • Active recreation, such as canoeing, hiking, cross-country skiing, skateboarding, rollerblading
  • Brisk walking
  • Bicycle riding (stationary or road bike)
  • House and yard work, such as sweeping or pushing a lawn mower
  • Playing games that require catching and throwing, such as baseball, softball, basketball and volleyball
Vigorous Intensity Aerobic
  • Active games involving running and chasing, such as tag or flag football
  • Bicycle riding
  • Jumping rope
  • Martial arts
  • Running
  • Sports such as soccer, basketball, swimming and tennis
  • Vigorous dancing
  • Active games involving running and chasing, such as flag football 
  • Bicycle riding
  • Jumping rope
  • Martial arts 
  • Running
  • Sports such as soccer, basketball, and swimming, and tennis
  • Vigorous dancing
Muscle Strengthening
  • Strength games, such as tug of war
  • Modified push-ups (with knees on the floor)
  • Resistance exercises using body weight or resistance bands
  • Rope or tree climbing
  • Sit-ups or crunches
  • Climbing on playground equipment
  • Some forms of yoga
  • Strength games, such as tug of war
  • Push-ups and pull-ups
  • Resistance exercises with exercise bands, weight machines, hand-held weights
  • Sit-ups or crunches
  • Some forms of yoga
Bone Strengthening
  • Hopping, skipping, jumping
  • Jumping rope
  • Running
  • Sports that involve jumping or rapid changes in direction
  • Jumping rope
  • Running
  • Sports that involve jumping or rapid changes in direction

Adapted from: Center for Disease Control and Prevention (2022). Aerobic, muscle- and bone-strengthening: what counts? 

Not only is it important for children to participate in the recommended amount of physical activity each day, they also need to participate in the correct types of physical activity. When planning physical activities for school-age children, you should choose fun, interactive activities that children will enjoy doing. The chart above is a great place to start to ensure a variety of activities. Keep in mind, activities need to be developmentally appropriate for school-age children. Avoid activities that are too difficult or unsafe, such as weight training or activities that are overly vigorous.

It is also important to determine the appropriate level of difficulty for your particular group of school-age children; based on their abilities. After becoming familiar with the children’s range of physical fitness levels in your care, you can begin to plan activities with their particular abilities in mind. It’s important to find a balance between activities that are too easy and activities that will be too challenging. It is OK to plan activities that children will find challenging as long as they are safe. Children and adolescents with disabilities are more likely to be inactive than those without disabilities, so it is important to consider all the children in your care. Think of ways to modify the activity to ensure equal participation.

If when you’re trying out a new activity you see that children are unable to perform the initial skills needed or are incapable of comprehending core concepts in the activity, you should choose another activity or adapt your instruction. You may need to work with children on development of initial skills and core concepts in order to accommodate children’s needs. When children continue to struggle because activities are not developmentally appropriate, they can feel inadequate, incapable, and loose self-esteem. You can modify your activities and their goals in order to allow children to test the limits of their own physical abilities and try to achieve a personal best.

Being Active: Indoor

Giving school-age children activity choices while indoors will help to support their active lifestyles. Physical activities that are planned for indoor spaces typically fall into two categories. The first are activities that are purposefully planned for physical activity, usually in a large room or gym type of environment. The other indoor activities are often called “action games.” These are activities that can be done in smaller classroom-size spaces and are often used to reinforce a lesson or concept.

Indoor Activities: Large Spaces

Many activities that are planned for outdoor spaces can be adapted to play indoors. Depending on the space available in your program, group games such as tag, soccer, flag football, dodge ball or basketball can also be played indoors as long as there is enough space to do so them safely. Other ideas for indoor spaces are:

  • Group exercise class: Invite a professional trainer or use video instruction to teach school-age children specific exercise moves and routines.
  • Dance: Dancing is a fun way for children to burn some energy. Have free-form dancing or instructor-led dancing for school-age children. You can also have dance offs, competitions or choreograph a dance for families to watch.
  • Yoga: Yoga is a great way to relax and wind down with school-age children. It also targets core strength and flexibility, which help improve coordination and balance. If an instructor is not available, consider using books and video instruction as a guide.
  • Scavenger hunts
  • Relay races
  • Simon Says
  • Jumping rope

It is important to note that the use of commercial DVDs or video instruction for physical fitness activities may require written consent for public viewing and use.  If you are interested in utilizing video instruction in your classroom, consult with your administrator, trainer, or coach.

Indoor Activities: Action Games

Action games are a great way to incorporate movement into school-age children’s daily routines. You can use action games as a tool for concept reinforcement or transitions. Action games are also a great option to have on hand when you need to fill a few minutes before pick-up time, or if an activity doesn’t go exactly as planned. Examples of action games are Simon Says or Charades. Attached to this lesson, you will find a resource list of web and print materials with more examples of these types of games. One of the benefits of this type of activity is that these games often require no supplies.

Being Active: Outdoor

In the Learning Environments course, you learned about a variety of outdoor spaces, as well as safety requirements. Not all outdoor spaces will be the same. Some programs have large open spaces, playground equipment, grassy areas, or paved areas. Others may utilize a shared space at a school or park. Organizing physical activities in an outdoor space is a great way to motivate children to be active. Sometimes, games and other activities will be considered free play. When school-age children engage in child-directed play to initiate a game of basketball, tag, or use their imaginations to create their own games; you should join in and participate as much as possible.  This will show that you are also committed to being active and will set a good example for the children in your care.

Other outdoor activities will be planned. Some examples are:

  • Athletic games: Most types of athletic games can be adapted to play with school-age children. You should spend time going over the rules of the game. If you have an expert in your group, let her or him be the leader and share the rules of the game. Keep in mind the developmental levels of all children who want to participate, and find ways to accommodate those just beginning to acquire the skills needed to play.
  • Field-day activities: Sack races, scavenger hunts, balloon tosses and other fun field day activities are a great way to add planned time to your outside schedule. Grouping peers of different skill level and age can support children by learning from a peer model, help children further mastery by teaching skills, encourage problem solving and social skills, and help to level the playing field across groups of children.
  • Mock tournaments: Hold tournaments for athletic games or Olympic style competitions such as World Cup and March Madness.
  • Tag: School-age children enjoy playing a variety of “tag, you’re it” games, such as freeze tag or color tag, dodgeball, and capture the flag. They will also enjoy creating their own variations of running-based competitor games.
  • Fitness tests: You can contact local agencies to find information about what physical fitness tests are used for other sports training.
  • Cheerleading: Cheerleading involves coordination, balance and strength. Some children enjoy writing and developing their own cheers.
  • Sensory scavenger hunt: Collect items you’re sure to find around the park (wood chips, dandelions, leaves, pebbles), affix them to a piece of paper using tape, and have your children look for those items. Try to incorporate items that allow children to explore a variety of sensations along with different senses.

When planning physical activities for school-age children, it is important to remember that not all children will have the same abilities. Don’t let a child who is not athletic feel left out of the game. Promote a team atmosphere by providing encouragement for all players. When playing team sports, it is a good idea to promote playing for fun and experience rather than winning. This will help alleviate stress for less-athletic children. If you have a few children that have well-developed skills, allow them to take the lead and be a captain or share their skills by being a trainer. This will help all children feel that they have an important part to play.

Sensory Development: What is it?

The development of our senses is an important part of physical development. In very young children, sensory development is what helps infants and toddlers gain an understanding of the world around them. As children grow, their sensory development becomes more refined and detailed.  Providing opportunities for children to actively use their senses as they explore their world through ‘sensory play’ is crucial to brain development. It helps to build nerve connections in the brain’s pathways. This leads to a child’s ability to complete more complex learning tasks and supports cognitive growth, language development, gross motor skills, social interaction, and problem-solving skills.

All children (and adults) process their surroundings differently. This is why all children do not like the same foods or listen to the same music. Each person interprets the world around them in a different way as they process through their five senses. Based on this processing, the brain makes a decision on how to proceed. If the tongue detects an extremely bitter taste, the brain will say, “let’s not try that again!” If the hands touch something extremely hot, the brain learns not to touch that spot again.

All children benefit from having planned sensory activities incorporated into their environment. Any activity that activates the senses can be considered a sensory activity. The chart below provides some examples of sensory activities that are appropriate for school-age children.

Activity Planning Idea

The way we process the sounds around us

  • Musical guessing games
  • Pitch matching
  • Echo games (Marco Polo)
  • Sound sequencing games

The way we process the images around us

  • Memory recall games
  • Story telling with photographs

The way we process objects that make contact with our bodies

  • Discovering objects in nature
  • Sensory substances (molding dough, slime, etc.)
  • Art activities

The way we process the scents around us

  • Blind smell tests
  • Fruit smell guessing games

The way our taste buds process sweet, sour, bitter and salty properties

  • Blind taste tests
  • Food comparisons

Supporting All Learners

You may find that some school-age children in your program have trouble with handwriting or perhaps organizing their school work. Others may struggle with figuring out the steps in games or with spontaneous play interaction among peers. If you have children who have these experiences, you may need to adapt your environment as well as your activities to help them succeed. If you are working with children with special learning needs, think about how your existing practices are enabling them to succeed.

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 disorders. Children with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) have a specific plan that helps them meet their personal goals and objectives. A multidisciplinary team of specialists, including the child’s parents, teachers, therapists, and school representatives, help to outline the changes and adaptations needed in a child’s school curriculum and classroom environment for that child to succeed. Children with physical and other developmental disabilities may need related services to ensure they are able to fully access their classroom, school curriculum, activities, environments, extracurricular activities, and events. You will have to make sure that activities in your school-age program have also been adapted and changed. Something as simple as providing a left-handed mouse for left-handed children can enhance their ability to learn and develop. 

Children with physical disabilities may have difficulties with motor coordination and muscle strength. While some children may be able to engage in play and self-help activities with minimal or no help at all, other children may need significant support and may require the use of assistive technology. Equipment such as wheelchairs or braces and communication devices enable children to explore their surroundings and interact with others. Some children with physical disabilities may also have visual, hearing, or intellectual impairments that require the use of significant supports and accommodations to help preform daily classroom activities. You may be working with children who have low muscle tone, leading to their poor balance and stability, and you will assist them with supporting their access and participation in motor activities. You may also encounter children with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder who at times may be extremely active, impulsive, or more easily distracted, and you will need to support their successful participation in your program activities.

Connecting with Nature

A busy lifestyle and increased interest in video games and technology can result in a lot of indoor time for school-age children. They might spend the majority of their day in a school setting, only going outside for their designated 60 minutes a day. Having 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.


As you will see in this video, there are a wide variety of activities that support a school-age child’s physical development.

Types of Activities

A variety of physical activities for school-age children.

Connecting with nature is important for school-age children because being outdoors encourages healthy habits and behaviors. In this video, you will hear a program director discuss how they encourage a love for nature at their program.

Connecting with Nature

Program director explains importance of connecting with nature.


  1. Learn. Take time to learn the differences between the main types of exercise: moderate, vigorous, bone strengthening, and muscle strengthening. Learn what types of activities aren’t appropriate for school-age children. Also, consider the skill level of each child and ways to modify activities for all the children in your care.
  2. Plan. Plan fun and engaging indoor and outdoor physical activities for school-age children. Take time to learn their preferences and understand their skill levels.
  3. Be a role model. One of the best ways you can promote an active lifestyle is to live one yourself. Join in games, learn new skills, and let children see you having fun while being active and engaged.


Use the information that you have learned in this lesson to think about the importance of planning activities that are a good fit for the school-age children in your program. In Right Fit Activities, reflect on what you have learned and any experiences you have had with school-age children to answer questions. Share your responses with your trainer, coach or administrator.


In the Motor Skills Observation activity, below you will observe the indoor and outdoor learning environments of school-age children to examine how they support motor skill growth and development. You may consider specific learning activity areas, equipment, materials, or upcoming program events to observe. You can refer to the motor skills section in this lesson for a reminder on activities that promote motor development. First, indicate what area, equipment, materials, and program you’re observing. Then, record how this learning environment supports development of fine and/or gross motor skills. When you are finished, share your responses with your trainer, coach, or administrator.


Action Games:
A game that is typically used indoors that involves physical movement. An example would be Simon Says
Intrinsic Motivation:
Internal motivation to master a skillset; where the driving force is a sense of pride and accomplishment in oneself, not seeking validation or approval through others praise
Motor Skills:
A function that involves the precise movement of muscles to perform a specific act. Gross motor skills are actions that use the large muscles in our bodies, like our arms and legs for skills such as walking, running or jumping. Fine motor skills are actions that use the smaller muscles in our bodies, like our hands and fingers, to perform tasks such as drawing, cutting with scissors, or writing.
Right Fit Activity:
A developmentally appropriate activity that is attainable yet challenging
Sensory Development:
The development of our five senses (touch, sight, hearing, smell and taste), which allows us to process the world around us


Which of the following are good examples of gross motor activities for school-age children?
True or False. When planning physical activities for school-age children, it is important to plan activities that are easy for all ages.
A new child in your program has a physical disability that impairs motor development. You will need to. . .
References & Resources

Bisi, M.C., Stagni, R. Development of gait motor control: what happens after a sudden increase in height during adolescence?. BioMed Eng OnLine 15, 47 (2016).

Centers For Disease Control and Prevention. (2022). Aerobic, muscle- and bone-strengthening: what counts?

The American Academy of Pediatrics. (2004). Caring for Your School-Age Child. New York: Bantam Books.

Angermeier, P. (2009) Learning in Motion: 101+ sensory activities for the classroom. Arlington, Texas: Future Horizons Inc.

Steinberg, D. (n.d.). Developing and Cultivating Skills Through Sensory Play. PBS Parents.