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    • Describe physical development for children from birth to age 12.
    • Describe factors that affect growth and strategies for supporting all learners.
    • Help staff members recognize and respond to each individual child’s development.
    • Observe staff members and provide feedback on their understanding of development.




    Universal Concepts in Motor Development from Birth to 12 Years

    As described in Lesson One, physical development is the domain of development that relates to the changes, growth, and skills of the body. This includes the brain, muscles and senses. Physical development is usually described in terms of fine-motor and gross-motor development.

    Each child develops at his or her own pace, however, just as with cognitive and social development, motor skills develop in predictable ways. These are known as milestones. Physical development and movement also progress in a predictable pattern. For example, children walk before they run (Sanders, 2002). The figures below show the typical order in which children acquire gross-motor skills and fine-motor skills, respectively.

    Hands to MouthReach MidlineMove ObjectsPincer GraspScribbleSnipImitate ShapesStackWrite

    The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has developed resources you can use to share information about typical developmental milestones. According to the CDC, you can expect milestones to occur at roughly predictable times. The Apply section has a document you can use that lists developmental milestones from birth through school age.

    Factors Affecting Growth

    Every child is unique in their pattern of growth and development. Growth and development is influenced by a variety of factors. Environmental characteristics and experiences can influence development in a positive or negative way. Some of the factors that can have a negative influence on development include:

    • Poor nutrition
    • Lack of access to active spaces or experiences
    • Disability
    • Medical issues, illness, or medication

    In some cases, culture can also influence a child’s growth. For example, in some cultures infants are not placed on the floor because floors are not considered safe spaces for infants. This may affect the amount of time an infant spends stretching, reaching, rolling and crawling. In other cultures, physical activity may be influenced by gender roles. For example, school-age girls may be discouraged from participating in active sports or rough play.

    Supporting All Learners: Understanding Individual Differences

    Your program has a responsibility to serve all children. This includes children with and without identified special needs. There is a great deal of individual variation in physical development. Some children seem to be born athletes. Other children develop their bodies at a slower pace. This is true of children with identified disabilities, as well. It is important to help staff members understand each child’s ability regardless of diagnosis. It is also important to remember that each child with a disability is different. Some children might have a physical disability and be developing typically in other domains. Two children with the same identified disability might have very different needs. Consider these examples:

    • Jessica and Michael both use wheelchairs for mobility. Michael is developing typically in the cognitive and social domain. He starts games of basketball with his peers and moves quickly up and down the court in his chair. Jessica is learning to propel herself in her wheelchair. She gets tired easily and prefers to be pushed.
    • Spencer and Amy both have Down Syndrome. Spencer has global developmental delays, and his fine- and gross-motor skills are affected. At 1 year old, he does not crawl or move independently. Amy, also 1 year old, has been walking since she was 10 months old and climbs every piece of furniture she can find.
    • Austin and Jamal both have diagnoses on the autism spectrum. Austin is a 10-year-old with Asperger syndrome. He has delays in social skills, but he excels in fine- and gross-motor skills. He enjoys running and tends to run laps around the playground rather than playing with peers. Jamal is diagnosed with autism and struggles with fine- and gross-motor skills. He prefers to sit still and take objects apart.

    While these are only three examples, they begin to represent the range of experiences you might see in your program. Familiarize yourself with your program’s or service’s policy on inclusion and help staff understand their responsibilities to get to know the whole child. If children in your program use any type of supportive devices, ensure that staff members are trained on how to use these devices appropriately.


    Helping Staff Understand Development

    The Virtual Lab School modules are a good place to start for helping staff understand physical development. Each staff member will read relevant age-group information on physical development in the Physical courses. Use the table in the Apply section to help staff members remember and use their knowledge of child development in the workplace. You can also use the activity in the Explore section to help staff summarize what they have learned in their own lessons and take it a step further.

    In the next lesson, you will learn more about helping staff use strategies that promote development. For now, consider the different ways you can collaborate with others in your community to promote knowledge of physical development. Consider working with a local nurse, pediatrician, physical therapist, occupational therapist, physical education teacher, or adapted physical education teacher to offer trainings or workshops.

    Helping Staff Become Aware of Physical Development Alerts

    Share the CDC developmental milestones guidelines with staff members and families. These reader-friendly pieces can help staff members feel comfortable and knowledgeable about development. Many of the guides, particularly those for children up to 5 years old, contain advice about when families should talk to a pediatrician about their child’s development. The guides can help empower families and prevent unnecessary worry about a child’s development. These guides can help adults become aware of potential problems and to act early. Refer to the guides yourself when questions arise about development and make sure staff members know what to do when a concern arises about a child’s development. They should always talk to you first. You can provide resources and perspectives on long-term development. You can also help make connections with other professionals who can help.

    Helping Staff Support All Learners

    To create a more inclusive environment and support all learners, you must first model an inclusive attitude. Your facility is compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act , so at a minimum children and families with a variety of physical needs can access your building. You must go beyond access, however. Make sure all children and families feel welcome and involved. Consider the experiences offered in your program, and help staff members brainstorm possible modifications and adaptations. The Kids Included Together program can be a valuable resource for ideas. For young children, you can also consider Building Blocks and CARA’s Kit. These resources from the Council for Exceptional Children Division for Early Childhood provide practical ways to help children succeed in their environments. When a child with identified special needs enters your program, work with the PUBLIC program administrator and/or disability specialist(s) to make sure you and the staff members know how to support the child’s physical development. You can be a resource for brainstorming and for providing materials. Consider these quick and easy adaptations:

    1. Identified Need:
      Child has a hard time gripping or catching a ball.

      Possible Solutions:

      • Affix Velcro strips to the ball to make it easier to grasp
      • Create your own ball out of crumpled paper wrapped in masking tape.
      • Use a beach ball.
      • Use a scarf for throwing and catching.
    2. Identified Need:
      Child has a hard time kicking a ball.

      Possible Solutions:

      • Slightly deflate the ball to make it easier to catch or kick.
      • Use a larger ball.
      • Play on a surface such as grass or carpet that provides some friction for the ball.
    3. Identified Need:
      Child has a hard time seeing a ball

      Possible Solutions:

      • Purchase or make balls with bells inside, so children with vision impairments can participate.
      • Use brightly colored materials.


    What Do Staff Members Know about Physical Development?

    Physical Activity: Understanding Development

    Learn about helping staff members understand the range of physical development.

    Clearly, observation is an important part of promoting physical development. You must ensure that staff members know typical developmental milestones, use appropriate curricula and programming, and watch children in action. Let’s consider a few examples.

    Promoting Physical Development


    Staying on Watch

    Carlie works in an infant room (6 weeks to 6 months). Like all staff in infant rooms, Carlie is often busy changing diapers, making bottles, and soothing babies. While observing in the room, you have noticed that Carlie seems to treat floor time like a break for herself. When a child is laying on a mat, she sits nearby. However, she seems to attend to the other children. She uses the time to feed another infant, move toys around, etc. She does not seem to interact with the infant who is laying on his back or tummy.

    You Say

    Say to Carlie:

    • “Carlie, babies love to interact with you. I noticed how much Shayna seemed to seek you out. I’m wondering if there are some ways we can make sure you feel like you have time to connect and talk to each baby while they are on the floor. I also want to remind you that it is never appropriate to leave a young infant in tummy time unattended, not even for a moment.”

    You Do

    Meet with the team

    • Meet with the team to talk about each child’s physical development and needs. Brainstorm ways to make sure staff members understand the importance of interacting to promote cognitive and physical development.



    Carlie, Pearl and Josie work in an infant room. During your last few classroom visits, you have noticed Britta (age 3 months) is always in a sit-me-up. Your visits have been at different times of the day. When you offered to move her during your last visit, Carlie said, “You can try, but I bet she’ll scream. That seat is her security blanket.”

    You Say

    Say to the Staff:

    • “I can tell she likes it, but it’s so important to help her feel secure with us, too. I’m also worried that she’s not moving around as much as the other children. What do you think?”

    You Do

    Monitor the situation

    • Continue to monitor the classroom. Work with the team to develop a plan about when sit-me-up equipment is appropriate.



    Felicia is a lead in a toddler room (2 years). She loves the kids in the class, and her enthusiasm is contagious. Her lesson plans are always developmentally appropriate, and you enjoy your debriefing meetings with her because she talks so passionately about her ideas and the children. You always expect to enjoy your observations in her room, but lately you have left the room stressed out each time. What Felicia calls “choice” and “freedom of movement,” you might call chaos. During your last observation, two children collided while running in circles around the room. You even heard Felicia praise two toddlers for their climbing skills while they were standing on top of a table. You know toddlers need to be active, but this classroom doesn’t seem safe.

    You Say

    Say to Felicia:

    • “I’m wondering if you can tell me a bit more about how you use your activity plans.” Or “I noticed two little guys bumped into each other this morning. Does this seem like a consistent issue? What have you tried?”

    You Do

    Brainstorm solutions

    • Arrange for Felicia to observe in other classrooms that offer a range of movement activities. Brainstorm with Felicia about equipment she could use in her room (climbing spaces) or ways to schedule time in a space that’s safe for large movements.


    Ensuring Priorities

    Hendricks works in a preschool room. Many of the children in his class will be going to kindergarten in the fall. Hendricks’ son is in the second grade, so he is very familiar with the local school district. He talks regularly about kindergarten being a “different world” and needing to get kids ready for long group times, seat work, and the demands of modern kindergarten. As spring begins, Hendricks’ classroom changes. He is keeping children seated either on the carpet or at tables for long periods of time. He seems to be discouraging active play outdoors.

    You Say

    Say to Hendricks:

    • “Tell me about how you’re planning now that the weather is getting nicer. What are your thoughts and priorities for physical development?”

    You Do


    • Provide Hendricks with training or information on the importance of developmentally appropriate activities. Reinforce program expectations about the length of time spent outdoors and requirements for active play. Brainstorm fun ideas that can help Hendricks incorporate physical movement into the kindergarten readiness activities he is doing.


    Cooperative vs. Competitive

    Mariah works in the school-age program. She plays soccer on the local collegiate team and is quite competitive. She seems to prefer working with the athletic children in the program. She encourages their abilities, but she seems to discourage the less-active children from getting involved in active play. She structures competitive matches. She gives up quickly on the cooperative games that are written on the lesson plans and makes quick adaptations to make the games competitive and “more fun.”

    You Say

    Say to Mariah:

    • “I so appreciate your passion and skill. I’ve noticed that a few of the children have been sitting on the side. Can you tell me about that?”

    You Do

    Help plan a balance

    • Help Mariah plan a balance of cooperative and competitive games. Set goals with her to involve a variety of children in a variety of physical activities.




    Some staff members might need some extra support with applying what they have learned in their own courses. This activity is designed to help staff members articulate the value of physical activity and to help them reflect on the physical development that they will see at different stages. Use the Thinking About Development activity with teams or individual staff members. Encourage them to post their work in their program spaces or to share with coworkers.



    You can help staff and families understand typical physical development. See the Physical Development Milestones Guide for typical milestones achieved by children between birth and 12 years of age.


    Developmental delayMay be suspected when children do not meet developmental milestones at the expected times; delays can occur in any area of development
    Developmental milestonesA set of skills or behaviors that most children can do at a certain age range
    Developmental screeningA 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 staff member comes to you feeling frustrated. A new child in her class has cerebral palsy and it is difficult for this child to participate in many center activities. The staff member wonders if she should meet with the family and discuss moving their child to a different program. How do you respond?


    True or false? Culture does not impact a child’s physical growth or development.


    You are observing in a toddler classroom and notice that the staff member’s activity plan includes activities that introduce skipping. When you meet with this staff member to discuss your observations, what do you say to him?

    References & Resources

    Carlson, F. (2013). Big Body Play: Why boisterous, vigorous, and very physical play is essential to children's development and learning. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

    Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2011). Physical Activity and Health. Retrieved from

    DeCicco, N. (2007). FitFactor encourages youth to exercise.

    Levin, D. (2013). Beyond Remote-Controlled Childhood: Teaching young children in the media age. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

    Milbourne, S. A., & Campbell, P. H. (2012). CARA's Kit: Creating Adaptations for Routines and Activities. Division for Early Childhood.

    Sanders, S. W. (2002). Active for Life: Developmentally appropriate movement programs for young children. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.