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    • Define developmentally appropriate physical activity.
    • Ensure staff understanding of the importance of space and materials for physical development.
    • Help staff members identify modifications to meet the needs of all learners.
    • Describe ways other programs promote fitness and apply the concepts to your program.




    Child-development and school-age programs have the opportunity to help children build healthy habits for life. This is done through developmentally appropriate experiences that meet the needs of each child. Your program’s environment, materials, and interactions all play a part. You will work with staff members to make sure they (a) understand the importance of physical activity for children and (b) apply their knowledge every day.

    Promoting Physical Development Indoors from Birth to 12 Years

    The key to promoting physical development is offering developmentally appropriate experiences. Developmentally appropriate experiences are formed through a decision-making process that considers these concepts (Sanders, 2002):

    • Knowledge of child development and learning
    • Knowledge of each individual child’s strengths, needs, and interests
    • Knowledge of each child’s culture

    The concept of developmentally appropriate practice is probably familiar to you. It is the foundation of curricular experiences for young children. As a decision-making framework, however, developmentally appropriate practice is relevant to all of the children and staff in your child-development and school-age programs. Developmentally appropriate physical experiences for children and youth promote maximum health and development. Here are a few examples of developmentally appropriate and inappropriate physical experiences for children from birth to age 12:

    Developmentally Appropriate/Inappropriate Physical Experiences

    Developmentally Appropriate

    Developmentally Inappropriate

    • Tunnels to crawl through
    • Opportunities to lay on tummies and backs
    • Push toys
    • Music for movement
    • Areas to “pull up” and “cruise”
    • Spaces for climbing and rolling
    • Objects with interesting movement patterns, like ribbons
    • Long periods of time in sit-me-up’s, swings, or other furniture that contains young and mobile infants
    • Mandatory group movement activities or competitive games
    • Games that require waiting for one’s turn

    Developmentally Appropriate

    Developmentally Inappropriate

    • Simple obstacle courses
    • Games that incorporate movement (tossing socks into a basket, bowling with empty plastic soda bottles)
    • Organized group sports
    • Activities that focus on excluding or eliminating children (e.g., Duck Duck Goose)

    Developmentally Appropriate

    Developmentally Inappropriate

    • Dancing
    • Martial arts
    • Group fitness classes
    • Action games (see School-Age course for more information)
    • Scavenger hunts
    • Fitness stations (e.g,, jump ropes, hop scotch, gymnastics)
    • Activities that only emphasize competition rather than cooperation
    • Activities that emphasize aggressive behaviors (e.g., dodgeball)

    It’s also important to remember that children need to develop fine-motor skills, as well. Help staff members think about all the ways they promote fine-motor development:

    • Providing a variety of objects for infants and toddlers to manipulate
    • Providing writing tools and art materials
    • Providing experiences like knitting, construction, musical instruments, sewing, etc. for school-age children

    Consider some developmentally appropriate and developmentally inappropriate strategies for promoting fine motor skills:

    Promoting Fine Motor Skills

    Developmentally Appropriate

    Developmentally Inappropriate

    • Providing objects of different sizes and textures to pick up
    • Offering crayons, paintbrushes, or markers for scribbling and exploration
    • Expecting toddlers to trace, color in the lines, or draw specific figures

    Developmentally Appropriate

    Developmentally Inappropriate

    • Simple tracing games or activities
    • Authentic opportunities to practice writing their names or words that interest them
    • Repetitive worksheets (e.g., trace 15 letter J’s)

    Developmentally Appropriate

    Developmentally Inappropriate

    • Knitting
    • Model building
    • Writing
    • Musical instruments
    • Writing or other fine-motor tasks as punishment

    Arranging the Indoor Environment

    The environment plays a large role in the physical development and learning of children. The Learning Environments course provides more information about the importance of indoor and outdoor environments. This lesson will focus on how the environment can be arranged to maximize physical activity and development in a safe way.

    For children to understand that physical activity is a priority, there must be spaces designed for physical activity. This can be a challenge in small rooms or spaces that were originally designed for other purposes. However, with some creativity and flexibility, it is possible to create spaces that help children explore and master important physical skills.

    We can think of environments on two levels: the center environment and the classroom environment. At the center level, you can work with management to make sure there are safe indoor spaces dedicated to physical activity. Is there a gym in the school-age program? Is there a gross-motor room in the child-development center? If so, these are ideal spaces to provide opportunities for movement. Make sure the spaces are arranged in a way that children can move freely while still choosing from a variety of options. Consider working with teams to make sure spaces are designed into interesting movement stations: hula hoops in one area, bean bags and buckets in another area, an obstacle course in a third area. Make writing, drawing, and painting materials available in classroom interest areas and help teams be creative with their spaces and materials. For example, masking tape can create quick, simple, and removable “balance beams” on the floor.

    At the classroom level, help staff understand the importance of providing some space for physical activity. This will look different at different ages:

    • Infant rooms: areas covered with soft mats where children can climb and explore
    • Toddler rooms: a set of ramps or stairs that children can climb
    • Preschool rooms: an interest area that is aligned to a story book the class is reading (for example, after reading the nursery rhyme “Hey Diddle Diddle,” children go to an area of the room where they can practice “jumping over the moon”)
    • School-age programs: an area with an MP3 player where children can play music and dance, or it might be a yoga area for children to stretch

    Promoting Physical Development Outdoors & Arranging the Outdoor Environment

    Outdoor environments are natural settings for physical activity. In fact, a lot of us may be more likely to associate physical activity with being outdoors. Think about times when you took a walk or a run in your neighborhood, when you walked, hiked, or played games in a park, when you explored a nature trail, or when you spent time gardening or cleaning up your backyard. Those activities probably made you feel good, energized, and even rejuvenated.

    The busy lifestyles of families can result in a lot of indoor time for many children. School-age children 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. Thinking beyond the timeframes caregivers and teachers typically have alloted for outdoor activity, encourage as much outdoor time as possible; when possible, plan activities that include their natural surroundings and bring the outside indoors to learn about and discover.

    The Apply section has tools to help you work with staff to develop or improve outdoor spaces for active play. Review the guidelines in those documents. Look for several key elements:

    • Variety: Make sure there are a variety of surfaces, a variety of materials, and a variety of ways for children to get involved and active.
    • Safety: Make sure staff members are aware of safety rules and procedures at all times. Check the spaces and materials often. See the Safety course for more information.
    • Participation: Make sure all children have options that interest them. Observe to be sure that children are active.

    You can think about creative ways to help staff members support physical growth and development while outside with infants, toddlers, and preschoolers:

    • Benches, logs and bridges provide opportunities for practicing sitting, standing and climbing.
    • Create paths using different types of surfaces, such as sand.
    • Include a sand box or designated area for digging dirt.
    • Plant different-colored flowers that children can look at, touch, smell and pick.
    • Plant long grasses that are soft to touch.
    • Include mobiles, mirrors and other sculptures into your outdoor environment and gardens.
    • Create opportunities for sound and touch experiences such as trickling water, bird baths, and wind chimes.

    For older children:

    • Provide a variety of fun activities, such as riding toys or scooters, playing tag, scavenger hunt games, balancing games, changing direction games, obstacle courses, follow the leader, dancing, freeze tag, or parachute games.
    • Encourage children to work together to create their own games and activities.
    • Include sensory experiences for children.

    For school-age children, other outdoor activities will be planned. Some examples are:

    • Athletic games: School-age children are ready for sports like basketball, soccer, etc. Be creative and encourage staff members to introduce them to new sports or games like bocce or croquet.
    • Field-day activities: Activities like sack races, scavenger hunts, balloon tosses and other fun games are great ways to add variety to the outdoors.
    • Mock tournaments: Hold tournaments for athletic games or Olympic-style competitions.
    • Fitness tests: You can contact local agencies to find information on what physical fitness tests are used for sports and other training.
    • Cheerleading: Cheerleading involves coordination, balance and strength. Some children might enjoy writing and developing their own cheers.

    Be sure that there are spaces available to accommodate these different activities. A large open space subdivided for a variety of stations can be very useful: this kind of space can be used flexibly from day to day. Work with staff to make sure materials are stored securely and easily in the areas where they will be used. See the Safety course for additional information.

    Meeting the Needs of All Learners

    Some children in your program’s care may have conditions that affect their motor development, including physical and cognitive disabilities, neurological and perceptual disorders, and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Children with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) have a specific plan to help them meet their personal goals and objectives. In general, these children will need changes or adaptations to the curriculum, classroom environment, and daily activities. Children with physical and other developmental disabilities may need related services to ensure they fully access their classroom and school curriculum, activities, environments, extracurricular activities, and school events.

    While some children may be able to engage in play and self-help activities with minimal or no assistance at all, other children will need significant supports, and may require the use of assistive technology, including equipment such as wheelchairs or braces or communication devices that enable them to explore their surroundings and interact with others. Other children with physical disabilities may also have visual, hearing, or intellectual impairments that require the use of significant supports and accommodations when it comes to daily classroom activities. Staff members may be working with children who have low muscle tone, leading to poor balance. They will have to support the child’s access and participation in motor activities. They might need support from you, your administrator, a disability specialist, and/or the child's family to brainstorm appropriate supports. Lastly, you may encounter children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder who may sometimes be extremely active, impulsive, or easily distracted. Staff members will need support to help these children have successful participation in your program activities. They may need additional ideas about embedding physical activity in their activity plans. They may need support with planning and organizing their day to meet the child’s needs.


    Providing Ideas and Resources for Physical Development Indoors and Outdoors

    Promoting physical activity can take a great deal of creativity. Sometimes, staff members may feel like they need permission to incorporate physical activity; this is most common when staff members feel pressure to promote cognitive development or academic skills. It is your job not just to give this permission, but to make physical activity part of the culture of your program. Help staff members think about the many ways they might incorporate physical activity in their weekly plans:

    • Placing objects just out of an infant’s reach to encourage looking and stretching
    • “Ice skating” in socks on a non-carpeted floor
    • Developing an obstacle course based on a story or project a group of children has completed
    • Working with teams to develop cross-center “Olympics” or other events that promote fitness and collaboration
    • Sharing one another’s hobbies with children or youth: juggling, line dancing, Zumba, knitting
    • Giving feedback on spaces; exploring the resources available for designing indoor and outdoor active spaces

    Helping Staff Support ALL Learners

    Staff members might not always know what to do when a child shows little interest in physical activity or when a child has an identified physical disability. It is your role to help staff members build their confidence and competence in supporting all learners. There are several steps you can take to model this process:

    • Model an inclusive and strengths-based vocabulary and approach: Talk about what children can do rather than what they cannot do. Be persistent in brainstorming solutions to barriers. If a child has difficulty catching a ball, help staff members think of ways to make it possible. They could deflate the ball slightly so it is easier to catch, make a ball out of crumpled newspaper and duct tape so it is lighter, or offer a different object, like a scarf, to toss and catch. Advocate for the inclusion of all children in activities. No child should sit out of an activity because of a disability or difference. If a child wants to participate, find a way to make it happen safely.
    • Seek out resources: Talk to a disability specialist or an adaptive physical educator. These individuals are well-educated and knowledgeable about ways to help promote the physical development of all learners. Invite them to come speak with your staff or to meet individually with teams who need ideas. If used in your program(s), develop Individual Family Service Plans (IFSPs) for children from birth to age three or IEPs for older children who require adaptations to the curriculum, classroom environment, and activities. There are also adaptive sports programs in many communities. Check with your local parks and recreation department about resources or opportunities for children and staff with disabilities. It is your responsibility as a trainer, supervisor, or coach to educate yourself on what resources are needed to support staff. Take the initiative to find resources through internal policies or community partners. If you do not become familiar with the available supports, your staff will not have access to them and they will not be utilized.
    • Involve families: Families often know what their children like and what has worked in the past. Talk to families about their children’s development, strengths, and needs in terms of physical development. Discuss families’ goals for their children’s fitness and participation.


    What Do Staff Members Know about Supporting Physical Development?

    It is your job to make sure staff members are promoting physical development in their classrooms and programs. Watch this video to hear a few ways staff members promote physical activity.

    Helping Staff Promote Physical Activity

    There are specific ways staff promote physical activity.

    We can also learn a great deal from other programs. The following videos highlight the work that is being done to promote physical development in child-development centers and school-age programs. As you watch these examples, think about whether and how you could incorporate ideas into your own programs.

    Promoting Physical Activity: Exemplary Programs

    We can learn a lot from other programs' experiences.

    Exemplary Program: Fit Factor

    Learn about one way fitness is promoted at home and in programs.

    Exemplary Program: Bike Club

    Learn about one way fitness is promoted at home and in programs.




    Assessing environments and providing feedback is an important part of your job. There are a variety of tools that can help. Environment Rating Scales help assess your program’s environment. Use the example below: Play Space Assessment (by Head Start Body Start National Center for Physical Development and Outdoor Play). It is designed to evaluate environments for children ages 3 to 5. You can also use the School-Age Space Assessment.



    There are a variety of resources that you can use to help staff members find appropriate physical activities for children and youth. You have learned about many of them in this course. One additional resource is the website called PE Central. It is designed for physical educators, but many of the lessons are applicable to child-development center and school-age programs. The PE Central Tip Sheet below will help you explore the site with staff and offer suggestions for incorporating physical activity in fun and meaningful ways.




    What can you do as a trainer, supervisor, or coach to assist staff in arranging the indoor environment to support physical activity?


    Finish this statement: When observing outdoor spaces that support physical activity look for…


    What can you do to encourage staff members as they look for ways to support all children?

    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.

    Choosy Kids: Be Choosy, Be Healthy. (2012). Retrieved from

    Danks, S. (2010). Asphalt to Ecosystems: Design ideas for schoolyard transformation. New York, NY: New Village Press.

    Extension Network for Better Childcare (2012). Nutrition and Physical Activity in Child Care.

    Head Start. (n.d.) I Am Moving, I Am Learning: A Proactive Approach for Addressing Childhood Obesity in Head Start Classrooms.

    Keeler, R. (2008). Natural Playscapes. Redmond, WA: Exchange Press.

    Let’s Move! (2014). 

    Let’s Move! Child Care. (2013). 

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

    The Nemours Foundation. 2020. Healthy kids, healthy future. Retrieved from

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

    Sesame Workshop. (2014). Sesame Street: Healthy Habits for Life. Retrieved from