Understanding Physical Development in Young Children

By — North Dakota State University Extension Service
Updated on Mar 10, 2011

Seeing a baby roll over for the first time or watching a preschooler learn to kick a ball are precious moments in the life of a parent or caregiver.

Rolling over or eating with a spoon are examples of physical development. Think about the importance of physical abilities and the role they play in a child's life.

Muscles and Motor Skills

The growth of a young child's physical abilities is truly amazing. Think of all the physical abilities a child must develop to adjust to the world: learning to see and recognize others, rolling over, holding a bottle or cup, crawling around objects and more.

These are all complex physical tasks that require strength, coordination and perception. They also are developmental moments, those windows of time when parents or caregivers can see the ways in which a young child is growing and developing new skills and abilities.

Physical development

Provides children with the abilities they need to explore and interact with the world around them.

A young child's physical growth first begins as muscles gain strength with use and children gradually develop coordination. The development of muscular control is the first step in this process.

Think about the words physical development. They encompass so many different tasks and abilities. What are some of them and what role do they play? For example, crawling across the floor is a task young children engage in that involves physical development.

It also involves activities such as running around outside, jumping on the bed, grasping a parent's finger or using a pencil to draw in a coloring book.

Where do these tasks all fit in the world of physical growth and development?

Patterns of Physical Development

The findings of a variety of research efforts suggest parents' goals for their children related to physical development often vary across cultures and socioeconomic groups. The expectations parents have for a child's physical development thus will depend on culture, family status or the presence of physical limitations.

For example, in a culture where a sport such as soccer is played early and very competitively, a parent's assessment of a child's physical abilities may be linked to performance on the soccer field. But the basic patterns of physical development in children are universal.

The concept of development includes two major categories: normative development and dynamic development. Each of these is defined as follows:

  • Normative development concerns the typical (normal) capabilities, as well as limitations, of most children of a given age within a given cultural group. It indicates a typical range of what children can and cannot be expected to do and learn at a given time.
  • Dynamic development concerns the sequence and physical changes that occur in all aspects of a child's functioning with the passage of time and increasing experience, and how these changes interact.

Normative development is important because it allows parents and other adults to understand what to expect of a child physically at different ages. For example, expecting a 3-year-old child to zip her own coat would be unrealistic because she still is developing the physical ability to use fingers in that way.

How do you know what a child should be able to do physically? Typically, we refer to developmental milestones to indicate steps in physical ability for a child that should be reflected at different ages, such as during the 3- to 6-month period or between 2 and 3 years.

Charts indicating common developmental milestones in physical abilities are included with the NDSU Extension Service publication "Supporting Physical Growth and Development in Young Children," which is available at your local Extension office or on the Internet at the NDSU Extension Service Web site.

The term motor development refers to physical growth, or growth in the ability of children to use their bodies and physical skills. Motor development often has been defined as the process by which a child acquires movement patterns and skills.

Genetics, size at birth, body build and composition, nutrition, rearing and birth order, social class, temperament, ethnicity and culture influence motor development. Physical growth follows several basic principles.

Many times in thinking about physical development, we think most about large-muscle or gross-motor development. This type of development refers to the use of large-muscle groups in the legs (running) or arms (throwing).

However, small-muscle or fine-motor development also is included in the physical development of a child, and deals with such areas as smiling, picking up a fork or tying a shoe.

Small-muscle development is evident as infants grasp cereal to put in their mouths and is enhanced by activities such as picking up blocks or drawing with crayons.

Activity No. 1 - Thinking About Outdoor Activities

Outdoor activities are important for children to learn and develop their physical abilities as they grow older. Brainstorm and list responses to the following questions related to outdoor activities. Discuss them with a spouse, friend, family member or group.

 What was your favorite outdoor activity as a child? _______________________________________________________




 What is one thing you enjoy doing outside now that could include your child?




 What are the benefits of outdoor play? __________________________________________________________________




 What are some barriers to outdoor play for children and possible solutions?




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