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Supporting Physical Growth and Development in Young Children

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

Parents and caregivers have many ways to enrich a child's world and facilitate healthy physical development.

Young children appreciate growth in their physical abilities. An infant smiles at being able to crawl across the room; a toddler enjoys rolling a ball back and forth with a parent; a kindergarten child loves to skip and dance when music is playing. For children to realize their physical abilities, parents and other adults also must appreciate the importance of steps in physical growth and do all they can to enhance a child's development.

The term motor development refers to growth in the ability of children to use their bodies and physical skills. The different domains of physical development generally fall into gross-motor skills, fine-motor skills and balance/coordination skills. This publication will discuss general patterns of physical development, which may vary based on a child's age, physical maturity and developmental context (presence of developmental delays, etc.).

Gross-motor Skills in Early Childhood

Gross-motor skills in early childhood relate to a child's development of large muscles and the ability to move from place to place or do physical activities that involve the large muscles of the body, arms and legs. Large-muscle development in young children is necessary for crawling, walking, lifting and other types of physical activities. Some things to remember about gross-motor skills in early childhood include:

  • Different parts of a child's body grow at different rates. Large-muscle development occurs earliest, so gross-motor skills, such as reaching, waving arms and legs, crawling or walking, tend to appear first.
  • Throughout the first year of life, most of the physical growth occurs in a child's torso (trunk of the body).
  • Toddlers and preschoolers have a higher center of gravity. This means they are more prone to falls because the legs and body are not yet developed in proportion to the upper body region. Give young children support as their large muscles in the lower body develop and eventually support them to sit or stand.
  • By age 6, the child's body proportions are more like an adult's, with the center of gravity more centrally located to help them achieve a greater sense of physical balance.
  • Most 3- and 4-year-old children are actively using their large muscles in running, wiggling and jumping. Their fine-motor skills, such as cutting, are not as developed. Since the large muscles develop first, providing opportunities for outdoor play and exercise or indoor running around is important.
  • A variety of large-muscle activities is very important to parents, child-care programs and schools to give children a chance to develop and exercise large-muscle skills.

To get a sense of children's physical abilities related to gross-motor skills at different stages of early childhood, see Checklist A - Gross-motor Skills in Early Childhood (page 4).

Fine-motor Skills in Early Childhood

Fine-motor skills in early childhood relate to a child's development of small muscles and the ability to control use of the hands and feet, and do activities that involve the small muscles of the fingers, toes and other parts of the body. Small-muscle development in young children is necessary for physical activities such as grasping, cutting, throwing and drawing. Some things to remember about fine-motor skills in early childhood include:

  • Small-muscle skills are different at different ages. Parents need to consider ability at different ages because asking a child to button a shirt at age 2 or 3 is difficult due to limited abilities.
  • Three-year-olds do not have good small-muscle development yet, so the muscles in their hands and fingers are not strong enough to enable them to use scissors very well.
  • Good precutting skills include crushing paper and then tearing paper.
  • A child's interaction with the environment through exploration offers a critical opportunity for developing fine-motor skills. Child toys, cardboard books, balls and other objects a child can manipulate help them develop fine-motor skills. Parents and other adults should provide materials that children can shape, move and manipulate; allow children to make a mess; and assist them if they need help.
  • Fine-motor skills develop quite a bit later than gross-motor skills, so children should not be expected to do things that involve fine-motor skills beyond their ability. Buttoning a coat or shirt, setting a table precisely or writing a note may involve fine-motor skills beyond the ability of a younger child. Parents and other adults should be attentive to their expectations of children and make sure they fit a child's fine-motor abilities.

To get a sense of children's physical abilities related to fine-motor skills at different stages of early childhood, see Checklist B - Fine-motor Skills in Early Childhood (page 4).

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