Supporting Physical Growth and Development in Young Children (page 2)
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).
Balance and Coordination Skills in Early Childhood
Balance and coordination skills in early childhood relate to children's development of a sense of balance and the ability to coordinate movements so they can perform more complex physical activities. The development of balance and coordination skills in early childhood involves movement of the body in activities such as twisting, turning, pulling or maintaining stability. Balance and coordination skills are necessary for catching, clapping, eating, playing and other types of physical activities. Some things to remember about balance and coordination skills in early childhood include:
- Balance and coordination skills develop through time from a child's birth. Infants and toddlers still are developing these skills, and this is partly why they cannot stop themselves from being unbalanced or falling when they first sit or stand. Adults need to provide support and safety for young children as they develop these skills through time. Different parts of a child's body grow at different rates.
- Coordination skills are important to a child's ability to interact and explore the environment. A child's ability to focus eyes on and reach for an object, which involves coordination, is important to playing, eating and other activities.
- Balance and coordination often involve using the hands and eyes at the same time. Activities such as painting, pasting, clay modeling, sorting small objects (such as buttons), building block towers, copying designs and drawing help a child learn to use (coordinate) the hands and eyes.
- Side-to-side or lateral movements used in painting, drawing or reading help a child develop left-to-right tracking (with the eyes and head). This ultimately will help develop hand-eye coordination and left-to-right tracking, which will help in learning to read.
- Repetition of physical activities, such as rolling a ball with a toddler or drawing pictures, helps a child develop balance and coordination skills. Parents and other adults should work actively with children to practice such repetition, which will strengthen their balance and coordination skills.
All of these physical skills, once developed, help individuals interact with the world around them and accomplish many daily tasks. Without these skills, such interaction would be impossible. To get a sense of children's physical abilities related to balance and coordination skills at different stages of early childhood, see Checklist C - Balance and Coordination Skills in Early Childhood (page 5).
Activity No. 1 - The Handwriting Puzzle
Consider the skill of writing by hand. What physical skills must someone develop before mastering handwriting? Take out a pen or pencil and write your name and favorite place to visit below. Reflect on this skill. Select the six key physical and mental skills from the list below that are necessary for someone to have before he or she can master handwriting. Then check your choices against the answer key.
Key Skills Need for Handwriting
Gross-motor Skills in Early Childhood
0 to 3 Months
[ ] Pushes up with arms while on tummy
[ ] Kicks legs and waves arms
[ ] Raises head while on tummy
[ ] Rolls from side or tummy to back
[ ] Holds head steady when supported in a sitting position
3 to 6 Months
[ ] Rolls from back to side or tummy
[ ] Sits alone
[ ] Reaches for a parent with arms
[ ] Tries to move toward a toy or object that is out of reach
[ ] Scoots about on the floor
6 to 12 Months
[ ] Crawls about on the floor
[ ] Pulls self to a sitting position
[ ] Pulls self up to stand next to a support (couch)
[ ] Stands alone with support
[ ] Takes steps alone with support, then without support
12 to 18 Months
[ ] Walks alone without support
[ ] Walks backward
[ ] Crawls up stairs with support
[ ] Throws a ball with overhand motion
[ ] Kicks a ball with support
[ ] Rolls a ball back to a person
[ ] Imitates more complex motor skills, such as lifting objects, changing clothes, etc.
18 to 24 Months
[ ] Runs fairly well
[ ] Walks up stairs with support
[ ] Kicks a ball
[ ] Jumps in place
[ ] Goes up and down a slide with help
2 to 3 Years
[ ] Sits on or peddles a tricycle with support
[ ] Runs with few falls or trips
[ ] Walks up stairs while holding onto something
[ ] Jumps over small obstacles
[ ] Assists with household tasks or activities
3 to 5 Years
[ ] Runs with energy and coordination
[ ] Catches a ball with some practice
[ ] Throws a ball 5 to 15 feet with overhand motion
[ ] Walks up and down stairs alone
[ ] Hops on one foot
[ ] Rides a tricycle and steers well
5 to 7 Years
[ ] Changes clothes without help
[ ] Catches a ball bounced to them
[ ] Runs easily and participates in games of tag, etc.
[ ] Rides a bicycle with ability
[ ] Kicks a ball with ability
[ ] Carries out household tasks (cleaning room, making bed, etc.)
Reprinted with the permission of North Dakota State University.