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Supporting Physical Development Milestones in Early Childhood

Understanding children’s physical development milestones is critical for effective early childhood learning and growth

Supporting Physical Development Milestones in Early Childhood

physical development milestones

Children achieve a rapid amount of growth and development between birth and age eight. However, most physical and emotional development occurs by age three, establishing the foundation for later development. 

Between ages three and five, most children grow taller and quadruple in weight compared to the time of birth. They also have a more balanced and proportional appearance. In this time, most children also learn and master developmental milestones like sitting, walking, scribbling, using a spoon, and potty training.

Physical development milestones provide the framework for tracking children’s growth and development. This way, parents and teachers can intervene on time if there are notable signs of physical and cognitive delays. In this article, we’ll elaborate on children’s physical development milestones from birth to age five and when to seek professional help in case of a delay.

Child playing and building blocks Source

What is physical development?

Physical development refers to children’s ability to use and control their bodies, and includes improvements in their motor skills. 

Development in a child’s brain, muscles, and senses are all related to their overall physical development. As children begin to explore the world around them, they become more capable of increasingly complex physical movements that support other key areas of development.

Why is physical development important?

Physical development supports other developmental domains like social and cognitive development and is the foundation for learning through exploration. Below, we elaborate on why physical development is important for children.

Encourages independence

As children develop physically, their independence grows. For instance, children require proper muscle development and coordination to sit, roll, walk, run, jump, and feed themselves. As children grow, they overcome physical limitations and have more control over their movements and bodies. 

Supports social-emotional development

Social-emotional development refers to a child’s ability to relate to others and to express and manage emotions. As a child’s motor skills improve, they are able to interact more with the people around them. For instance, when a child rolls a ball back and forth with another child, they are able to learn how to take turns. 

In addition, physical development allows children to express and regulate emotions in more ways than simply crying to get attention. More developed motor skills enable children to communicate better and express their needs clearly, like by pointing at objects they want or clapping when they are excited.

Improves physical and mental health

Physical development can improve children’s physical health by building strong bones and muscles, and helping children to maintain a healthy weight. More physically active children are less likely to suffer the risks of a sedentary lifestyle, such as cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and obesity. Physical activity also improves mental health by helping to reduce stress and improving mood.

Contributes to cognitive development

Cognitive development refers to a child’s ability to think and reason. Physical development allows children to explore their environment fully and learn more about objects around them and their own capabilities. Activities like learning dance moves and throwing or catching a ball are great physical activities that contribute to cognitive development. 

What are the major physical development milestones?

Developmental milestones are essential to observe because they provide the framework for assessing children’s growth. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), physical development milestones refer to what most children (75%) can do by a certain age. Below are the stages of physical development from birth to age five:

Physical development milestones in infancy (0-2 years old)

  • Holds head up while on tummy
  • Moves arms and legs
  • Grasps an adult’s finger
  • Raises head and chest when lying
  • Swings arms at objects
  • Brings hands to mouth
  • Pushes up from the ground onto elbows when lying on tummy
  • Rolls from tummy to back
  • Uses hands to support while sitting
  • Moves objects from one hand to the other
  • Sits without support around nine months
  • Pulls up to stand
  • Uses furniture and other objects for support when walking
  • Drinks from a cup with adult help
  • Uses thumb and fingers to pick up small items
  • Takes a few steps around 15 months
  • Squats to pick up objects
  • Stands up without support
  • Walks independently around 18 months
  • Eats with a spoon

Physical development milestones in toddlers (2-3 years old)

  • Walks and maintains balance over uneven surfaces
  • Jumps off the ground with both feet
  • Walks up stairs
  • Strings items together, like large beads
  • Coordinates both hands to play, such as swinging a bat
  • Takes off some clothes independently 
  • Uses hands to twist objects
  • Turns pages in a book
  • Uses a fork


Physical development milestones in toddlers (3-4 years old)

  • Holds a pencil or crayon
  • Draws shapes like circles and squares
  • Hops and stands on one foot for about five seconds
  • Walks up and down stairs
  • Kicks a ball forward
  • Throws and catches a ball
  • Puts some clothes on themselves

Physical development in preschoolers (4-5 years old)

  • Holds a pencil or crayon between the finger and thumb
  • Draws shapes
  • Throws and catches a ball
  • Coordinates hand and finger movements
  • Hops on one foot
  • Uses utensils to pick up pieces of food
  • Drinks from a cup
  • Serves food or pours water, with adult supervision
  • Unbuttons some buttons
  • Dresses themselves
  • Walks up and down stairs alone

How to support children’s physical development in early childhood

Though physical development is a natural process in early childhood, families and teachers can support children in achieving their developmental milestones. Below we look at ways to support children’s physical development in early childhood:

  • Engage in fun and simple activities that promote environmental exploration. Incorporate basic physical skills into your activities like, jumping, crawling, bending, and skipping.
  • Create flexible physical development plans to track and accommodate children at various stages of development. 
  • Create a safe and conducive play environment both indoors and outdoors and provide plenty of materials, toys, and props that encourage physical development.

Below are some specific activity ideas that promote physical development in early childhood.

Children playing and running around in the classroomSource

Activities to support physical development in infants and toddlers (0-3 years old)

  • Practice tummy time
  • Put toys nearby and encourage infants to reach for them
  • Teach children how to flip pages of a book when reading with them
  • Sing songs and play games that require body movement like, “Hokey Pokey”
  • Engage in sensory play activities like working with playdough, creating a sensory bin, finger painting, or making music

Activities to support physical development in toddlers and preschoolers (3-5 years old)

  • Playing simple games that incorporate movement like, “Duck, Duck, Goose”, “Follow the Leader”, or “Simon Says”
  • Planning activities such as a scavenger hunt or obstacle course
  • Taking family walks or visiting parks
  • Dancing to music
  • Having toys that promote physical activity like, balls, jump ropes, scooters, and bikes

For more ideas on how to promote physical development and growth across other domains, check out our free list for inspiration! 

Activities Across Developmental Domains - brightwheel

 

Download our free list of activities across developmental domains!

Signs of delays and when to seek professional help

Children experiencing physical developmental delays are behind the typical development milestones for their age. While each child develops at their own pace and some might reach key milestones later, if you’re concerned about your child’s development, don’t wait. Sometimes developmental delays can be a sign of a health condition, so talk to your child’s doctor about developmental screening and share your concerns. 

Some signs of physical developmental delays could include things like:

  • Your child not growing the way they should
  • Your child displaying stiff or tight movements
  • Your child displaying signs of weakness and limpness
  • Your child not keeping up with other children of the same age while playing
  • Your child becoming easily tired

You may also ask for a referral to a specialist or contact your state’s early intervention program to see what services are available to your child. 

Conclusion

Physical development is a crucial developmental milestone for all children. It encourages independence and supports activities like art, sports, and social-emotional domains. Physical development also supports healthy mental and physical growth in children.

Families and teachers can support children’s physical development by encouraging indoor and outdoor physical activities, creating flexible development plans, and providing plenty of spaces and materials that encourage movement and motor skill development. 

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