Understanding physical development of children

Physical development refers to the skill and function of the body, including motor skills (both gross and fine), coordination, and balance. Physical development also includes the development of the senses; hearing, sight, touch, taste, and smell. Development follows a sequence, starting with a new born being fairly helpless and relying on their reflexes to survive, such as sucking, flinging arms out if they sense a loss of support, jumping at a sudden noise, having a palmer grasp – closing their palm when touched.

Physical development will then involve the gross motor skills, learning to control the large muscles in the body. This is then followed by the development of fine motor skills, learning to coordinate and manipulate small muscles, for example when learning how to write, physical play opportunities can help them to strengthen their large arm muscles before the smaller arm muscles are ready for writing and drawing, such as throwing a ball and large scale mark making on the floor using their whole arm movement.

Birth to one year physical development is very fast.

Expected developmental mile stones:

AgeGross motor skillsFine motor skills
Birth - 12 months• Put hands and fists in mouth.
• Reflexes, such as jumping, arms flaying.
• Begins to lift head.
• Begins to wave arms and legs.
• Start to turn over, then roll.
• Starts to sit up.
• Has a straight back when sitting.
• Turns to look for someone or something.
• Starts to commando crawl or crawl on all fours.
• Begins to stand on feet when held.
• Pulls self up on furniture to stand
• Cruises along furniture holding on.
• Takes steps unaided.
• Often hold thumbs tucked in under fingers.
• Open hand to grasp adult finger.
• Watch their own hands.
• Beginning to hold a rattle
• Explores by putting things in their mouths.
• Uses hold hand palmer grip to pass a toy from one hand to the other.
• Drop things on purpose.
• Uses a palmer grasp to hold a crayon.
• Begins to use pincer grasp to pick up small objects.
• Hold own beaker.
• Begins to hold finger foods, then a spoon and feed themselves.
15 months• Beginning to Crawl upstairs and may come downstairs backwards.
• Kneel without support.
• May be able to walk unaided.
• Can put small objects into a bottle.
• May build a tower of 2 cubes after demonstrated to them.
• Turn pages of a book several at a time.
• Can grasp a crayon with either hand using palmar grasp, imitate scribbling.
18 months - 2 years• Walk steadily and stop safely.
• Can climb into a chair, turn around and sit.
• Squat to pick up or move a toy.
• Can move without support from a squatting position to standing.
• Can crawl backwards down stairs alone.
• Can climb up and down stairs if hand is held or using rail for support, putting 2 feet on each step.
• Can run steadily but sometimes unable to avoid obstacles in their path.
• Climb on furniture.
• Sit on tricycle and use feet to move it.
• Begin to kick a large ball.
• 2.5 years starts to jump and stand on tippy toes.
• Can build a tower of 3 or more blocks.
• Point to known objects.
• Can use a spoon when feeding themselves.
• Use a delicate pincer grasp to pick up very small objects.
• Can hold a pencil in their whole hand or between the thumb and first 2 fingers (primitive tripod grasp).
• Can scribble to and fro with a pencil.
• Control wrist movement to manipulate objects.
• Can thread large beads onto lace or string.
• Can remove small objects from a bottle by turning it upside down.
• Drink form an open cup with little spillage.
• Feeds themselves.
• Turn pages of a book.
• Draws lines & circles.
• At 2.5 years may build a tower of 7 or more bricks.
• May begin to put on items of clothing, eg shoes and coat.
3 years• Can jump from a low step.
• Can walk backwards and sideways.
• Can stand and walk on tiptoe and stand on 1 foot.
• Can ride a tricycle using pedals.
• Has good spatial awareness.
• Climb stairs with 1 foot on each step and go downwards with 2 feet on each
• Can use whole body to kick a ball with force.
• Can throw a ball overhand, and can catch a large ball with arms outstretched.
• Can build towers of 9 or 10 cubes.
• Can wash and dry hands.
• Enjoy standing at an easel and painting using a large brush.
• Can copy a circle and maybe some letters.
• Can control a pencil using their thumb and the first 2 fingers (dynamic tripod grasp).
• Eat using a fork and spoon.
• Can cut paper with scissors.
• Can draw a person with a head and legs, later, arms coming from the head, and then marks inside the head to represent a face.
4 years• Good sense of balance and may be able to walk along a line.
• Can catch, kick throw and bounce a ball.
• Use a bat.
• Can stand, walk and run on tiptoe.
• Enjoy climbing trees and frames.
• Bend at waist to pick up objects.
• May ride a bike with stabilisers or unaided.
• Can run up and down stairs.
• Can build a tower of 10 or more cubes.
• Can thread small beads onto a lace.
• May use and hold a pen in adult fashion.
• Can draw a basic person.
• Can copy simple letters.
• Dress and undress themselves well.
• Use scissors to cut a straight line.
5 years• Have increased agility.
• Use a variety of climbing equipment.
• Can hop.
• Show good balance.
• Show good coordination.
• Dances.
• Throws a ball overhead.
• Can bend at the waist and touch their toes without bending at the knees.
• Can use a knife and fork competently.
• May be able to thread a large-eyed needle and sew with large stitches.
• Have good control over pencils and paint brush.
• Can copy a square and a triangle.
• Cuts out shapes.
• More detailed drawings.
• Forms letters more easlily.
6 years - 7 years• Gaining in strength and agility.
• Can skip in time to music, alternating feet.
• Can catch and throw balls with accuracy.
• Can hop easily with good balance.
• Can ride a 2 wheeled bike, possibly without stabilisers.
• Able to control speed when running.
• Using one hand to catch and throw.
• May ride a bike or roller skates.
• Good balance.
• Can build a tower of cubes that is virtually straight.
• Can hold a pen or pencil in a way similar to that of an adult (dynamic tripod grasp).
• Draw detailed people with fingers, hair clothes etc.
• More competent in writing.
• Colour within the lines.
• May begin to write simple stories.

Theoretical perspectives in relation to physical development that inform current frameworks.

There are two main perspectives in physical development: nature or nurture. The Nativist perspective was first introduced by Arnold Gesell (1880-1961). He was an American paediatrician. Gesell developed ways to Observe children without disturbing them. One of the ways, was a domed room. It was a room in a shape of a dome that had one way mirrors. This allowed people to observe without it having an impact on the child’s behaviour. This room helped Gesell recognise the importance of both Nature vs. Nurture. Nature being the genetic make up and Nurture being the environment. Gesell was interested to find out which one of these played the most importance in a child’s growth and development.

Gesell believed that the growth of children was determined in two manners. Nature (Environment) and Nurture (Genetics). Gesell studied infant development and found that a child!s physical development occurred in a particular sequence, in accordance with a genetic timetable. His theory was centred on three main principles: development follows a definite sequence; development begins with the control of head movements and proceeds downwards; development begins with uncontrolled gross motor movements before becoming refined. All babies are born with the same set of reflexes and all children cannot run until they can walk. The theory explains also, that differences in children!s rate of development are linked to their differences in genetic make-up, their own personal physical development timetable. There may be a family with a trend of late walking or a tendency towards athleticism.

His work was often believed to support nature development rather than nurture.
This is linked to the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) where there are expectations that a child will reach the Early Learning Goals by the end of reception year, the development matters guidelines, observations made on children, and the two year universal review.

Nurture (the environment) is also important. Children need opportunities, good experiences and stimulation. This theoretical perspective accounts for the differences that may be seen between children of the same age, explaining that they are forward or behind because of environmental factors and experiences. It is worthwhile considering a child that may have experienced something traumatic, such as abuse or neglect and how this would impact on their development, or a child who comes from a family that loves to read, or a family that is very sporty and encourages their child in sports. In the first five years of life, experiences and relationships stimulate children!s development, creating millions of connections in their brains. This is the time when the foundations for learning, health and behaviour throughout life are laid down. Children need a wide range of resources to explore and to go outside, as well as giving children new experiences and challenging them will help physical development.

Neuroscience and brain development.

Theorists in this area believe that brain is a vital instrument in relation to physical development. They have discovered that the primary area of the brain that enables us to make movements is the primary motor cortex, i.e. the control centre. It has further been reported that stimulation is what triggers the creation of new neural pathways within the brain as a response to what the individual is actually doing. This is closely linked to the environmental perspective of physical development e.g. what the child does impacts directly on the development of the brain. The repetition of these stimulations, actions and experiences are furthermore vital in the process of myelinisation.

Children in childcare settings

Most activities in the nursery setting promotes physical development in one way or another. It is important to recognise the skills that children have developed, and to provide opportunity
for them to practice their skills to challenge themselves and take some risk. When supervising outdoor play children need to be observed without practitioners being overprotective and getting in the way of the children’s explorations. Some children need encouragement at first, for example dance classes, they may lack confidence and feel shy. By adults joining in demonstrates and shows being a good role model.

Research by Copeland et al, (2012) indicates that children in childcare have been spending on average ( in the US) 70- 83% of their time being sedentary with only 2-3 % of the time in vigorous activities. Childcare professionals are stated as saying there is concerns with safety and parental pressure to keep children safe from minor injuries. So fun exciting activities such as climbing and chasing games is forbidden. At the same time there is pressure from parents for academic learning, such as learning colours, shapes, numbers and how to write. In my setting we have also been asked by parents in the year before school what we are doing to promote extra learning and they are expecting more academic learning . This has to be explained that children are learning by being physical and also learning the skills needed for school, which are; social skills, being able to ask an adult for help, walk up and down stairs, to use the toilet, wash their hands, dress and feed themselves and so on. Learning also takes a part in physical activities, talking about maths, for example; ‘How many jumps can you do ?’ ‘How far can you climb?’ etc.

References and Bibliography.

Copeland, K et el 2012, Societel values and policies may curtail pre school physical activity in childcare centres. Paediatrics 129 (2). 265-264. ACCESSED 27/11/2020.

DFE ( 2017) Early Years Foundation Stage, Statutory Framework ( EYFS)

empoweredparents.com. ‘find out how to support your child’s holistic development’. Online accessed 28/11/2020.

Gessell, A, Studies in child development. ,1974. Greenwood Press.

Raising children.net au. Child development in the first five years.online. accessed 27/11/2020.

Tassoni, P, 2014, Cache level 3 Early Years Educator. Hodder Education, London.

© Yates, A . Cache level 3, Early Years Educator. 2020.