During the first years of life, the human body changes continuously and dramatically. These changes are not simply a matter of growing taller or gaining more weight; they also involve a complex series of changes in body composition, proportion, and motor development.
Long acknowledged as cornerstones of early development and learning and as key dimensions of school readiness, children’s physical well-being, health, and motor development have received substantial attention in medical, educational, and developmental literature.
Through an interaction of maturation and experience, physical and motor development occurs along a relatively predictable sequence from simple to complex. Three general principles underlie the acquisition of motor skills:
- Most children develop motor control and coordination from head to toe.
- Children develop motor control and coordination from the center of their bodies outward.
- Children develop motor skills involving reflexes, then large muscles, and then progress to smaller muscles. The order in which these abilities develop is virtually the same for children around the world (e.g., they learn to lift their heads up before they learn to control their fingers).
Physical well-being, health, and motor development are central to children’s learning experience and are building blocks to a lifelong active and healthy lifestyle. The development of young children’s physical and motor skills is often uneven. Growth spurts in physical development are common. Motor development is closely linked with children’s:
- Language development (e.g., babbling, pointing to objects)
- Cognition (e.g., exploring new environments, crawling or stooping down to explore, building with blocks)
- Social competencies (e.g., hugging, watching others, waving bye-bye, sharing a tricycle ride)
- Emotional development (e.g., smiling, laughing, dancing)
NOTE: Supplemental materials for parents, child care providers, teachers, and policy makers provide appropriate examples.
Children’s physical development is influenced by external factors such as nutrition and access to health and dental care. Various social and environmental risks (e.g., firearms, lead, pesticides, inadequate or unhealthy water supplies, violent homes and neighborhoods, water safety) also impact children’s physical well-being.
Motor Development has three distinct components: gross motor skills, fine motor skills, and sensorimotor skills. Gross motor skills are characterized by movements of the large muscles of the body and include such movements as rolling over, walking, jumping, and climbing. Fine motor skills involve the ability to coordinate smaller muscles including the muscles of the hands, fingers, and face that allow for movements such as grasping, cutting, picking up food, or intentionally winking. Sensorimotor skills involve the ability to use and integrate the senses (sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch) to support activity. These skills provide a foundation for behavior, learning, and overall development for young children.
Physical Development: Children need access to free time, play opportunities, adequate space, and challenging materials to pursue their physical development needs. Physical competence allows children to participate in group activities and maintain attention to, and interest in tasks necessary to the learning process. Elements of physical competency and development include:
Health and Personal Care: Prenatal care, personal hygiene, and basic personal care are essential to a child’s physical health. Children’s physical health is impacted by access to medical and dental care, nutrition, healthy sleep patterns, and opportunity for physical activity and active play. Recognizing and addressing acute and chronic illness is essential to sustain healthy physical development.
Nutrition and Feeding: Goal 24, Children eat a variety of nutritious foods encompasses far more than food groups and nutrients fed to children. Attitudes, self-regulation, culture, and general areas of development are entwined with food and feeding.
Safety includes protecting children from exposure to harmful substances and situations and helping children learn to avoid harmful objects, environments, and circumstances. Though young children can learn safety rules and regulations, know when and how to ask for help, and recognize the boundary between safety and danger, they cannot be expected to keep themselves safe. Young children’s physical well-being is dependent on adult-provided safety.
Physical and motor development includes biological maturation that reflects genetics, nutrition, health, and the environment. Development of physical skills and abilities follows a predictable progression, though the rate of physical and motor development varies widely among individuals, cultures, and contexts.
Children’s physical well-being, health, and motor development are sometimes impacted by visual, hearing, motor, neurological, or other disabilities. Young children who experience delays, disabilities, or who are at risk for developmental delays may benefit from assistive technology or adaptive equipment, specialized activities, space, play settings, and other resources to support daily activities.