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Physical Development in Children and Adolescents

Physical development is the most readily visible of the child development domains.  Parents notice height and weight as well as the development of both fine motor and gross (large) motor skills.  It’s important to remember that what we can see physically corresponds to what we can’t see which is brain development.  In all developmental domains, the brain is promoting exploration and movement but when exploration and movement occur it also stimulates brain development including both neurogenesis (growth of new brain cells) and synaptogenesis (forming new connections between brain cells).  In fact at various times during the first few years of life, a baby’s brain produces so many connections that they end up with more than in an adult brain.  Later through a process called pruning, synaptic connections that are not used by the child are eliminated.

Parents play an important role in all of the developmental domains and physical development is equally important.  Parent’s bonding with their child develops a sense of feeling safe to explore and positive feedback encourages a child to reach out more and push harder.  Parents also provide guidance and support through a process known as “scaffolding”.  Providing objects to encourage a baby to reach and grasp, holding the hands of a toddler while they take a few steps, teaching potty training, help a child with buttoning and zipping clothing, helping them learn to ride a bike and playing catch are just a few examples of how parents provide scaffolding to help children develop physical abilities.

In addition to encouraging and teaching specific skills, parents should promote a healthy lifestyle for their children.  This includes helping them to get adequate sleep, eat a well-balanced diet and stay active physically.  In this endeavor, the best approach for parents to take is to model the behavior as well as teach and encourage these very important health habits.  Teaching safety and maintaining a safe home environment (especially in the early years) is also very important.  Keeping up with regular check-ups and keeping immunizations up to date is important as well.

If you are concerned about possible delays in your child’s physical development we suggest you use the American Academy of Pediatrics: Motor Delay Tool and then discuss any concerns you have with your pediatrician.

Tips for Parents

A Few Things Parents Can Do To Promote Physical Development

  • Play with your child.  Play games that encourage physical development.  With baby’s, it could be as simple as showing them an interesting object and encouraging them to grab it and cheering them as they try.  Later it is playing outdoor games that encourage skills.
  • For great ideas for play activities that encourage physical development as well as other types of development we highly recommend the Gymboree Play and Learn Series.
  • Provide your child with toys as well as simple household objects that will encourage physical play.
  • When they are ready take them to the park.  Let them run.  Run with them.  Let them play on the equipment like the swings and slides.
  • If you have a pool, leave in a complex with a pool or visit friends with a pool or live near natural bodies of water, teach your child to swim at an early age.  Check around for programs near you.
  • During the summer, make use of programs offered by local recreation and parks department and often community colleges as well that offer all types of instruction in sports and other physical activities.
  • Learn yoga as a family, get a video and go for it.
  • Go hiking as a family.
  • Can’t always play outside?  Get Wii Fit and enjoy as a family.  Each member should set their own individual goals and encourage each other as well.
  • Buy toys that are age appropriate and that encourage physical development and outdoor play here are some suggestions:  Sports and Outdoor Toys by Age Group
  • Encourage the development of fine motor skills by providing age-appropriate art materials.
  • Encourage your child to try out different organized sports.  Hopefully, they will find one or two they enjoy.
  • Limit screen time.  Encourage physical activities and playing with “real toys” rather than “virtual toys”.  These two books provide some useful suggestions:  Screen Time: How Electronic Media–From Baby Videos to Educational Software–Affects Your Young Child and   Reset Your Child’s Brain: A Four-Week Plan to End Meltdowns, Raise Grades, and Boost Social Skills by Reversing the Effects of Electronic Screen-Time.
  • Encourage your child to participate in after-school sports.
  • Encourage your child to participate in scouts.
Recommended Books for Parents

Ages and Stages: A Parent's Guide to Normal Childhood Development Ages and Stages: A Parent’s Guide to Normal Childhood Development  A comprehensive parent’s guide to your child’s psychological development from birth through age 10 Written in an engaging, practical style, Ages and Stages offers you the benefits of the most current research on child development, featuring helpful tips and techniques to foster your child’s maturation. Charles Schaefer and Theresa Foy DiGeronimo tell you what behaviors you can expect as your child grows and how you can help him or her to advance to the next level of development. They include numerous examples, stories, and activities you can use immediately to positively influence your child’s development. 


The Family Fitness Fun Book: Healthy Living for the Whole FamilyThe Family Fitness Fun Book: Healthy Living for the Whole Family  Your childhood memories are full of adventure and activities with friends, family, and neighbors, But in this technology-driven world, your children spend more time inside than out. If you’re trying to think of ways to make the outdoors fun again and introduce your children to the classic games you remember, The Family Fitness Fun Book is for you!

It’s time to spend that precious time with your family–all while having fun and getting fit. The Family Fitness Fun Book contains activities for all ages, and groups, in all kinds of weather, making sure your Saturdays (and every day) will always be active and exciting!

Bring back those fun-filled days, whether it is summer or winter, rainy or sunny! The Family Fitness Fun Book is designed to be simple and easy-to-use, featuring:

· A searchable chart to assist your selection of the perfect game for your school party or family picnic
· Helpful icons to help you find an appropriate activity for any size group of any age
· Chapters divided by weather, space, and environment conditions

Proud Parents' Guide to Raising Athletic, Balanced, and Coordinated Kids: A Lifetime of Benefit in Just 10 Minutes a Day Proud Parents’ Guide to Raising Athletic, Balanced, and Coordinated Kids: A Lifetime of Benefit in Just 10 Minutes a Day    Winner of 34 different publishing awards, this 10-minutes-per-day comprehensive program helps children ages 0 to 6 develop coordination.

Tennis pro and master coach Karen Ronney offers a step-by-step handbook with over 200 games for parents who want to jump-start their child’s fundamental skills, self-confidence, and sports potential while creating a lifestyle of family fitness. She offers an in-depth explanation of a child’s development, their learning styles, with physical and brain anatomy and growth facts, and how simple, fun activities can be the key to unlock their abilities in every area of life. Includes recent scientific and academic research, progress charts, how to incorporate purposeful play, and even helps for families with special-needs kids.

Gymboree Series On Activities for Children  We highly recommend this series for parents because the books provide numerous “how to do it” play activities to nurture (provide the scaffolding) child development.  From babies to young children they cover cognitive, language, physical and social development.  Not only will these activities stimulate development but build a strong parent and child relationship.  Plus they are fun for both parents and kids.

Videos on Physical Development

Physical Developmental Milestones

Infant (0 to 18 m)Toddler (18 m - 3y)Preschooler (3y - 5y)School Age (6y - 12y)Teens (13-18)

Birth to Six Months

Gross (Large) Motor Skills

  • Lifts head and chest when on the stomach.
  • Rolls from back to side or side to back.
  • Rolls completely over from back or stomach.
  • Sits with support.
  • Holds head erect.
  • Can raise him/herself up on forearms (while on tummy) and hold head up
  • Rolls from back to tummy (by 4-6 months)

Fine (Small) Motor Skills

  • Reaches for objects.
  • Holds objects for short periods of time before dropping them.
  • Touches and pats bottle.
  • Usually responds to objects or faces as they move
  • Plays with fingers, hands, and toes
  • Holds and manipulates objects; sucks on everything!

Six to 12 Months

Gross (Large) Motor Skills

  • Progresses from sitting steady when supported to sitting without support.
  • Crawls on hands and knees.
  • Pulls to standing position.
  • Walks with help.
  • Stands alone.
  • Learns to crawl, stand up and walk
  • Sits without support (by 8 months)
  • Begins to cruise and eventually walk
  • Develops eye-hand coordination

Fine (Small) Motor Skills

  • Reaches for small objects.
  • Places objects in a container.
  • Picks up medium and large objects.
  • Changes objects from one hand to another.
  • Plays with two toys; one in each hand.
  • Points with fingers.
  • Transfers toys from hand to hand
  • Sees almost everything with good vision
  • Develops eye-hand coordination

12 to 18 Months

Gross (Large) Motor Skills

  • Stands alone.
  • Walks without support; starting and stopping with control.
  • Walks backward with a pull toy.
  • Runs stiffly.
  • Squats down to pick up an object and stands up.
  • Climbs up stairs; creeps down backward one at a time.
  • Climbs out of the crib and playpen.
  • Can throw a ball
  • Walks well
  • Can walk while holding an object

Fine (Small) Motor Skills

  • Turns several pages of a book at one time.
  • Scribbles on paper with crayon.
  • Releases ball with slight thrust.
  • Picks up small objects between thumb and forefinger.
  • Can open a small box.
  • Holds a spoon with a fist.
  • Feeds self with fingers.
  • Holds and drinks from a cup.
  • Picks up small objects with pointer finger and thumb
  • Can build a tower of cubes
  • Turns pages in a book

18 To 24 Months

Gross (Large) Motor Skills

  • Runs stiffly.
  • Jumps off the ground with both feet.
  • Bends at the waist to pick up an object.
  • Walks up and down steps, one step at a time.
  • Throws objects overhead.
  • Kicks a large ball.
  • Climbs onto low objects.
  • Kicks backward and forward
  • Stands on a balance beam
  • Walks up stairs with help
  • Runs well
  • Enjoys riding small wheeled riding toys

Fine (Small) Motor Skills

  • Manages spoon.
  • Makes vertical marks and circles with crayon (pencil).
  • Turns doorknobs.
  • Pulls down zippers.
  • Shows hand preference, but switches hands often.
  • Assists in dressing and undressing self.
  • Can draw scribbles
  • Drinks from a straw

Two to Three Years

Gross (Large) Motor Skills

  • Is constantly in motion.
  • Jumps off low objects.
  • Pushes self on wheeled toys.
  • Runs but has difficulty stopping.
  • Seats self in small chairs.
  • Alternates feet going upstairs, but not downstairs.
  • Kicks ball.
  • Throws ball overhand; no aim.
  • Catches objects with arms extended and elbows stiff.
  • Walks backward
  • Can balance on one foot (by 3 years)
  • Walks up and down stairs independently

Fine (Small) Motor Skills

  • Turns individual pages of a book.
  • Screws lids on and off.
  • Builds crude towers of six or more blocks.
  • Scribbles circles and horizontal and vertical lines.
  • Takes simple objects apart and puts back together.
  • Uses spoon; spills a lot.
  • Strings large beads
  • Holds scissors correctly
  • Zips and snaps

Three to Four Years

Gross (Large) Motor Skills

  • Hops, skips, jumps, and runs.
  • Makes sudden stops and starts.
  • Walks on tiptoes.
  • Hops on one foot.
  • Marches to a rhythm.
  • Alternates steps when climbing stairs; comes down one step at a time.
  • Throws ball by thrusting with arm and shoulder; catches with arms held out straight.
  • Swings on a swing.
  • Walks a low balance beam.
  • Rides tricycle.

Fine (Small) Motor Skills

  • Builds block towers of about 9 or 10 blocks.
  • Holds pencils and crayons with control.
  • Draws straight lines and copies circles.
  • Draws three-part person.
  • Cuts with scissors.
  • Unbuttons clothes.
  • Pulls up large zippers.
  • Uses spoon and fork.

Four to Five Years

Gross (Large) Motor Skills

  • Whirls around turns somersaults and hangs on bars.
  • Hops several times in a row.
  • Climbs large play equipment.
  • Jumps forward using a forward arm action.
  • Jumps up and down.
  • Throws ball overhead with less body movement.
  • Bounces a ball and catches the ball with elbows in front of his body.
  • Can hop on one foot, skip and jump
  • Can catch a ball with both hands
  • Can catch a beanbag

Fine (Small) Motor Skills

  • Builds straight block towers.
  • Draws a house and person.
  • Prints name.
  • Forms crude shapes with clay.
  • Cuts on lines with scissors.
  • Brushes teeth, combs hair and washes hands.
  • Dresses self except for tying shoes.
  • Develops hand preference.
  • Dresses and undresses him/herself
  • Can copy a simple design
  • Uses scissors to cut a straight line

Five to Six Years

Gross (Large) Motor Skills

  • Whirls around, turns, somersaults and hangs on bars.
  • Hops several times in a row.
  • Climbs large play equipment.
  • Jumps forward using a forward arm action.
  • Jumps up and down.
  • Throws ball overhead with less body movement.
  • Bounces a ball and catches the ball with elbows in front of her body.

Fine (Small) Motor Skills

  • Builds straight block towers.
  • Draws a house and person.
  • Prints name.
  • Forms crude shapes with clay.
  • Cuts on lines with scissors.
  • Brushes teeth, combs hair and washes hands.
  • Dresses self except for tying shoes.
  • Develops hand preference.

Six to Nine Years

  • Growth rate slows.
  • Requires around eleven hours of sleep each night.
  • Needs frequent rest.
  • Establishes preference for one side of the body over the other.
  • Has established which hand to use.
  • Girls mature faster than boys.
  • Coordination not fully developed.
  • Runs, jumps, climbs, slides, and dances.
  • Plays ball, tag, and catch.
  • Improves writing skills.
  • Engages in art activities.
  • Plays musical instruments.
  • Dresses and undresses self completely.

Nine to 12 Years

  • Develops more adult-like proportions.
  • Develops harder, larger bones.
  • Is sick less often.
  • Extremely active.
  • Starts developing secondary sex characteristics.
  • May begin growth spurt.
  • Develops interest in more specific motor skills such as skating, bicycling, running and gymnastics.
  • Engages in organized sports such as tennis, baseball, football, swimming, and golf.
  • Has well developed small muscles.
  • Refines writing.
  • Develops special interests in activities such as model building, shop work, art classes, music and crafts.
  • Tries new foods; has favorites.
  • Eats neatly.

12 – 15 years of age

  • Puberty: Rapid growth period
  • Secondary sexual characteristics appear: grow body hair, increase perspiration and oil production in hair and skin
    • Girls – breast and hip development, the onset of menstruation
    • Boys – growth in testicles and penis, wet dreams, deepening of voice Tremendous physical growth: gain height and weight
  • Body Image
    • Preoccupation with physical changes and critical of appearance
    • Anxieties about secondary sexual characteristic changes
    • Peers used as a standard for normal appearance (comparison of self to peers)

15 – 18 years of age

  • Secondary sexual characteristics advanced
  • 95% of adult height reached
  • Puberty is completed
  • Physical growth slows for girls, continues for boys
  • Body Image
    • Less concern about physical changes but increased interest in personal attractiveness
    • Excessive physical activity alternating with lethargy