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Physical Development in Early Childhood: From Birth to Age 6

Every parent wants a safe, secure and happy childhood for their child. A positive environment and good physical development provide the foundation children need to make the most of their abilities and talents. Early childhood is a time of remarkable growth and physical development. Knowing about children’s physical development in early childhood will help you see how well your child is doing. While every child is different, it can still help determine your child’s specific needs.

Table of Contents

What is the physical development of a child?

Physical development is a vital part of growing up as children learn to master control of their body. For example, physical development includes sitting, crawling, standing and walking. As children grow and develop, these changes are easily noticed.  And they are viewed as ‘markers’ along life’s journey. These markers are referred to as developmental milestones. Hence, physical development in early childhood is very crucial. 

In the statutory framework for the early years foundation stage, physical development is one of the prime areas of learning and development. Physical development is also known as motor development.

 A child’s physical or motor development falls into two categories: 

1. Fine motor skills

2. Gross motor skills

They are described below to give a better understanding of what these skills are and how they help children develop physically.

1. Fine motor skills

To put it simply, fine motor skill (dexterity) is the coordination of small muscles. Thus, fine motor skills are involved in smaller movements. It also includes movements that occur in the wrists, hands, fingers, feet and toes. For example, writing, cutting, painting and colouring are fine motor skills. 

A child drawing using hands

It is essential that children acquire fine motor skills at an early stage. Because they will help the child interact with the environment. Here are some tests to assess a child’s fine motor skills:

These tests will help determine if the child is developing properly or not. They will also check if the child has any conditions that may hamper their growth and development.

2. Gross motor skills

Gross motor skills are referred to as the movement and coordination of the arms, legs, and other large body parts. Generally, these skills call for whole-body movement. For instance, they include actions such as standing, running, crawling and swimming. Gross motor skills help us with our everyday functions. That’s why it is important for children to develop these skills timely.

Usually, these skills develop in a head-to-toe order. The children typically learn head control, trunk stability first, and then how to stand up and walk. It is also important to note that children exposed to outdoor playtime activities develop better gross motor skills.

A person helping a child to learn walking

Physical development goals in early childhood

There are two early learning goals for physical development in early childhood. They are described below –

1. Moving and handling

Physical development calls for providing opportunities for young children to be active. Children show good control and coordination in terms of both large and small movements. However, this comes through using and playing with various objects such as spoons, beakers, cars, jigsaws and other playthings. Thus, they are able to handle equipment and tools effectively. For example, when they can hold a pencil for writing. They also learn to move with confidence in more than one way. This confidence enables them to want to ride a scooter or jump in a puddle later on. 

2. Health and self-care

Through health and self-care, children learn about the effects of a healthy lifestyle on their bodies. This includes all the factors that affect their development, including making healthy choices about food. They also learn to manage their basic hygiene and personal needs successfully. Examples include – dressing and going to the toilet independently.

Why is physical development important?

Children undergo rapid and wide-ranging physical developments in their early years. As a result, it contributes to their future health and well-being. It also helps their cognitive development. 

Two children playing together

Physical development can also help maintain a healthy weight and develop strong bones, muscles and heart. In addition to that physical development can help develop personal and social skills. Skills such as self-confidence,  social interaction, getting along with others and so on.On the contrary, there has been an increase in children’s inactive behaviour and reduced physical activity over the last few years. For this reason, recognising a child’s physical developmental needs is a significant part of child care.

Physical developmental milestones in early childhood

Developmental milestones ordinarily refer to a set of developmental changes in children. They result in the improved ability of a child to coordinate and control voluntary movements. To illustrate, learning to walk is one of the most important milestones for a child’s development. But before learning about developmental milestones, it is important to remember the four themes provided by the EYFS.
  • Every child is a unique child.
  • Children learn through positive relationships – to be strong and independent.
  • Children develop and learn more in enabling environments.
  • They develop and learn in different ways and at different rates.
World Health Organization (WHO) provided the following information on ‘windows of milestone achievement expressed in months’ Motor milestone for different aged children

(Source: World Health Organization)

Aside from this, there are other fine motor skills and gross motor skills milestones. They are given below.

Fine motor development milestones in early childhood

Developmental milestones for fine motor skills of children in early childhood are as follows –
  Age Developmental Milestones (Fine motor skills) Possible implications if milestones are not achieved

0–6 months

  • Reflexive grasp at birth
  • Global ineffective reach for objects at three months
  • Voluntary grasp at three months
  • Two handed palmar grasp at three months
  • One-handed palmar grasp at five months
  • Controlled reach at six months
  • Poor muscle growth and control
  • Delayed ability to play solo
  • Delayed sensory development because of delayed interaction with toys and other sensory objects

6–12 months

  • Reaches, grasps and puts objects in the mouth
  • Controlled release of objects
  • Static pincer grasp using thumb and one finger
  • Picks things up using thumb and one finger
  • Transfers object from one hand to another easily
  • Drops and then picks up toys
  • Poor development of hand and finger strength
  • Delayed play skills due to poor manipulation of objects
  • Delayed sensory development from lack of sensory play experiences

1-2 years

  • Builds a tower of three small blocks
  • Able to put four rings on the stick
  • Places five pegs in a pegboard
  • Can turn two or three pages of a book at a time
  • Can scribble and turn knobs
  • Paints with whole arm movement and shifts hands to make strokes
  • Self-feeds with minimal help
  • Able to use signing to communicate
  • Brings spoon to mouth
  • Holds and drinks from cups by themselves
  • Poor development of hand and finger strength
  • Delayed independent play skills and manipulation skills
  • Delayed development of self-care skills like eating

2-3 years

  • Can turn single pages of a book
  • Able to snip with scissors
  • Holds a crayon with thumb and fingers instead of using a fist
  • Uses one hand to do most activities
  • Imitates circular, vertical, and horizontal strokes
  • Paints with some wrist action; can make dots, lines, circular strokes
  • Can roll, pound, squeeze and pull play dough
  • Eats without any help
  • Delayed self-care skills, for example –   eating, wearing clothes etc.
  • Delayed pre-writing skill development
  • Delayed manipulation of small objects such as Legos, toys, pencils and scissors
  • Frustration when playing with small toys and objects

3–4 years

  • Builds a tower of nine small blocks
  • Copies circle and cross
  • Manipulates clay material by rolling balls, making snakes and cookies
  • Uses non-dominant hand to assist and stabilise objects
  • Snips paper using scissors
  • Delayed pre-writing skill development
  • Frustration and avoidance of pencil based tasks
  • Poor pencil grasp and pencil control
  • Poor self-care skills such as eating
  • Delayed drawing skills

4-5 years

  • Can make cross and square
  • Writes name and numbers like 1 to 5
  • Tries to copy letters
  • Handedness (preference for right-hand use) is well established
  • Dresses and undresses by themselves
  • Difficulties holding and using a pencil
  • Difficulties learning to write a name or other letters of the alphabet
  • Depending on caregivers for everyday activities such as dressing
  • Frustration or avoidance of pencil based tasks

5–6 years

  • Cuts out simple shapes
  • Copies triangle
  • Colours within lines
  • Uses three-fingered grasp of pencil and uses fingers to make movements
  • Can paste and glue properly
  • Can draw basic pictures
  • Trouble learning to form letters and numbers
  • Poor handwriting
  • Difficulties demonstrating academic ability on paper
  • Fatigue during pencil based tasks
  • Frustration or avoidance of pencil based tasks
Note: Each stage assumes that the preceding stages have been successfully achieved.

Gross motor development milestones in early childhood

Some developmental milestones for gross motor skills in children in their early childhood are given below:
Age Developmental milestones (Gross motor skills) Possible implications if milestones  are not achieved

0-6 months

  • Able to roll over from front to back and back to front.
  • Sits with support and then independently
  • Not enough muscle development for movement
  • Unable to play alone

6-12 months

  • Crawls forward using the belly
  • Assumes a seated position without any aid
  • Creeps on hands and knees
  • Transitions into different positions like sitting, all fours, lying on tummy
  • Pulls self to stand with little support
  • Walks while holding onto furniture
  • Takes 2-3 steps without much support
  • Rolls a ball by imitating an adult
  • Delayed sensory growth due to decreased ability to explore the environment
  • Poor muscle growth
  • Delayed play skills

12-18 months

  • Sits, crawls and walks
  • Still has a wide gait, but walking or running is less clumsy
  • Can push against a ball but doesn’t actually kick it
  • Delayed play skills
  • Difficulty interacting with others due to delayed ability to mobilise effectively
  • Insufficient muscle growth

2 years

  • Walks smoothly and turns corners. Also, starts running
  • Can pull or carry a toy while walking
  • Climbs onto or down from furniture without help
  • Walks up and down steps with a little support
  • Can pick up toys from the floor without falling over
  • Not enough muscle development for running and jumping
  • Delayed ability to play by themselves and interact with the environment
  • Decreased ability to socialise

3 years

  • Tries to stand on one foot
  • Imitates simple movements of limbs like pulling arms up together
  • Climbs jungle gym and ladders
  • Pedals a tricycle
  • Walks up and down the stairs by altering feet
  • Jumps in place with two feet together
  • Can  walk on tiptoes
  • Catches  objects using body
  • Fewer opportunities for social interaction
  • Poor body awareness and movement planning skills
  • Faces trouble using playground equipment
  • Can’t interact with other children in active environments like play cafés and playgrounds

4 years

  • Stands on one foot for up to  five seconds
  • Kicks a ball forwards
  • Can throw a ball over the arm
  • Can run around obstacles
  • Able to walk in a straight line
  • Can jump over an object and land with both feet together
  • Able to hop on one foot
  • Lack of confidence in activities that require movements
  • Difficulties in using playground equipment
  • Lack of confidence in interacting with other children in active environments. For example, play cafés or playgrounds

5 years

  • Able to walk up the stairs while holding an object
  • Walks backwards toe-heel
  • Jumps forward a few times without falling
  • Hangs from a bar for at least five seconds
  • Can catch a small ball using hands only
  • Lack of confidence in movement-based activities
  • Difficulties participating in sporting activities
  • Trouble playing with moving toys such as bikes and scooters

6 years

  • Runs lightly on toes
  • Able to walk on a balance beam
  • Can use a skipping rope
  • Can cover two metres when hopping
  • Shows mature throwing and catching patterns
  • Refined jumping skills
  • Unwillingness to take part in sporting activities
  • May result in poor self-esteem by comparing self to peers
  • Lack of confidence in activities with lots of movement
Note: Each stage assumes that the preceding stages have been successfully achieved. If you notice that your child is not meeting the milestones, consult your paediatrician. Before worrying too much, remember that childhood development is complicated. Every child grows and develops at their own rate.

How does play support a child’s physical development?

Did you know that children don’t need additional exercises like adults? However, children need enough playtime for proper physical development in early childhood. For this reason, it is a very critical component in the lives of children. Active play improves not only physical development but also the cognitive, social and emotional well-being of the child.

A child trying to climb a ladder

The Department of Health says to aim for at least three hours of physical activity a day for children in the early years. As a parent or caregiver, you can choose from the following types of play for the child’s physical development.

1. Unoccupied play

2. Solitary play

3. Onlooker play

4. Parallel play

5. Associative play

6. Co-operative play

These are known as Parten’s stages of play. Parten says, as the children become older, their chosen type of play will also change. Overall, a child needs an enabling environment for healthy physical development.

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Nutritional concerns for physical development in early childhood

Although young children can be picky eaters, it is important to ensure that they meet their nutritional needs. Proper nutrition intake is very crucial for physical development in early childhood. Therefore, you must expose them to a variety of healthy foods. At the same time, avoid too many high-fat, too sugary or low-nutritional foods. However, it is essential to remember that their nutritional needs will vary depending on their age.  Also, children can experience deficiencies if not given well-balanced nutrition.

Some useful tips for a healthy eating habit of children are given below –

  • Never force your child to eat. 
  • Recognise that appetite may vary.
  • Limit choices when asking for  “What would you like to have?.”
  • Serve balanced meals.
  • Don’t bribe children to eat. (e.g. making children eat vegetables by promising them dessert)

A happy child eating

The bottom line

All in all, physical development is the most important among the three prime areas mentioned by EYFS. Physical development is also linked with other forms of development. In fact, it only puts further emphasis on the physical development of children in early childhood. Ensure children’s proper development by being aware of their needs and learning about Child Care.

May 20, 2021

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