Back to the Basics: Child Development

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Gross Motor Skills

Physical development is a child’s growth, control over muscles, coordination, and ability to move. Motor development is part of physical development and is about the ability of children to use their bodies and be physically active.

Motor development can be divided into gross and fine motor skills:

  • Gross Motor Skills: a child’s ability to control larger parts of the body and includes balance, coordination, purposeful control, locomotion and stability.
  • Fine Motor Skills: coordination of and ability to use smaller body parts, like using the thumb and forefinger to pick up a raisin.

 A child’s level of physical activity depends on physical growth and development. There are many types of physical and gross motor skills.

Gross Motor Skills

  • Locomotor Skills: rolling, crawling, walking and running
  • Balance and Coordination Skills: standing, squatting, tiptoeing and jumping
  • Manipulative Skills: carrying, throwing and catching

Patterns of Growth & Development

It is important to keep in mind overall patterns of growth. This growth pattern explains a lot about a child’s movement and activity. While every child will grow and develop at their own rate, keep in mind these key points:

 At birth, the head is the fastest growing part of the body.

  • As a result, infants and toddlers have a higher center of gravity
  • This makes it harder to balance and easier for young children to fall

 The torso lengthens throughout early childhood.

  • This lowers the center of gravity
  • With this growth, children are able to balance more and are less likely to fall
  • Children do not develop a center of gravity similar to adults until about age 6

 Children grow from their torso out.

  • Children’s arms grow before their hands, which grow before their fingers
  • Similarly, their legs grow before their feet
  • For this reason, children develop gross motor skills before they develop fine motor skills:
    • For example, newborns use their entire arms to swipe at things
    • As they grow, they begin to use their whole hand to grab objects
    • Then, they will use their fingers to grab objects

Patterns of Growth

Brain Development & Physical Activity

Brain development is the growth of the brain and the creation of new connections in the brain. The body trains the brain through movement. As children move, they are building new connections for learning. This happens when we cross the three midlines of the body. For example, you cross the vertical midline when you touch your left hand to your right knee.

Brain Development

Every Child Needs Physical Activity

Every child needs time for physical activity. Physical activity may be different for children with developmental disabilities or special needs. Adults can support all children by tailoring activities to their abilities. Here are some ways to think about adapting activities:

  • For children with speech delays or hearing loss, use visual and verbal cues, like counting on your fingers while you say the numbers. This may also mean standing close to the child so they can hear or standing across from the child so they can see.
  • For children with cognitive delays, it may help to break down directions into very simple steps. Give one step at a time and model each step as you go.
  • Some children may be more or less sensitive to noise, touch or light. Think about adapting equipment, materials and the environment. This may mean dimming the lights or making them brighter. It may mean using balls that are of different sizes or different feels.
  • Make physical activity a consistent part of the day, so that children can get used to it.
  • Provide a lot of space for activities. Store physical activity toys at a level that is in reach for children.

Remember that every child is different. It’s important not to generalize. One child with a certain need may respond well to one thing. A child with a similar need may respond better to a different adaptation. This way we can customize activities to meet individual needs of children.

If you are concerned about your child’s development, discuss this with your pediatrician. Families of children with developmental delays can access supports. This may include creating an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) or an Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP). If your child has an IEP or IFSP, make physical activity a part of it.

Do It Yourself Activity Instructions:

It’s important to remember how young children are developing. This makes it easier for us to support them in learning new gross motor skills and increasing their physical activity. Skill progression is an important piece because many gross motor skills build upon each other.

  1. Look through the stack of Active Early skill progression cards. The cards focus on the development of traveling skills.
  2. Using the chart labeled by age group, sort the cards by placing each specific skill under the age at which you think it most likely first occurs.
  3. When you’ve finished, check the answer key (it may be hiding underneath the chart). It’s called the Gross Motor Developmental Milestones: Quick Reference Chart.
  4. Think about how the skills might build upon one another:
    • What are the foundations for traveling skills?
    • What patterns do you see over time?
    • How does the skill progression reflect the overall patterns of physical growth and development?
    • How might the development of traveling skills differ from child to child?
    • How might we, as adults, support the development of traveling skills?

Materials for the Learning Center Back to the Basics: Child Development


National Association of Sport and Physical Education. (2009). Active Start: A Statement of Physical Activity Guidelines for Children From Birth to Age 5, 2nd Ed. Retrieved from

Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, Wisconsin Department of Health Services & Wisconsin Department of Children and Families. (2011). Active Early: A Wisconsin Guide to Improving Childhood Physical Activity.

1 thought on “Back to the Basics: Child Development

  1. Pingback: Active Early & Healthy Bites: Home Edition, Part IV | Active Early & Healthy Bites

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