Physical development begins before a baby is born and contributes throughout the life. Examples of physical development include development of hand-eye coordination, fine motor skills, and
Scientists generally describe this development as consisting of both fine and gross motor skills:
- Fine motor skills include the coordination of the hands and fingers.
- Gross motor skills refer to control over larger muscle groups such as the arms and legs.
The physical development of all babies progresses through the same sequence of stages, with some variation in rate.
Physical Development Examples
- Birth to Three Months – there is very little control over the arms and legs so they appear to flail about randomly, especially when the infant is excited; the baby will develop enough control over their head to turn for suckling
- Birth to Three Months – develops greater control over the head and eyes; can watch and follow a moving object, especially a moving face
- Three to Six Months – a baby can lift its head independently when laying on its stomach; can roll over from their back to tummy and raise themselves up on their forearms
- Three to Six Months – tries to grasp and hold objects for short periods of time before dropping them; plays with fingers and toes by touching and grasping them
- Six to Twelve Months – is able to sit upright steadily for longer periods of time without support; learns to crawl progressively better or move by shuffling on their bum; can pull itself up to standing position; take a few steps with support
- Twelve to 18 Months – stands alone, walks without help and can start and stop independently; squat to pick up a toy; can hold a spoon with fist; feed oneself with fingers and turn pages of a thick picture book
- 18 to 24 Months – runs stiffly and can jump with both feet; can kick a large ball or throw a small ball with no aim; can turn some doorknobs and assist in dressing self; enjoys scribbling
- Two to Three Years – enjoys trying to jump off low objects and pushing oneself on wheeled toys; can build tower of six or more blocks; takes simple objects apart and back together; can string large beads and operate zippers and snaps
- Three to Five Years – is able to hop, skip, and jump; can march in slight rhythm and walk on a low balance beam; can build a tower of 10 or more blocks; holds crayons and pencils to draw straight lines, circles, and a three-part person
- Five to Six Years – can climb large playground equipment; throw ball overhand with greater control; is able to bounce ball and catch with elbows in front of body; can form crude shapes with clay and cut on lines with scissors; dresses self with exception of tying shoes
Common Ways to Assess Physical Development
1. Growth Charts
A growth chart is used to track the growth of a child’s height, weight, and head size. Each child’s growth is compared to the growth patterns of a large sample of children. The first growth chart in the U.S. was developed by the National Center for Health Statistics in 1977 and later adopted and modified by the World Health Organization.
Pediatricians use growth charts to determine if a child is in a normal range of development. By comparing the growth of an individual child with the growth of a large population, a pediatrician can identify possible abnormalities at an earlier age than without comparison data.
Most children show a stable growth curve over time. However, if a child starts to deviate from that curve, the doctor may investigate to identify the cause. Early detection can be vital for the treatment of many childhood diseases.
2. Windows of Developmental Milestones
The World Health Organization (WHO) has conducted extensive research on the typical growth patterns of children throughout the world. It is essential to track health data, especially in third-world countries, to guide policy decisions and formulate health goals.
For example, the WHO Multicentre Growth Reference Study collected longitudinal data regarding six gross motor developmental milestones for children ages 4 to 24 months. Through this process, children engage in increasingly advanced proximodistal development.
Because there is so much variation in nutrition and child-rearing practices across cultures, data were collected in several countries: Ghana, India, Norway, Oman and the USA.
Highly trained researchers assessed 816 children in scheduled visits that occurred monthly in year 1 and bimonthly in year 2.
The data revealed significant variation. For instance, the ability of a baby being able to sit without support varied by 5.4 months.
The ability of a baby to walk alone has a quite large variation of 9.4 months, while the ability to stand alone varied by exactly 10 months.
This drives home the point that although children all go through the same pattern of physical development, there is substantial variation.
3. Head Circumference
Head circumference is a standard measurement in pediatric growth charts. Starting at the middle of the child’s forehead, a tape measure placed just above the ears and wrapped around the head.
As the brain inside the skull grows, it expands the child’s head, creating a wider circumference. That measurement is compared to a growth chart for children of the same age and gender.
If a child’s head is much smaller or larger than would be expected, it could be a sign of a more serious medical issue. That would then require referral to a specialist that will conduct a more thorough examination to determine the cause.
Ossification is the process of bone development. Bone growth starts in the womb and continues until the age of 25 years old. Newborns have approximately 300 bones, which mostly consist of cartilage. The cartilage turns to bone as the child grows and eventually turns into 206 hard bones that make up the adult skeletal structure.
Having soft bones in the early years serves many functions. First, it allows for rapid growth. As the child’s body is growing rapidly, the skeletal structure needs to expand to support the internal organs.
The skull in particular needs to be made of a soft material because the brain inside is expanding at an incredibly fast rate. By the time a child is three years old, its brain will have already grown to be approximately 80% of its adult size by volume.
5. Stages of Writing Development
Learning how to write is one of the most important challenges in a child’s development. Like all other skills connected to physical development, it starts out messy and unorganized, and eventually progresses to being smooth and functional.
All children move through the same series of stages. Here is a brief description of those stages.
12 – 24 months – scribbling, children grasp with their fists, use inconsistent pressure, have very little control and may write off paper
2 – 3 years old – continues to scribble, tries to imitate, likes drawing lines and shapes
3 to 4 years old – becomes more skilled at drawing lines and shapes, tries to imitate letters, although often backwards
4 to 6 years old – grasping of drawing/writing tools becomes more mature, drawings are more complex, is getting much better at writing letters and their name
Other Domains of Development
Developmental psychologists tend to examine development in the following interrelated and overlapping domains:
- Physical development – As discussed in this article.
- Social development – This refers to a child’s slow development of social skills from birth through to adulthood – including but not limited to independence, social responsibility, and cooperation.
- Cognitive development – This refers to brain development. It includes thinking skills, self-reflection, and the ability to analyze and interpret your environment.
- Emotional development – This refers to the ability to communicate and self-regulate your emotions.
Physical development occurs in a set sequence of stages. All children go through the stages in the same order, but there can be a great deal of variation in how quickly a child develops.
Keeping track of growth is extremely important. For this reason, pediatricians and various health organizations will frequently compare an individual child’s growth pattern with established norms.
If a child’s trajectory shows a sudden change, or if their growth is disparate from norms, it may be a cause for concern. Therefore, follow-up examinations will be conducted in the hopes of catching any serious issues early and providing effective treatment.
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WHO Multicentre Growth Reference Study Group (2006). WHO Motor Development Study: Windows of achievement for six gross motor development milestones. Acta Paediatrica (Oslo, Norway: 1992). Supplement, 450, 86–95. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1651-2227.2006.tb02379.x