Physical Development: Supporting Children Ages Zero to Three

Physical Development In Early Childhood: Supporting Children Ages Zero to Three

From the moment they’re born, children are discovering the physical world around them, how they fit into it and move in it. One day they make the connection that they have limbs that move and fingers and toes that wiggle, and soon they’re figuring out how to sit, then stand, and then run. Because of this it is essential that children have opportunities that support their physical development and coordination from their earliest years on.

What is Physical Development in Early Childhood?

The broad category of physical development in early childhood is broken down into two skill sets: fine motor skills and gross motor skills.

Fine Motor Skills

Fine motor skills are smaller movements, like the pincher grasp to pick up food or bending the wrist to wave.

Gross Motor Skills

Gross motor skills are the larger movements that require larger muscle groups like crawling and jumping.

Both skill sets are built through repetition and varied practices. It is important to have a general idea of a developmental timeline, roughly what happens when, so that you can manage your own expectations of what’s possible and provide age-appropriate scenarios and toys for your child. Below we’ll break down what to watch for in your child’s development in both the baby and toddler years and ways you can ensure they grow in their abilities.

The following strategies were provided by Lauren Olivas, a Cal State San Bernardino Masters in Child Development student.

Physical Development in Infants and Babies

For babies, you can track their motor actions and physical development in the following behaviors and skills:

  • Holding their head up
  • Rolling over from tummy to back and back to tummy
  • Pushing up from their tummy to their elbows
  • Holding and shaking a toy
  • Moving into a sitting position and staying unsupported
  • Crawling
  • Pulling themselves up to stand while holding onto a surface

Strategies to Support Physical Development in Infants and Babies:

  • Cuddle, talk, sing and play every day during caretaking routines like feeding, dressing, and bath time.
  • Smile and react positively when your baby makes sounds.
  • Say simple, clear words back to them. Example: If they say “ba” while looking at a bottle, show them the bottle and give them the word.
  • Copy your baby’s sounds and facial expressions, like a smile. This is called reciprocal play.
  • Point out new things and name them, car, toys, flowers etc.
  • Name your baby’s emotions. Are they smiling and happy? Or crying and sad? Tell them about it.

Physical Development in Toddlers

As your child moves into toddlerhood you will see their physical and motor movements expand. Watch for these skills:

  • Moving into a sitting position without help
  • Taking steps with support
  • Standing unsupported
  • Crawling, then walking, up and down stairs
  • Walking on their own
  • Undressing themselves
  • Eating with utensils
  • Pulling and pushing toys while walking
  • Climbing up and down furniture without help
  • Kicking a ball and throwing one overhand
  • Increased drawing and coloring skills, like tracing or coloring in lines

Strategies to Support Physical Development in Toddlers

  • Give your child paper and crayons and allow them to draw freely. Then show them how to draw circles and lines. Celebrate their ability to copy you.
  • Dance and sing songs that incorporate actions like the “Itsy Bitsy Spider” and help your child with their hand motions
  • Provide push toys like a wagon or push car so that they can safely practice push and pull actions.
  • Have balls available for your child to roll, kick, and throw; play a game of catch or kick the ball back and forth.
  • Have your child practice drinking from an open mouth cup and using a spoon to eat.
  • Blow bubbles and then try to catch and pop them.
  • Play with blocks together, build towers and knock them down.
  • Get out the arts and crafts-paints, crayons, child-safe scissors, paper or play dough and see what they can make.
  • Practice simple everyday movements like opening doors and cabinets, let them turn the pages of the book, and if able, carry small items for you.
  • Get outside to the park or find a trail to watch them walk, run, and climb.

In the past few months we’ve looked at all parts of early development: cognitive, social and emotional, language development and now physical. It may feel a bit overwhelming to look at the individual practices for all of these. Here are two helpful ideas to keep in mind:

  1. Many of these skills and helpful practices overlap. For example, if you decide to play bubbles with your child, their cognitive skills help them problem solve, “how do I reach the bubble I am chasing?” Their physical skills help them walk or run to the bubble to reach out and pop it. Their social and emotional skills help them build relationship with those they are playing with-like you! And finally, their language skills are tapped as you talk together about what you’re doing and why.
  2. Talking, reading, and singing to your child daily incorporates all development skills completely and without extra work or supplies from you.

Important Resources


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