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Physical Development: Infancy through Preschool

ParentLink, 4-H/Youth Development, University of Missouri-Columbia


Physical development takes place quickly in the lives of children. The infant who was once immobile turns into the toddler who seems to be always on the move. Children differ in how quickly they develop large motor skills. This development occurs in stages, each one building upon the previous ones. The rate of this development is less important than the sequence. An environment that encourages physical development through exploration is important for children of all ages.

Children need to visit a doctor regularly because the doctor will monitor their growth and development. Parents who have concerns about their children's development should consult with a doctor.


1. What are some developmental milestones in physical growth during the first five years of a child's life?


  • First year:
    • Birth-2 months: babies focus on your face when you talk; arm and leg movements appear to be uncoordinated; weak neck muscles mean that babies cannot control their head movements.
    • 3-4 months: babies begin to develop head control and can lift their chests when placed on their stomachs. While you should let your baby have some supervised play time on her stomach, ALWAYS place your child on her back to sleep.
    • 4-5 months: babies roll from side to back and/or from back to side.
    • 6-7 months: babies can turn completely over (front to back and/or back to front).
    • 7 months: babies can pull themselves up to stand but have trouble sitting down again.
    • 7-8 months: babies can sit up steadily with the support of their arms.
    • 8-10 months: babies can creep on their stomachs or begin to crawl on their hands and knees. (Some babies do not learn to crawl until after they learn to stand.)
    • 9-11 months: babies can walk when led by the hands or "cruise" holding onto furniture.
    • 12-15 months: babies can stand without holding on to anything and begin walking.


  • 1-3 years:
    • 18 months: toddlers are walking well, both forward and backwards; they can creep down stairs and get on and off a low chair; they can throw a ball without losing balance.
    • 24 months: children are able to run and climb.
    • 36 months: children are refining large motor skills; they can alternate feet while climbing stairs, ride a tricycle, jump and balance on one foot. They can throw a ball overhand.
    • 36-48 months: children can run and skip well, play simple ball games, and are skilled tricycle riders.
    • 48-60 months: children can hop, skip, run, play with a ball, and climb.


2. What are some activities I can do to encourage my child's physical development?


  • Birth to 12 months:
    • Allow your baby plenty of safe space for rolling, scooting and crawling.
    • Make sure your baby's clothing is loose enough so arms and legs can move freely.
    • Play gentle exercise games.
    • To encourage your baby to crawl, place a favorite toy just out of reach.
    • Provide firm, stable objects on which your baby can pull up to a standing position.


  • One to 3 years old:
    • Provide pull toys that make noise. Encourage your child to walk forward and backward while pulling the toy.
    • Help your child walk up and down stairs.
    • Help your child jump off the first or second step and over a small object.
    • Provide opportunities for your child to climb up and through things.
    • Provide both large and small balls for throwing and kicking.
    • Provide a wagon for pulling and carrying objects from place to place.


  • Four to 5 years old:
    • Have your child walk along a line drawn on the floor to learn balance.
    • Provide a mat for tumbling play such as rolls and somersaults.
    • Play catch with your child, starting with a large ball and gradually changing to smaller sized balls.





Barsley-Mara, B. L. (1993). Understanding and encouraging your young child's large motor development. University of Missouri-Columbia Extension. [On-line]. Available:

By leaps and bounds: Physical development. [On-line]. Available:


Cooper, C. (2000). The baby & child question and answer book. New York: Dorling Kindersley.

Pike, L. (1999). Baby basics - Social and physical development. University of Missouri-Columbia Extension. [On-line]. Available:

Understanding your child's growth. (2001). [On-line]. Available:



Last Updated 05/05/2009









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