Bright Futures at Georgetown University
Bright Futures in Practice: Physical Activity

Physical Activity Developmental Chapters



During early childhood (ages 1 to 4), a child's world expands to include friends, schoolmates, and others in the community. The child's physical, cognitive, social, and emotional development are tightly linked. For this reason, physical activity affects not only the physical health of children but also their overall health status.

Early childhood is divided into two stages: the toddler stage, ages 1 to 2, and the young child stage, ages 3 to 4. The toddler stage can be stressful for parents as toddlers develop a sense of independence. As they get older, children become more interested in trying new activities.

Early childhood is a key period for promoting physical activity. During these years, fundamental motor skills, basic movement patterns that all children tend to develop (e.g., walking, running, galloping, jumping, hopping, skipping, throwing, catching, striking, kicking, balancing), begin to develop. If children are encouraged to be physically active, these skills can develop into advanced patterns of motor coordination that can last a lifetime. Unfortunately, many children barely acquire fundamental motor skills and some will not develop advanced patterns of motor coordination because they are not encouraged to participate in physical activities that provide opportunities to practice these skills.

Participation and instruction in various physical activities help children develop motor skills. Although other factors (e.g., genetics) influence whether a child will become an athlete, physical activity in early childhood helps ensure that children will have the motor skills they need throughout life. Children will not develop motor skills without intervention.

Children of this age usually play and explore; however, many spend only 10 to 20 percent of their time participating in gross motor physical activities, which require whole-body participation (e.g., walking, running, climbing). Many children spend too much time participating in sedentary behaviors (e.g., watching television and videotapes, playing computer games, playing with toys that do not require the child to move).

Children benefit from physical activity in a number of ways. Physical activity can

  • Give children a feeling of accomplishment.

  • Reduce the risk of certain diseases (e.g., coronary heart disease, hypertension, colon cancer, diabetes mellitus), if children continue to be active during adulthood.

  • Promote mental health.

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