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

Physical Activity Developmental Chapters



Middle childhood, ages 5 to 10, is characterized by a slow, steady rate of physical growth. However, cognitive, emotional, and social development occur at a tremendous rate. To achieve optimal growth and development, children need to eat a variety of healthy foods and participate in physical activity. 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.

As children grow and develop, their motor skills increase, giving them an opportunity to participate in a variety of physical activities. Children may try different physical activities and establish an interest that serves as the foundation for lifelong participation in physical activity.

Children are motivated to participate in physical activity by fun, previous success, variety, family support, peer participation, and enthusiastic coaching. Feelings of failure, embarrassment, competition, boredom, and rigid structure discourage participation. Children usually discontinue physical activity because of a lack of time, feelings of failure, overemphasis on competition, or the existence of overuse injuries (e.g., stress fracture, inflammation of the joints).

Children in middle childhood are at various stages of cognitive, emotional, social, and motor skill development. They may not understand the meaning of competition and teamwork. They may lack the cognitive skills to grasp strategies, make rapid decisions, and visualize spatial relationships.

Like the developmental milestones of infancy, such as rolling over, sitting up, crawling, and walking, most of the fundamental motor skills (e.g., running, galloping, jumping, hopping, skipping, throwing, catching, striking, kicking) required for physical activity are acquired in the same sequence. Motor skill acquisition appears to be an innate process, independent of the child's sex, age, size, weight, strength, abilities, and level of physical maturity. As with other developmental milestones, the rate at which children master motor skills varies considerably.

Although children can acquire and refine fundamental motor skills faster by early instruction and practice, they are unlikely to do so until they are developmentally ready. Children usually acquire fundamental motor skills at a basic level through play; however, children need instruction and practice to fully develop these skills.1

Each fundamental motor skill is characterized by a series of developmental stages. Failure to achieve progression through all of the stages can limit proficiency in physical activities that require fully developed fundamental motor skills. Transitional motor skills are fundamental motor skills performed in various combinations and with variations (e.g., throwing for distance; throwing for accuracy). Transitional motor skills are required to participate in entry-level organized sports. Early in this developmental period, children's vision is almost mature, but it is still difficult for them to tell the direction in which a moving object is moving. Balance becomes more automatic and reaction times become quicker. With improved transitional motor skills, children are able to master complex motor skills (e.g., those required for playing more complex sports such as football or basketball). At the end of this developmental period, children's vision is fully mature.1

Motor skill development is difficult for some children. Health professionals need to assess these children to determine whether their difficulties are caused by a developmental delay or a health problem. In some cases, poor motor skill development is the result of developmental coordination disorder (DCD).2 (See the Developmental Coordination Disorder chapter.)

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