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


Growth and Physical Development

BFPAMC_ILP25Middle childhood's slow, steady growth occurs until the onset of puberty, which occurs late in middle childhood or in early adolescence. Children gain an average of 7 pounds in weight, and 2 1/2 inches in height, per year. They have growth spurts, which are usually accompanied by an increase in appetite and food intake. Conversely, a child's appetite and food intake decrease during periods of slower growth.

Body composition and body shape remain relatively constant during middle childhood. During preadolescence and early adolescence (9 to 11 years in girls; 10 to 12 years in boys), the percentage of body fat increases in preparation for the growth spurt that occurs during adolescence. This body fat increase occurs earlier in girls than in boys, and the amount of increase is greater in girls. Preadolescents, especially girls, may appear to be "chunky," but this is part of normal growth and development. During middle childhood, boys have more lean body mass per inch of height than girls. These differences in body composition become more significant during adolescence.

During middle childhood, children may become overly concerned about their physical appearance. Girls especially may become concerned that they are overweight and may begin to eat less. Parents should reassure their daughters that an increase in body fat during middle childhood is part of normal growth and development and is probably not permanent. Boys may become concerned about their stature and muscle size and strength.

During middle childhood, children's muscle strength, motor skills, and stamina increase. Children acquire the motor skills necessary to perform complex movements, allowing them to participate in a variety of physical activities.

For females, most physical growth is completed by 2 years after menarche. (The mean age of menarche is 12 1/2 years.) Males begin puberty about 2 years later than females. Before puberty, there are no significant differences between boys and girls in height, weight, strength, endurance, and motor skill development. Therefore, throughout middle childhood, boys and girls can participate in physical activity on an equal basis. Late-maturing children, who have a prolonged period of prepubertal growth, usually have longer limbs than other children and often attain greater height.

A temporary decline in coordination and balance may occur during puberty because of rapid growth. Some children may be unable to perform a physical activity as well as they did the previous year. This can be frustrating for children, parents, and teachers, particularly if they misinterpret this decline as a lack of skill or effort.

Early-maturing boys have a temporary physical advantage over other boys their age because they are taller, heavier, and stronger. These boys usually achieve the most success in physical activity programs (e.g., hockey, football, basketball), which may lead to unrealistic expectations that they will continue to be outstanding athletes. Conversely, late-maturing boys have a temporary physical disadvantage. These boys may achieve the most success in physical activities in which size is not important (e.g., racquet sports, martial arts, running, wrestling).

For girls, the onset of puberty is associated with an increase in body fat that may result in a decline in physical activity performance. Girls, parents, and teachers need to understand, and girls need to accept, the physical changes of puberty, because attempts to prevent these changes can lead to dieting or eating disorders. In addition, the increase in body fat and decrease in muscle flex may result in less fluid movements during the growth spurt and may increase the risk of overuse injuries in girls. Girls entering puberty are at particularly high risk for dropping out of physical activities, making anticipatory guidance particularly important to encourage continued participation.

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