Physical Activity & Child Development

Physical activity is an important factor in healthy childhood development. According to the National Network for Child care, age-appropriate levels of physical activity affect physical, psychological and cognitive child development. Physical activity is closely related to brain growth and the development of fine and gross motor skills.

  1. Significance

    • Infants and babies use movement and physical activity to interact with and learn about their world. Without language, infants and toddlers are limited to physical expressions to communicate and learn. Physical movement stimulates not only muscle and bone development, but also brain growth and development. Research conducted by Dr. Glenn Doman demonstrated that physical activity stimulates the brain to develop connections and pathways between neurons. Active neurological pathways are critical to intellectual and cognitive growth.

    Time Frames

    • Childhood physical activity is often measured by physical milestones. Milestones measure the rate at which a child is developing according to normative stages of development. In the first month of growth, most infants have limited control of their bodies and most movements are jerky and uncoordinated. By month three, infants can support the weight of their own head and will turn their heads toward lights or sounds. At six months, children begin to develop grasping skills and can roll over on their own. After a year, children become increasingly mobile because they are able to crawl. Major development of fine and gross motor skills occurs through age 2. When children are old enough to walk, stimulating them with physically demanding tasks such as running, jumping, climbing and swinging, will benefit their overall development.


    • Exercise and physical activity are considered essentials of normal child development. Research conducted by Dr. G. Lawrence Rarick found that physical activity in children affected hormonal and neural activity as well as metabolic activity, resulting in healthfully regulated body and brain growth. Like the rest of the body, the brain grows and expands. Movement requires brain functioning, and studies have shown that increased movement after birth and through infancy is related to expanded brain functioning.

    Expert Insight

    • Dr. Mary McCabe, a health researcher, says, "Research suggests children can raise their achievement level, increase their motivation, heighten their understanding, accelerate their learning timeline, and expand their creativity through motor skills." A review of more than 80 brain studies found that physical activity is critical to healthy brain development and cognitive functioning in children. Likewise, studies that examine malnourished children have found that a decrease in energy expenditure due to poor nutrition leads to limited physical movement; both limitations correspond with a decrease in brain mass and cognitive functioning


    • Although physical milestones can be helpful markers for child development, children develop at individual paces. Physical development can be impeded by several factors, including disabilities or injury. Milestones should be used as guidelines, not as rules. A significant delay in physical development could be indicative of neurological concerns.

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