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Physical development

Babies and young children need to move. They need to have the stimulation and opportunities to be as active as possible.

Being active supports the development of core neurological structures in the brain and body. These are needed for balance and coordination. Throughout each day, children need to be able to play and explore. This helps them find out what they can do and allows the practicing and refining of their developing muscles and skills.

Allow children to experience movement

Children need to experience sensory-seeking movement.


Baby playing on the floor

Babies enjoy being gently rocked in your arms. They can benefit from lying on their backs and tummies so they can wriggle and roll around and as their muscles develop to crawl and find their balance to take steps and begin to walk.

For infants who are not yet walking, the Department of Health suggests that physical activity could include:

  • tummy time (time spent on the stomach, including rolling and playing on the floor)
  • reaching for and grasping objects
  • pulling, pushing and playing with other people
  •  parent and baby swim sessions

They recommend reducing time spent in infant carriers or seats, walking aids or baby bouncers and reducing time spent in front of  screens.

Pre-school aged children

Growing children enjoy experiencing being able to run and jump, climb, stretch, swing and spin. Everything in their environment, both indoors and outside, invites them to be active.

When children are being physically active, chemicals are released in the brain which enhance a sense of well-being. Children gain confidence and self-esteem as they gain mastery over their bodies and can join in with the things that other children do.

Being physically active, particularly in the outdoors, supports children’s:

  • co-ordination
  • eyesight
  • handwriting (as they first develop their large muscles and then their finer muscles and dexterity needed for holding pens)
  • emotional development
  • physical health

Children who have higher levels of being physically active during childhood are more likely to continue being active in adulthood. They tend to develop fewer chronic health problems, such as heart disease and diabetes than those children who have had a lack of physical activity in their childhood.

For children of pre-school age who are capable of walking unaided, the Department of Health recommends that they should be physically active daily for at least 180 minutes (3 hours), spread throughout the day.

Reduce the time that they spend being sedentary by reducing time spent watching TV, using the computer or playing video games and reducing time spent in a pushchair or car seat.

Health and hygiene

Making sure your child has a healthy diet also supports their physical development. You should follow the advice of your health visitor and other medical professionals regarding your baby and young child’s dietary needs.

It is important that children are offered foods and drinks that provide adequate energy and nutrients for their growing bodies. They should eat a healthy and varied balanced diet containing essential vitamins, minerals and other nutrients essential for growth.

Eating family meals together will encourage your child to enjoy a variety of foods as they will learn by your example.

Dental hygiene

Sugary drinks and snacks should be avoided. Did you know that tooth decay is one of the main reasons that young children are admitted to hospital every year?

Look after your young child’s oral health. Start by brushing your baby’s teeth as soon as their first milk tooth breaks through, using a children’s toothpaste.

As they get older, supervise your child, making sure that their teeth are brushed at least twice daily, especially before going to bed. Try making tooth brushing fun.

Don’t forget to take your child for regular check ups to the dentist. Start from when their milk teeth appear so that they can get to know the dentist and make sure that you are being positive about the visit so that your child won’t start to worry.


Children’s physical development also includes being able to go to the toilet independently.

Every child is different, and children do not grow and develop at the same rate, so the following is just for guidance.

Usually, children start to show an awareness of what a potty or toilet is used for and an awareness of bladder and bowel urges at 16 to 26 months. They can communicate their need for the potty or toilet by 36 months. Between 30 to 50 months they usually gain more control and can manage their toileting needs most of the time by themselves.

If you have any concerns or would like some support or advice about supporting your child with toileting, you should consult a professional, such as your health visitor, doctor or children’s centre.

What your child can do