Child Growth and Development
Why it Matters for Kids Sports

child development stages

Kids sports activities can greatly benefit child growth and development. Knowing the child development stages your kids are going through will help you select cool games to play that will allow them to have fun and be successful!

The terms growth and development are often used interchangeably, but they certainly don't mean the same thing.

When we talk about growth, we're talking specifically about an increase in body size like height and weight.

Development, on the other hand, refers to the process of maturing. It's a process of change in a person's level of functioning in the following areas:

  • Gross motor - Using large groups of muscles to do locomotor activities like walking, running, standing, throwing, catching, and balancing.
  • Fine motor - Using the hands to perform more detailed, fine tasks like eating, drawing, writing, and dressing.
  • Language - Speaking, using the body to communicate, and understanding what others are saying.
  • Cognitive - Thinking skills like learning, understanding, problem-solving, reasoning, remembering, reading, and counting.
  • Social/Emotional - Interacting with others; having relationships with family, friends, and teachers; and responding to the feelings of others.

Let's look at how the body changes during childhood.

Physical Growth
Sensory Perception
Motor Skill Acquisition
Cognitive Development
Social Development
Implications for Physical Activity

Children go through a rapid period of growth from birth to age 5. From 6 years old to adolescence, their growth slows down to a steady but still increasing pattern.

In terms of growth, here are some areas where the body increases in size. 

Child Growth and Development
Physical Growth

Child Growth and Development
Height and Weight 

There are rapid increases in both height and weight from birth to adolescence.

Child Growth and Development
Skeletal Maturation

skeletal growth

At birth, a newborn's bones are soft cartilage that hardens as the body matures. This process, known as ossification, actually begins before birth and lasts until late adolescence.

Activity affects skeletal growth.

Vigorous physical activity is necessary to stimulate normal bone growth. Physical stress on the bones that comes from physical play is really important in the development of strong, healthy bones. It helps bones become more resistant to pressure, tension, and breaking. Activity also increases bone diameter, and it helps bones grow to a shape that's mechanically advantageous for muscle attachments.

A word of caution, though.

In today's youth sports world, there is such a thing as overtraining. With competitive leagues, select teams, and year-round competition, young athletes can actually damage their bones by stressing them too much.

In particular, is the possibility of injury at the growth plates, the area at the ends of the bones where growth takes place. Breaking a bone at the growth plate can cause significant developmental problems as the child matures.

Child Growth and Development
Body Proportions

It's amazing to see how proportions of the different body parts to each other and to the body as a whole change dramatically during childhood.

Take the head, for example. At birth, the head makes up about 1/4 of the total body length. By adulthood, it has doubled in size but only represents about 1/8 of a person's body length at maturity.

Likewise, the legs increase in size by 5 times their length at birth to make up about 1/2 of the body length at maturity, and the trunk triples in length. An individual's sitting height (measured from the sitting surface to the top of the head) decreases from about 60-70% of the child's total height at birth to about 50% of height at maturity.

In addition, the arms increase in length 4 times their length at birth.

These changes in young kid's body proportions have huge implications for play. Their larger heads give them trouble with their balance and make it difficult to do a backward roll. The little stubby fingers they have during the preschool years make it difficult to handle objects that are much easier for them to work with later on.

Since young kids have relatively short legs for their overall height, they tend to be "top heavy." Many kids fall more easily than adults because their center of gravity is higher than it will be at maturity. As they grow and their center of gravity gets lower, they have better stability and balance, allowing them to be more successful at kids sports activities.

Child Growth and Development
Fat Tissue

The "baby fat" that infants are known for can be attributed to the fact that fat is deposited in the body relatively quickly from birth to 6 months of age.

On average, a newborn has 16% body fat, which increases to 30% by the end of the first year. By the age of 6, children's body fat drops back down to about 14% of their body weight.

Another increase in fat deposition occurs just before the growth spurt at adolescence. There are big differences between the genders in how the body distributes fat, which explains the differences in body shape and contour between boys and girls.

child growth and development

Child Growth and Development
Muscle Tissue

muscle growth

Muscles increase in length, width, and breadth during the early growing years. And though the number of muscle fibers we each have at birth doesn't change throughout our lifetimes, our muscle weight increases about 40 times from birth to maturity.

At birth, muscle weight accounts for 20-25% of our total body weight. By early adolescence, it makes up about 30% of our body weight, and that proportion goes up to 40% of total body weight by maturity.

Before puberty, there is little difference in strength between girls and boys. 

Child Growth and Development
Sensory Perception


Sensory perception involves the ability of a child to use input from their senses like sight, sound, and touch to help them make decisions.


Perception of movement is important to success in physical activity. For example, children need to be able to make accurate judgments about where they are in relation to other kids and objects, and they need to be able to respond to balls and other items being thrown at them.

Kids really can't make quick and accurate decisions about the movement of objects until about 11 or 12 years old.

As a child matures, their sensory systems are refined so they are able to better discriminate the input they gather and decide which information is most relevant. Kids become better at using more sensory data at one time, and they can make more precise judgments about the input they receive.

Kids start to develop a sense of body awareness during the elementary school years. They begin to learn parts of the body, but will have a hard time with activities that require them to move different body parts. A kindergartner will be able to correctly identify body parts only about 55% of the time.

At the same time, children are beginning to understand how the parts of their body are positioned at various times as they move about. They also learn about the orientation of their body in space.

Body awareness is crucial to motor skill development.

Child Growth and Development
Motor Skill Acquisition

Many locomotor skills like walking, running, and jumping can be performed by most kids when they first enter school. Some will be able to gallop, skip, and hop on one leg though these skills will probably come a little later on.

When it comes to sports-related skills like throwing, catching, and striking, there's a lot of variation during early childhood especially between boys and girls. It's interesting to me that these variations are due more to a child's exposure to different sports and cultural/social expectations than to physical differences.

This is a big reason by little boys, in general, are more athletically advanced than most girls. They tend to be played with more often, have more opportunities to play sports early on, and playing sports is expected of them more so than with girls.

In early childhood, kids' motor skills are not very refined. As they develop, they start to master their motor movements, adapt them to different situations, and combine multiple skills together a lot easier.

As their movement patterns become more fluid and natural to them, they can move through space more efficiently while combining movements and changing level, direction, pathway, and speed.

A general rule of thumb in regard to motor learning is that when growth is rapid, the ability to learn new skills decreases. As the rate of growth slows down during the elementary school years, children have a better opportunity to enhance their motor skills.

Child Growth and Development
Cognitive Development

Cognitive skills are thinking skills. They include language and communication skills, reasoning, memory, and the ability to pay attention.

cognitive development

Up to 7 years old, children have a hard time attending for more than a few minutes before they become distracted. When giving instructions, you need to keep your talking time to just a couple of minutes and the same holds true with having them perform individual tasks. You'll lose their attention after a few minutes.

Young kids are curious by nature. They want to learn about things, and they love to use their imaginations. Activities that make kids think and solve problems are really important in developing their cognitive skills.

Little ones can only handle a few bits of information at once, so don't overload them with too many instructions. Keep activities simple with few rules, and then you can make games more complex as kids get older.

Child Growth and Development
Social Development

Involvement in kids sports activities is a great way to work on social behavior.

Kids have to learn to interact with their environment and the people in it. At first, kids are really ego-centric. The world, in their eyes, revolves around them. They typically prefer to work alone, and they don’t know how to function well in a group.

Early childhood is where they first learn to share and take turns and work together. By 5th grade, many students prefer working in a group rather than alone.

There is also an increase in competitive behavior during elementary school years. 

Child Growth and Development
Implications for Physical Activity

So what can we do with this knowledge about child growth and development?

Well, it gives us an indication of the needs our kids have and how we can aid in their growth and development through kids sports activities. Your child needs:

  • Vigorous physical activity to enhance fitness, growth and development
  • Opportunities to use their body parts
  • Activities to help them refine both their gross and fine motor skills
  • Short-duration activities
  • Simple rules
  • Activities to work alone and with others

It's also good to keep in mind that because there's really not much difference between boys and girls before puberty when it comes to size, weight, and strength it's good to have boys and girls playing together.

Home > Stages of Development > Child Growth and Development

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