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Early Childhood Physical Development: Average Growth

Angela Oswalt, MSW

Even though the growth of young children in the Preoperational stage of development has slowed down a bit compared to infancy, early childhood is still a time of tremendous physical changes. During this period, children's bodies change proportions and they start to look more like adults than babies. Arms and legs stretch to catch up and balance out the head and trunk. Children also begin to lose their "baby fat" as they develop sleeker, straighter bodies with the strong muscles necessary for work and play.

On average, young children can expect to grow 2 to 3 inches in height per year. Children's healthy growth is supported by healthy lifestyles. Children should get plenty of exercise and sleep, and eat a balanced diet in order to continue to develop strong muscles and bones and to maintain a healthy weight. Proper nutrition, sleep, and activity guidelines will be covered in the adjoining article on Parenting Skills for Caregivers of Young Children. To be on the safe side, caregivers should take their young children to the pediatrician or family doctor regularly for check-ups to make sure that they are growing appropriately.

Teaching children about healthy lifestyles and promoting a positive body image is vitally important at this age. Obesity is reaching epidemic proportions across the globe, and affects even very young children. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 13.9% of preschool-aged children were obese in 2004, which is an increase from 5% percent in 1974. Furthermore, 18.8% of school-aged children were obese in 2004, which is an increase from 4% in 1974. Obesity in young children can lead to diabetes, as well as increased risk for cardiovascular and other serious health problems in adulthood. Young children who are very overweight may also be teased, bullied, or ignored, which can set the stage for problems with self-esteem, depression, and other mental illnesses.

At the same time that levels of obesity are skyrocketing, youth are being bombarded by highly sexualized messages from the media at increasingly earlier ages. As a result, very young children are becoming more body-conscious and focused on the idea that being attractive and thin is the key to happiness and popularity. Children are dieting with the purpose to lose weight at earlier and earlier ages. Consequently, disordered eating may effect even very young children.

The best way for parents to help children develop healthy lifestyle attitudes and behaviors toward food and exercise is to educate, to model, and to encourage appropriate eating and activity patterns. Continuing to provide children with love and nurturing that builds strong, positive self-images based on attributes other than appearance (e.g., kindness, trying hard, sharing, doing well in sports or school) is also important.

Physical Development: Motor Skills

During early childhood, children continue to expand their repertoire of physical skills, adding to those that were mastered during infancy. Throughout this stage, girls tend to develop slightly faster than boys. As mentioned previously, we are presenting general developmental markers that children achieve at certain ages, but it is perfectly normal for each child to master these skills at different speeds, ages, and in different sequences.

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