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Physical Development

A Brief Introduction to Physical Growth and Development

Physical development can be described in a variety of ways. In fact, no single description can accurately depict all the various events and stages that take place in a person's lifelong physical development. It is, however, apparent to most teachers that many students follow a similar growth pattern. That is, from the time they start kindergarten to the time they complete their final year of high school, they undergo a similar maturation process; their moods are constantly changing and their physical appearance gradually transforms to one that resembles an adult. As a result, modeling a child's physical growth pattern in chronological order can sometimes be a straightforward process, but not all students will follow a linear growth pattern. Some students may develop all the necessary gross motor skills to be able to run a marathon, but may experience trouble forming simple bodily movements, like moving their lips to talk or using the muscles in their hands to a write. These situations are evident in all classrooms and it is important to note their net effect, not only on the individual student, but the class as well. For instance, elementary school students who experience their growth spurts earlier on in life usually have a greater advantage when it comes to physical activities than students whose growth spurts are evenly spaced out or slow to arrive. Understanding the developmental growth patterns of children takes teachers to an entirely different level of professionalism. To truly meet students needs, teachers must not only be knowledgeable about the curriculum, but also the student themselves.

Hereditary Influence on Physical Development

In order to effectively discuss why physical development is an important aspect in an educator's knowledge repertoire, it is appropriate to note some of the main factors which influence or impact the physical development in children. Genetics and hereditary are the primary determinants of physical development. Genes code for all the functional proteins the human body needs to grow and mature, and every person (except for identical twins) is born with a unique genetic map. Most children have similar dominant traits in their DNA that determine when certain stages of their physical growth will occur. For instance, major growth spurts take place within a particular timeframe, vision fully develops by the intermediate and senior years of elementary school (Auger and Rich, 2007), and most students begin puberty between the ages of 9 and 14 - all of which occur naturally and without human intervention.


Genes can have many direct influences on a persons lifestyle. Some genes, if expressed, can amplify a certain physical trait or prevent a certain stage in development from occurring, while the expression of others may result to serious medical conditions that can demobilize a person very early in life. Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD) is one of many debilitating hereditary diseases that leads to early death (Gelbart et al., 2002) (Figure 1). Unlike most children who begin to develop quicker reaction times, hand-eye coordination, and fine and gross motor skills by their primary and junior years in elementary school, children affected with DMD (usually boys)  lack all these physical traits and show progressive wasting of certain sets of muscles, including the heart (Auger & Rich, 2007; Gelbart et al., 2002). By the time they are 12 years old, they are confined to a wheel chair, and then generally die before age 17, whereas most normal teenagers are able to move faster and show faster processing speeds (Gelbart et al., 2002). Moreover, another physical factor governed typically by genetics is height, or how tall a person grows. This factor can sometimes heavily effect a student self-esteem, whether it is because they are exceptionally taller or shorter than the majority of their classmates. For instance, shorter students may feel inferior to their taller peers and turndown certain roles or opportunities, such as playing on a basketball team.

Nineteenth-century etching of a young boy with Duchenne muscular dystrophyFigure 1. Nineteenth-century etching of a young boy with Duchenne muscular dystrophy, showing enlarged calf muscles and curvature of the spine (Left). The border shows cellular structures connected to the disease symptoms  (Gelbert et al., 2002).

A teacher who acknowledges hereditary and its affect on a person's physical capabilities will be better suited to alleviate some of the difficulties a student may be silently experiencing. If a student with a short stature wishes to join the basketball team, the school coach should never be stereotypic towards their capabilities. Rather, they should try to empathize with the student and encourage their participation, so that they may feel welcomed and accepted. Some students may have a genetic disorder that constrains their ability to develop any fine motor control. Lateness in muscle development, especially in the fingers, may prevent a child from handwriting quickly and accurately. In high school, exams and tests are usually written within a certain time limit. If teachers choose to ignore this issue and have their students write the test within a certain time limit anyway, a student inflicted with such physical difficulty may not be able to perform as effectively as they would if they were offered extra time. This is also evident when high school teachers ask their students to copy down too many notes off the board or assign too much homework for one night, further exhausting their capabilities. When teachers ask their students to write a report using a computer, students who are physically unable to use a keyboard should be provided with voice recognition software. This will allow a student to verbally dictate their ideas without having to struggle using a keyboard. If a child is born with weak eyesight and fails to develops binocular vision (the ability of the eyes to work together), it is appropriate for a teacher to have the child sit closer to the board or write in larger print when using the board and in handouts (Auger and Rich, 2007). While perceptual abilities are generally well developed for most primary-level student's, if they are unable to interpret and communicate incoming information due to weak vision, information processing will not steadily improve as they grow older (Auger and Rich, 2007). Overall, this knowledge can help teachers understand the physical difficulties students have no control over, and in turn, change the matter to something that is more suitable for their learning needs.  

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