Motor development and play in the early years

Children go through a number of stages of development in the early years of life, all that have important impacts on their future movement abilities. Below we discuss a couple of these stages and things to look out for and understand when engaging children in play.


In infancy, which is typically defined as between birth and the onset of walking, development of movement takes the form of learning voluntary movements. These movements range from head control and rolling to sitting, crawling and reaching. Play often involves adult engagement, such as tickling and being given objects to explore. We can enable development at this age by allowing the infant lots of tummy time and back time when they are unable to sit, encouraging the infant to roll, reach and move to objects the best they can. When sitting is achieved, providing many objects of different shapes, textures, weights and colours encourages exploration of the environment around them.


When an infant learns to walk, they move in to toddlerhood. At the advent of toddlerhood, play is typically a solitary experience, even if other children are around. This solo play allows the child to explore the room or location they are in, and be curious about the objects within that space that they are interested in themselves. This type of play develops touch perception and a broad understanding of the effects of the physical world we live in. 
At around 2.5 years of age, we begin to see social interaction between individuals, although it is still minimal. If two children are in an environment together, their play and movements may begin to subtly mimic and copy the other child’s play. This is also the same if an adult plays with a child at this age, reiterating the importance of adult role modelling. This parallel play occurs through observation and imitation of the others movements, but little social interaction arises.

Early childhood

Moving on from toddlerhood, we see early childhood. In this stage, at around 3.5 to 4 years old, children begin to engage in associative play. This form of play is characterised by a group (two or more) of children sharing toys and an awareness of each other, but with no common or group goal for the play. This is why tag games seldom work for children at this age, as the concept of the group running away from a sole person is typically beyond their cognitive ability.
The final stage of play in early childhood is cooperative play. In cooperative play, social units are formed that may involve group ‘leaders’, and play is often purposeful, group oriented and begins to show elements of competition, cooperation and social recognition. 

Each of these stages has unique characteristics and developmental traits that can inform the play and social behaviours that children exhibit. By using this advice, you can begin to understand and tailor activities to the appropriate developmental abilities of the children in your setting. For example, understanding that a child at 3 years old will still be focused on their own self-interests and has little regard for social interaction enables us to program activities where each individual has a piece of equipment and individual goal to achieve. 
For more information on this, you can use search terms such as ‘play’, ‘motor development’ and ‘social influences’.

Author – Chris Wright