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Encouraging Physical Development
By Carolyn Tomlin

One morning while taking my preschoolers to the playground, I learned a valuable lesson. On the same playground stood equipment for both younger and older children. Although my preschoolers had been warned about the dangers of using the bigger and taller slide, Misty a five-year-old in my classroom, climbed the ladder. Making a successful ascent to the top, she immediately prepared to slide down as she had seen the older children do. But as Misty started to slide down, something happened. Instead of coasting down the slide like others, she fell approximately eight feet. Landing face down, her small motionless body lay on the safety surfacing.

Yes, I was where I was supposed to be—only a few feet from the slide and so was the other teacher in charge of watching the children on playground. But with our eyes trying to watch numerous children, Misty slipped by. Fortunately this story has a happy ending. In a few seconds she got up and begged to try it again. A call to her parents and a rush to the emergency room indicated no broken bones or injuries.

And what did I learn that day? I learned there is a fine line between identifying activities that give children confidence while developing important skills and those that may be dangerous. It’s an age-old question faced by both teachers and parents. You want challenging activities, yet you don’t want anyone to get hurt.

Encouraging Physical Development

According to Children’s Hospital Medical Center in Cincinnati, it is estimated that more than 200,000 emergency room visits in the U.S. annually are related to children’s playground injuries. And of these, 15-20 deaths occur from falls.

As with other approaches to learning, it is important to nurture children’s physical development in safe and appropriate stages by:

  • Beginning with something the child has already accomplished;
  • Praising the child for mastering this goal;
  • Breaking down the new task into manageable parts;
  • Asking another child who is skilled in the activity to help you teach; and
  • Observing, reinforcing, and re-teaching if necessary.

In addition, it is helpful to make a chart listing each child’s name and what you perceive to be his physical ability. Making such a chart enables you to select appropriate activities for the child and to also create activities that offer just enough challenge for the child to increase his skill level without frustration and/or injury.

Teachers’ Role for Outdoor Play

What is expected of teachers while children play on outdoor equipment? Teachers and staff must always be on the alert for dangerous situations and instances where children could be harmed. Evaluate your answers to the following questions to ensure that your play area is as safe as it should be.

  • Do I engage in conversation with other teachers without regard to my primary responsibility of watching the children?
  • Do I show a child who is unable to participate in an activity because of his developmental level how to experience success?
  • Do I use cell phones to conduct business or for personal calls while I’m on playground duty?
  • Do I use outdoor playtime as an opportunity to read magazines or books?
  • Do I fill out reports and complete lesson plans during outdoor play?


How can your child care program help children develop physical skills? Recognize the needs of each child, understand developmental ages of children, provide safe playgrounds that reduce risk, and encourage all teachers to act in a professional manner when supervising youngsters. You can make a difference.

Carolyn R. Tomlin has taught in kindergarten and early childhood education at Union University in Jackson, TN.