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6.2: Physical Development

Growth Rates and Motor Skills

Rates of growth generally slow during Middle Childhood. Typically, a child will gain about 5-7 pounds a year and grow about 2 inches per year. They also tend to slim down and gain muscle strength and lung capacity making it possible to engage in strenuous physical activity for long periods of time. The brain reaches its adult size at about age 7. The school-aged child is better able to plan, coordinate activity using both left and right hemispheres of the brain, and to control emotional outbursts. Paying attention is also improved as the prefrontal cortex matures. And as the myelin continues to develop, the child’s reaction time also improves as well. One result of the slower rate of growth is an improvement in motor skills. Children of this age tend to sharpen their abilities to perform both gross motor skills such as riding a bike and fine motor skills such as cutting their fingernails.

Organized Sports: Pros and Cons

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Middle childhood seems to be a great time to introduce children to organized sports. And in fact, many parents do. Nearly 3 million children play soccer in the United States (listen to NPR’s “Youth Soccer Coaches Encouraged to Ease Regimen” story from 5/24/06). This activity promises to help children build social skills, improve athletically and learn a sense of competition. It has been suggested, however, that the emphasis on competition and athletic skill can be counterproductive and lead children to grow tired of the game and want to quit. In many respects, it appears that children’s activities are no longer children’s activities once adults become involved and approach the games as adults rather than children. The U. S. Soccer Federation recently advised coaches to reduce the amount of drilling engaged in during practice and to allow children to play more freely and to choose their own positions. The hope is that this will build on their love of the game and foster their natural talents.

New Concerns

Childhood Obesity

Rates: About 16 to 33 percent of American children are obese (U. S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2005). This is defined as being at least 20 percent over their ideal weight.  The percentage of obesity in school aged children has increased substantially since the 1960s and has in fact doubled since the 1980s.

Reasons: This is true in part because of the introduction of a steady diet of television and other sedentary activities. In addition, we have come to emphasize high fat, fast foods as a culture. Pizza, hamburgers, chicken nuggets and “lunchables” with soda have replaced more nutritious foods as staples.

Consequences: Children who are overweight tend to be ridiculed and teased by others. This can certainly be damaging to their self-image and popularity. In addition, obese children run the risk of suffering orthopedic problems such as knee injuries, and an increase risk of heart disease and stroke in adulthood. It’s hard for a child who is obese to become a non-obese adult. In addition, the number of cases of pediatric diabetes has risen dramatically in recent years.

Recommendations: Dieting is not really the answer. If you diet, your basal metabolic rate tends to decrease thereby making the body burn even fewer calories in order to maintain the weight. Increased activity is much more effective in lowering the weight and improving the child’s health and psychological well-being. Exercise reduces stress and being an overweight child, subjected to the ridicule of others can certainly be stressful. Parents should take caution against emphasizing diet alone to avoid the development of any obsession about dieting that can lead to eating disorders as teens. Again, increasing a child’s activity level is most helpful.

A Look at School Lunches: Many children in the United States buy their lunches in the school cafeteria, so it might be worthwhile to look at the nutritional content of school lunches. You can obtain this information through your local school district’s website. An example of a school menu and nutritional analysis from a school district in north central Texas is a meal consisting of pasta alfredo, bread stick, peach cup, tomato soup, and a brownie, and 2% milk and is in compliance with Federal Nutritional Guidelines of 108% calories, 24 % protein, 55 % carbohydrates, 27% fat, and 8% saturated fats, according to the website. Students may also purchase chips, cookies, or ice cream along with their meals. Many school districts rely on the sale of desert and other items in the lunchrooms to make additional revenues. Many children purchase these additional items and so our look at their nutritional intake should also take this into consideration.

Consider another menu from an elementary school in the state of Washington. This sample meal consists of chicken burger, tater tots, fruit and veggies and 1% or nonfat milk. This meal is also in compliance with Federal Nutrition Guidelines but has about 300 fewer calories. And, children are not allowed to purchase additional deserts such as cookies or ice cream.

Of course, children eat away from school as well. Listen to NPR’s Kids Have Easy Access to Junk Food to hear a story about how advertising and fast food restaurant locations may influence children’s diets.

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