Physical stages of development for young children practicing martial arts

The knowledge of the physical stages of development is a priority if you want to maximise the development of your martial arts students. Sometimes we may feel we are not very good at delivering sessions to the young children in our care. They don’t always listen and sometimes they ‘just don’t get it’. In other words, the picture in our heads of how we see the drill / game working does always resemble what happens in reality. Often it is not necessarily what you are teaching or the way you are teaching it, but a miss alignment between what you expect the kids to be able to do and what the average 3-6 year old is capable of.

While children generally pass through similar physical stages of development, as each child is unique the rate at which they hit and stay at each stage may be slightly different. Understanding a typical development pathway will give you a benchmark as to where the different children in your classes sit. Although we will also look at psychological, emotional, technical and social development in the future, this article is focus on the physical side of development.

Although we are giving children an introduction to martial arts in our children’s programme, a large chunk of our physical activity is reserved for the likes of Perceptual Motor Skills (PMS), Fundamental Movement Skills (FMS) and Functional Movement Patterns (FMP). These skills are the foundations for the future development of our Martial Arts Specific Skills (MASS).

With all those acronyms behind us, let’s take a look at what physical skills and abilities are typically developed at what age. Although I have included a description of development for 2 year olds, this is mainly for reference only and not a suggest that you should start included 2 year olds in your classes.

physical stages of development (the terrible 2s)

  • At 2 years old children can usually run safely while avoiding obstacles. Surprisingly they can be pretty nibble and corner at speed. I certainly found this to be the case when chasing my youngest daughter around retails stores whenever she persuaded us that she wasn’t going to run away if she let go of our hand.
  • They can climb furniture like a mountain goat and even start to move objects around to stand on to enable them to what they want
  • They will generally be able to throw items but not catch. Don’t expect the object to hit it’s target as they have yet to develop the ability to vary power and direction and have little understanding of trajectory 
  • Kicking items tends to be a struggle (due to poor balance and lack of coordination), even with an object on the floor but they can generally hit a target with their hand as long as no specific hand formation is needed.
  • Children start developing the motor skills for jumping and hoping from 2 years but don’t be surprised if you get new children joining your class as 4 or 5 year olds that still struggle to jump with both feet together
  • At this age they should be able to get in to the squat position relatively easily and you will see them using this movement as their chosen method of getting down low to pick things off the floor
  • Although their fine motor skills will be far off being fully developed they will be able to pick up items using a fine pincer movement
  • They will be able to stack things on top of each other though they much prefer knocking things down

physical stages of development (3-4 year old)

  • Development of motor skills and strength should be done side by side. Lloyd and Oliver’s Youth Physical Development model shows that you can start looking at developing strength with children at any age. Obviously, games and exercises should be done in an age appropriate way.
  • Even at 3 years old, children start to develop a dominant side.
  • At this age, with a little practice the children will be able to jump off small obstacles but will often fall over when they land (sometimes in a pretty exaggerated way and theatrical way)
  • They will struggle with postures that require core strength to the extent that even standing straight with their arms straight above their head for 10 seconds maybe a challenge.
  • They will be able to walk backwards and sideways and even at this early stage in their development, their gait (walking) pattern is already defined.
  • From 3 years old you will be able to start working on their FUNdamental Movement Skills 
  • They will start to develop their special awareness but will find it difficult to take in to account for the other children moving around in the class.
  • They will be able to throw and even able to catch items like a large ball as long as there is not much movement required.
  • At 3 years old they will be able to stand on one leg long enough to kick but will often struggle with kicks that involve compound movements (using more than one joint) such as a front kick where you chamber the knee before extending the lower leg to complete the kick.
  • If you usually start your strikes and kicks from a guard position, at this age they may struggle to keep them arms in position for any length of time
  • Children grow from the top down and from the centre out. This means that they are able to control body parts closer to the brain or the midline of the body. It’s also why many of them struggle to perform exercises like sit ups at 3 year olds
  • By 4 year olds the children have usually developed a good sense of balance when at floor level and should be capable of walking in a straight line
  • They will be able to catch, throw and bounce a ball
  • At 3 years old we highlighted that the children will already have a dominant side. 4 years old is a great time to start encouraging them to use both sides (hands and feet) when playing games and taking part in skill drills
  • At this age they will be able to bend from the waist and pick objects off the floor rather than squatting down to get to floor level
  • They will usually be able to start forming different hand and foot positions though they may struggle to combine these fine motor skills with more complex gross motor skills such as kicking a pad
  • Balance is a pre requisite for more complex motor skills and as balance and motor skills require strength, you should continue to develop strength through functional movements and fundamental movement skills.
  • They may have the fine motor skills to hold a small paddle but will probably not have the strength required to hold it for another child to strike it
Physical Stages Of Development - 3-4 year olds

physical stages of development (5-6 year olds)

Physical Stages Of Development - 5-6 year olds - 5-6 year olds
  • By 5 years old they will start to develop their agility and be able to start combing movement with dodging objects and other students.
  • As the children enter ‘Middle childhood’ at around 5 years old, you can start to increase the amount of time you spend working on mobility, agility, speed and power.
  • The time from 5 years old and all way through to when they move up to high school (around 11) is the best time to incorporate flexibility and mobility training in your sessions
  • At this age the children will usually have the core development required to enable them to start performing body weight based exercises.
  • They should have good balance and be able to stand on one leg for about 10 seconds
  • They should now be able to bend from the waist and touch their toes without bending their knees or falling over
  • Jumping should now be easy and they should be able to hope around 2-3 meters without putting their opposite foot down
  • They should have the necessary muscle tone to hold a small kick paddle for short a short amount of time
  • Proficient throwing is usually mastered by around 6 years
  • They can generally throw and catch smaller objects accurately
  • Aerobic and anaerobic energy systems are not fully developed until the children are in their teens. At this age (3-6) they should not be working at high work rates for longer than 20 seconds at a time without adequate recovery.
  • Current research shows that most locomotion skills are usually developed by the age of 7.
  • Muscular strength could account for up to 70% of the variability in a range of motor skills in children 7+

physical stages of development Summary

As you can see, these physical stages of development compound and build on each other. Next time you are teaching a class and wondering why many of the young children are not able to perform a drill that your 7-8 year olds can do easily, ask yourself if your expectations are in line with typical development for the age group you are teaching. A good way to reduce the chance of this happening is to create your own syllabus based on what the children should physically be able to do in your classes. This way you don’t have to second guess if the drill / game / movement is appropriate or not. Now you are able to set your expectations for the physical elements of the classes, download the Session Planning Framework to help you structure your classes in an appropriate way. This will help you maximise productivity and enjoyment in your classes.

Never forget that each child will develop through the different physical stages of development at their own speed and the kids that look like naturals, the ones that are a little ahead of the curve, maybe caught up over the next few years. There are many variables in the development of physical abilities and we should do all we can to differentiate for the different physical stages of development during classes. This ensures that everyone feels included and that they are capable of achieving what you are asking them to do. Doing this will give everyone the opportunity to make small improvements and move them more toward becoming physically literate. If you are wondering what Physical Literacy is, I will be covering that next week 🙂

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