Childhood Development

Physical (Fine and Gross Motor) Development

The domain of physical development covers both gross and fine motor skills, as well as physical growth. Gross motor skills refer to those that require use of large body muscles for movement. This development includes those skills needed for walking and running, and physical exercise more broadly. Fine motor skills, on the other hand, require the use of the smaller muscles, such as those in the hands and fingers to grip, move and place objects with precision.

Development of this skill involves learning how to coordinate the hands and eyes together to manipulate objects (hand eye coordination) and are important in supporting children’s self-help skills and independence as they learn to wash, dress and feed themselves.

Domains of Child Development

In this section we will explore each of the developmental domains, including outlining some strategies to support the development of skills in this particular area.

Supporting Gross Motor Development

Any activities that require the use of strength, endurance, posture, agility and balance support development of gross motor skills. These may include balls, bikes, climbing frames and lycra tubes and participation in activities like dance, yoga or parachute play.

Strategies to support gross motor skill development may include:

  • Develop obstacle courses that combine walking,crawling,throwing,and climbing matched to the abilities of participants.
  • Provide a variety of gross motor activities to choose from.
  • Make outside time an important component of playgroup.

Supporting Fine Motor Development

Activities requiring the use of hand eye coordination, grip styles and hand strength help support development in this area. This may include activities such as ‘feely buckets’, play dough, crayon and paint, dressing up, doing up buttons. Strategies to support fine motor development may include:

  • Allowing extra time for transitions and practice during these activities
  • Providing materials that are easier to grasp and hold (for example, large cars and trucks, puzzles with knobs, big paint brushes, oversized crayons, and pencils and paint brushes with handles adapted with foam tubing).
  • Placing material in accessible positions, where they can be reached from any angle
  • Provide activities where children make shapes in the air using big and small arm strokes, such as blowing bubbles

Cognitive Development

Cognitive development refers to the way in which the brain processes and uses information. It involves receiving, processing, and organizing information that has been perceived through the senses, and then using the information appropriately.

Cognitive functioning includes a multitude of areas such as language development, memory, numeracy and problem-solving skills that are largely supported through play in the early years.

All play activities encourage cognitive development in various ways and build skills to increase brain capacity.

Activities that focus on cognitive development will often involve some type of goal or outcome. This might include toys that focus on cause and effect, problem solving, numeracy, language, memory or scientific discovery. However, this will also include the development of creative skills. Creativity refers to an individual’s ability to produce outcomes in

a novel way. Creativity is important for divergent thinking, where a person is able to develop multiple solutions to a situation and think outside the box. Art and craft, sensory play, imaginative play and construction all provide opportunity for creativity and help encourage divergent thinking.

Supporting Cognitive Development

Strategies to support cognitive development might include:

  • Implementing clear transitions and avoiding abrupt changes in activities
  • Providing time and opportunityto practice new skills and ideas
  • Break tasks or play activities in small achievable steps
  • Provide clear directions, speak slowly and Focus on key information, aspects, attributes and characteristics of a particular activity. Check in with each child to make sure you have been understood.
  • Reinforce verbal communication with other communicate strategies, such as images, to help foster understanding.
  • Acknowledge successes with specific feedback “you have placed that piece in the puzzle, well done” rather than just “goodjob”.

Social and Emotional Development

Social and emotional development refers to the skills that allow children to interact appropriately with others. This includes a broad range of skills, including:

  • The ability to empathise;
  • To process, understand and communicate feelings and behaviour; and
  • The self-regulation of emotions

Social competence allows children, and later adults, to engage in, and function in everyday life meaningfully. These skills are vital in shaping positive relationships and appropriate social skills. However, social and emotional development can pose a particular challenge for children with ASD or ASD-like characteristics.

Supporting Social and Emotional Development

Strategies to support the development of social and emotional skills may include some of the following:

  • Provide opportunities for social engagement within structured play activities
  • Be mindful of the social and emotional stage of the children within the group and work to build on their strengths. Ensure expectations are appropriate
  • Facilitate play relationships between participants. Link children with similar interests, combine children that have good skills with those that may need more guidance.
  • Demonstrate appropriate social and emotional responses and behaviours
  • Where possible, control additional inputs that may distract or overwhelm some children with ASD. This might include:
    • Divide play spaces to reduce noise or visual distraction
    • Develop a quiet place for children to go to when they need to be alone
    • Offer a limited number of choices

Language and Communication

The developmental domain of communication and language covers to the way we all come to perceive, understand and produce communication and language. We learn to do this by learning sounds, combining those sounds into meaningful words, and putting words together into sentences to communicate our thoughts. As we develop these skills we are able to interpret sounds and language from others.

Verbal and non-verbal communication can be an area of difficulty for children with autism and ASD like characteristics. Due to the large variations on the autism spectrum, communication skills can vary significantly between individuals. Some children may experience typical development of verbal language, while others may struggle to learn basic words and construct sentences. There can also be difficulties in understanding non-verbal communication skills which make up a large part of communication and involves the use of gestures, cues, and tone and facial expressions.

Children with ASD may communicate in different, or subtler ways, than neurotypical children. It is important to try to recognise communicationattemptsandhowtorespondto them appropriately. Some of the ways children withASDcommunicatemayinclude:behaviours such as tantrums, screaming and crying; looking or standing near an object they want; subtle variances in facial expressions or body language; holding of objects, pictures; speaking key words; echolalia; or excessivequestioning.

Supporting the Development of Language and Communication

Strategies to support the development of language and communication skills may include:

  • Get down to the child’s Crouching or kneeling so that your face is at a similar level to the child offers opportunity to make eye contact and gain attention.
  • Always providing clear, simple instructions. Break all communications into small, manageable steps in sequence. Use simple, clear language and short sentences
  • If a child has limited vocabulary or comprehension of language,begin with 2 or 3-word instructions and increase as appropriate.
  • Children with ASD can take things very For example, saying “I have a frog in my throat” could be taken literally by some children so ensure language is clear and concise.
  • Avoid putting a sentence in question form when trying to give an instruction. For example,when it is time for children to sit on the floor rather than saying ‘would you like to sit on the floor?’ give a clear instruction by saying ‘Sitting down’ and point to the ground so the child understands the direction.
  • Some children with ASD can take a little longer to process information. Speak slowly and allow pauses to give children time to process the information presented to them
  • Use non-verbal communication strategies, such as visual schedules, or pictorial descriptions to support your verbal communication where appropriate. This may also include physically directing children to the correct place or position.
  • Ensure you have the child’s attention before communicating or providing instructions
  • It is easier to understand what to do, than what not to do. For example, if childwas getting too loud and becoming overstimulated you could say ‘speaking with our quiet voices; rather than ‘don’t shout’. Negative statements are often more difficult to process, sochildren may have difficulty understanding meaning
  • Praise,encouragement and patiencecan help relieve anxiety and make children more comfortable and confident to communicate effectively.

Adaptive Behaviour and Self-Help

Not all accounts of the domains of child development include a focus on adaptive and self-help behaviours, however these are often particularly relevant to children with ASD or ASD-like behaviours, and as such we felt it important to consider. This developmental domain covers the skills associated with adapting to the environment, as well as the ability to do things for yourself. This includes things like transitions from one activity to another, as well we activities such as feeding, dressing, toileting, and drinking independently.

Supporting the Development of Adaptive and Self-Help Behaviours

Strategies to support the development of adaptive and self-help behaviours may include:

  • Supporting transitions as well as possible. When moving from one task to the next signpost the next activity Provide verbal and visual warning that a change is coming,this may include the use of a visual schedule and/or a visual timer.
  • Providing plenty of opportunities for children to practice their self-help skills within play.

Development and ASD (or ASD-like characteristics)

Ok so we know that the development of children with ASD may look a little different from that of their neuro typical peers, and that they may need a little extra developmental support. However, in order to provide this support, it’s important to understand what these developmental differences are and the impact they might have.

The Raising Children Network, separates these developmental differences into four key areas: attention and interaction; understanding; control and regulation; and seeing the ‘big-picture’.

Attention and Interaction

Children with ASD or ASD-like traits often find it difficult to interact with others and share attention (to maintain joint attention) with others. For example, a child with ASD may struggle to make eye contact, to interpret facial expressions, or use appropriate gestures (such as waving) to communicate. As a result, a child with ASD may not respond to his name, smile at caregivers, or wave goodbye without being told to.


Children with ASD may also find it difficult to see things from other people’s perspectives. As a result, they often see the world only from their point of view, they struggle to understand others may have different desires and beliefs from them. They may find it difficult understand to and predict others behaviour, and to understand the impact of their behaviour.

Control and Regulation

Children with ASD or ASD-like traits may also struggle with “focus, attention, transitions, organisation, memory, time management, emotional control and frustration” 1. As a result, they will often struggle to engage in typical social interactions, and when moving between tasks.

They may have difficulty starting and maintaining (or continuing) interactions; be aggressive; have outbursts of crying, tantrums, or yelling; be impulsive; have short attention spans; and be easily frustrated by lack of structure.

Seeing the ‘Big Picture’

Children with ASD will also often have difficulty seeing the ‘big picture’. As a result, they can get caught up in the fine details, rather than creating a broader understanding. They may find it difficult to bring together different  sources of information and see situations as a whole.

While these differences in development themselves impact the way a child with ASD interacts with their environment, it can also significantly influence the way these children engage and participate in play. As a result, many of these children miss out on vital learning and development opportunities that play would other otherwise afford them.

The remainder of this guide will explore play, particularly as it relates to children with ASD, to enable you to best support the children within your group. It will provide you with ideas and support strategies to stimulate and support the learning and development of those who may otherwise miss out.