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The need for children to develop physical skills and abilities is at least as important as any other area of child development. There is, unfortunately, a tendency for parents to behave as if physical skills develop automatically, requiring little parenting. If you hand a puzzle to your toddler, she may (after a while) figure out what to do with it. It is more likely, without your demonstrating what to do with the puzzle, she soon grows bored with it, loses the pieces, and never gets to working the puzzle independently.

Another common assumption is children somehow spontaneously know how to play. In reality, the skills involved in playing are for the most part learned. While children show a lot of imagination and creativity in their play, this creativity needs to be stimulated. You begin by showing your child how to manipulate objects, what the possibilities are for playing with certain toys, and for making up games. For example, some toys could be messed up if incorrectly used. When this is an issue, it might be well to suggest you and your child play together with the toy for a while.

There are some physical skills and abilities you cannot directly assist, for example, your child’s learning to walk. You can hold your child’s hand, help her keep her balance, encourage her, and let her know you are pleased with her new manner of getting around. Nonetheless, you cannot walk for her and you cannot hurry the process. You cannot get your child to do things with blocks before she is physically able to. This applies equally to the coordination required for eating, to the developmental skills prerequisite to running and active play, and to the fine motor skills necessary for coloring and using scissors.

With many tasks, there is no way to tell if your child is physically ready to do them until he tries. You first gently help. If there is progress, then you continue your encouragement. If progress is not evident, you discontinue and go back to levels at which your child is successful, or shift his attention to other activities.

Many parents think if their child does not master a task after fifteen minutes or several attempts, then more time and more tries should lead to mastery. This is true occasionally. More often, though, continual pressure from the parents only leads the child to conclude they are dissatisfied with his achievement and they expect much more than he can produce. What is the correct amount of help? It is just enough to encourage your child to progressively improve her physical skills, never expecting her to do more or perform better than she physically can. How often do you reach this right level? Not very often. Most of the time, you either push a little too far or you are a little neglectful. Over time, though, continuing involvement really helps your child develop physical skills and abilities.

Encourage your children to experiment with their physical abilities and limitations as they learn what they can and cannot do. They may also come up with more interesting things to do than occur to you. How do you make sure this kind of self- initiated exploration and experimentation takes place? Your child needs your help but he also needs you to leave him alone. This apparent paradox is resolved if you realize you need become involved only part of the time and once in a while, a few times a day and for a few minutes at a time. In this way you maximize your involvement with your child and his freedom to explore and create.

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