Ages & Stages: Physical Identity

How children become aware of their bodies and gain a positive sense of self.

  • Grades: Early Childhood, PreK–K

Stage by Stage

0 - 2

These fun games can promote a positive sense of identity:

Hold colorful rattles at about mid-chest height and encourage Baby to bat at the toy. Babies love making the sounds!

Finger games such as "Piggy Went to Market" or "How Big Is Baby? So Big!" (gently bringing Baby's arms up) help to develop body awareness.

Be sure to offer a variety of both quiet and lively activities for toddlers. This way children with different temperaments can feel successful during their activities, which leads to positive physical identity.

3 - 4

Accommodate for physical differences in your classroom. Provide chairs of varying heights for children of different sizes and ramps for wheelchairs.

To help children explore different nonstereotyped physical images, add nonsexist clothes and props (for example, caps and briefcases) to your dramatic-play center. Include multicultural attire (a sari, clogs, a sombrero).

Provide opportunities for discussing children's physical changes. Create a height graph and compare sizes.

5 - 6

Create a positive and supportive environment for children to explore their developing concepts of and attitudes toward physical identity. Invite children to ask questions and make comparisons, while affirming each child's unique beauty.

Provide opportunities for children to engage in gender nonstereotypic activities-which is everything they do!

Provide art materials, books, photos, and dramatic-play props that celebrate the beauty of the human form in all its manifestations. 

0 to 2 by Carla Poole

"This is Me!" 

Jennifer, an alert six-week-old, settles down when her caregiver wraps her snugly in a soft blanket. Being wrapped in the blanket, which is reminiscent of being in her mother's womb, helps the baby adapt to her new sensory experiences: the sights, sounds, textures, and smells of her world. Since a newborn does not yet know where her body ends and another person's begins, the swaddling helps her begin to develop a sense of her body and who she is.

Two-month-old Douglas discovers his hands and spends delightful moments examining and manipulating these intriguing parts of himself. Over the next two months his eye-hand coordination develops, and he begins to reach for and grasp objects. Being in the early stages of sensori-motor development, the infant does not yet have any mental image or concept of self, as we know it. The baby's sense of self is experienced through his physical sensations.

Who Is That Baby in the Mirror?

At around four months, the infant's physical identity as a separate person begins to come into focus. Six-month-old Allison smiles at her mirror image as if to ask, "Who is that adorable baby?" She develops feelings about herself as she relates to the people around her. Talking to a baby shows respect for her even if she can't yet understand many of your words. Explain actions that are about to be done to hey such as having her diaper changed, her nose wiped, or her hands washed. This helps her to become more aware of her body.

After many months of gaining a joyful sense of self by falling in love with and becoming deeply attached to important caregivers, babies often move into an impressive phase of enthusiastic exploration. What a thrill it is as they use their newfound physical capabilities to learn about themselves and their environment!

Stretching the "I Do It" Muscles

A toddler uses his body to learn about himself and where he is in space. Brian, 16 months, eagerly toddles toward a toy at the other end of the room. He is startled and upset when he trips over another child who is lying on the rug looking at a book! Their caregiver explains to Brian that he has to walk around his friend.

An active toddler with strong impulses may take some time to learn where he is in relation to the world around him. Since toddlers only learn by doing, they need lots of freedom to explore within safe environments and attentive supervision. Toddlers also learn about themselves by stretching their "I do it" independence muscles. At around 15 months - or sometimes earlier-many toddlers begin to resist being fed. Although it takes a long time for a novice utensil user to feed himself, and it can be quite a mess, it is well worth it. By 24 months, many toddlers ask for snacks - another way to increase their self-awareness, both physically and emotionally.

Master of Her Domain

During her twos, the senior toddler consolidates her physical identity. All children, but especially two-year-olds, need to feel in control of their bodies. Struggles over eating and toileting can often be diminished when the child is respected as the master of her domain, the one in charge of her body. Lots of loving encouragement and support will help children of this age build a positive physical identity.

3 to 4 by Susan A. Miller, EdD

"My Tummy Is Fatter Than Yours"  

Four-year-old Dale pushes out his stomach and proudly tells his friend Mike: "I'm big. My tummy is fatter than yours."

Socially and emotionally, preschoolers are fascinated with the idea of growing up and excited about how their bodies are changing. They know they are getting bigger when their shirts become too tight or when they no longer need to stand on tiptoe to see over the gate.

Fours, in particular, are curious about their own bodies. They ask lots of questions about changing physical appearances, such as, "When I cut my finger, it bleeds and hurts. How come when I cut off my hair it doesn't bleed or hurt?"

Physical Differences and Identity

Three-year-olds and, to a greater extent, four-year-olds, have an awareness of cultural and racial groups and know to which groups they belong. However, skin color is frequently very confusing for them. Three-year-old Anka wants to know, "Will my skin always be black?" Amanda asks, "Why do you say Gibby is white? He's brown!" Preschoolers need lots of positive opportunities to explore in respectful ways their questions about racial features. By age foul most preschoolers have already developed strong feelings about their own and other people's physical appearances.

By age three, children are aware of their gender, although they often relate it to clothes or hair style. Swati says, "I'm a girl because I wear earrings. Boys don't do that." Brian matter-of-factly says, "Boys stand to pee. Girls sit down." Four-year-olds may not wish to play with children who do not fit their stereotyped notions about gender roles or appearances. Pablo tells Joe emphatically, "Be a guy. Get rid of that purse!"

Preschoolers are curious about physical differences and will ask pointed questions about disabilities. Hale inquires, "Why does she have that giant Velcro fastener on the metal thing on her leg? Will she fall down if I unsnap it?" Offer natural opportunities for children to see and try out adaptive equipment with your guidance.

Emphasizing Similarities

If they don't understand why others look different, children might respond in disapproving ways, which may hurt other people's feelings. Offer play experiences for children to move and talk together so they can establish friendships based on their similarities and interests.

Joy asks the center's foster grandmother "Why is your skin all wrinkly?" Mrs. Metzer replies: "As people get older, their skin loses its elasticity and wrinkles, like a stretchy elastic band." Joy wants to know, "Will I get old and crinkly?" Mrs. Metzer gently explains, "Our bodies are always growing and changing. This is part of life."

When teachers model respectfulness, children will follow suit. When you treat girls and boys equally, the children will be likely to do so too. Provide interesting books about children's physical images, such as All the Colors We Are by Katie Kissinger (Redleaf Press, 1997) and Now I'm Big by Margaret Miller (Greenwillow, 1996).

Engaging children in cooperative tasks is another way to nurture mutual respect. Having a common goal allows children to focus on similarities - and gives the sense that underneath the differences, everyone is really just alike.

5 to 6 by Ellen Booth Church

"We're Different-But the Same"  

"Why can't Jerry walk like me?" "I am a girl, and I can do anything!" "My hair is the same color as Tamara's, but it feels different."

Listen in on your five- and six-year-olds' conversations and you will hear the sounds of children fine-tuning their sense of who they are in a diverse world. Kindergartners are becoming keenly aware of their own personal identifying traits and those of others. Intrigued by what they perceive they can and can't do, children of this age are also noticing others' skills and making comparisons. In the midst of all this observing and comparing, they are developing important viewpoints about themselves that affect their interactions with others. This is a crucial time for children to develop a strong and positive sense of physical, gender; and racial identity and an accepting view of others.

Developmentally, kindergartners are moving out of the strictly egocentric stage of seeing the self as the center of the universe. This is when children begin to ask questions about their own and others' physical characteristics. Consider this scenario: In the school lobby, five-year-old Ben notices a boy about his size blowing into a tube to make his wheelchair move. Filled with questions, he asks loudly why the boy can't walk, how the tube works, and if he can take a ride in the chair sometime too!

As teachers and parents, we need to respect children's right to ask questions, and we have a responsibility to provide children with accurate and compassionate answers that enable them to develop a sense of respect for the physical differences of others. Instead of viewing the other child as separate and different, children can learn to see the similarities they share. As for Ben, a discussion developed between him and the other boy, and over time, they found that they shared a passion for baseball. They've been close friends ever since.

This Is What I Look Like

An important part of children's developing sense of physical identity is their awareness of their own appearance. At five and six years old, they are examining their feelings and beliefs about their body, hair, and skin. Sadly, it's not unusual now to hear a five-year-old say, "I'm too fat!" The media image of physical "beauty" can even affect our kindergartners.

It is important to create an atmosphere in which children can comfortably ask questions about their own bodies and compare their bodies with others. The classroom should be a place where everyone is celebrated for their own unique beauty. Handle questions in an open, relaxed way, using correct (even scientific) terms for the factors that make the differences in each of us. Three girls in the dramatic-play area were comparing the colors of their skin. They noticed that, although two of them considered themselves to be black, they had very different skin colors and the white girl had skin almost as dark as theirs. The teacher used this opportunity to talk about how the amount of melanin in their bodies affects skin color.

What it Means to Be a Girl or a Boy

When children are in preschool, they become aware of their gender identity. They clearly can tell the difference between a boy and a girl - and they certainly know which one they are! In kindergarten, the focus shifts from strictly physical characteristics to expanded definitions of what it means to be a boy or a girl.

Some children may be struggling with the prevailing gender roles of society. It was class picture day, and some children were combing their hair and preparing for the photographer to arrive. When Ariel joins the group, the others ridicule her for wearing overalls for the picture: "That's boys' clothes, Ariel. You look dumb." Five- and six-year-old children need support for their personal preferences in clothing, hair, and manner. Reading books that depict diverse ways for boys and girls to dress and act can provide models and get a good discussion going. Try changing your own hair or clothing style for a day to see how children react. Discuss the right each of us has to choose how we want to look and what we want to do. Include the concept that there are not gender-specific activities and jobs: Girls and boys can do anything they choose to do.

Our beliefs about our physical image and abilities are developed young and carried into adulthood. Be sure that you have explored your own beliefs-the children you teach are observing you as a model.

This article originally appeared in the November, 1999 issue of Early Childhood Today.

  • Subjects:
    Body Parts, Physical Development
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