As your baby grows and starts to investigate their surroundings, they develop new skills. Gross motor skills are one set of skills they’ll add to their repertoire of tricks right from the start.
Let’s take a look at some of those skills, as well as what to do if you suspect something might not be quite right.
Gross motor skills are those skills that involve the whole body — your core muscles (think belly and back) and the muscles of your arms and legs.
Gross motor skills include skills such as:
- lifting (a spoon, a hairbrush, a barbell — they all count)
Yup, these are actually skills.
And then there are the skills that need, well, a little more skill:
- riding a bike or a horse
- playing sports like football or baseball
- roller blading
When your child uses their gross motor skills, they’re also working on balance, coordination, hand-eye coordination, and strengthening the neural pathways in their brain.
You’ve heard mothers at the park tossing these terms around with the same nonchalance they use to toss a ball. So what’s the difference?
While gross motor skills involve the bigger muscles, fine motor skills work the smaller muscles of the hands, fingers, and wrists. Fine motor skills are about dexterity.
Here’s an example, taken from the previous section: Your child uses gross motor skills to lift a hairbrush — but fine motor skills to grasp it in their hands in the first place.
Your child needs fine motor skills to do finicky things such as:
- holding a pencil or scissors
- threading beads
- playing with Legos
- buttoning up their coat
The better their fine motor skills are, the easier they’ll find tasks like drawing and the faster they’ll be able to do them.
But appropriately developed gross motor skills can help your child build their fine motor skills. Knowing how to sit will give your child the ability to be at a desk and practice controlling the movements in their shoulders, arms, hands, and fingers.
Your newborn has a ways to go before they’re crawling. Your toddler has a ways to go before they’re playing baseball. So what are the age-appropriate gross motor skills to look out for at each stage?
- As your baby’s startle reflex fades, you’ll notice that their movements become more voluntary and controlled. With their developing hand-eye coordination, your baby will be able to bat at brightly colored toys.
- When you place your baby on their stomach (you’ll want to schedule plenty of tummy time into their day), you’ll notice them lift their head and chest.
- At this age, babies start to move. Typically, they’ll start to roll from their back to their side. And then they’ll start to roll all the way over — first from their belly to their back and later from their back to their belly.
- Hold your baby’s hands when they’re lying on their back and gently pull them into a sitting position. Notice that they can raise their head.
- At first, your baby will sit with a little bit of help from you. Then, they’ll be able to sit as long as they’re leaning on their hands. And finally, when their back and abdominal muscles get stronger, they’ll be able to sit alone.
- As your baby becomes more mobile, they’ll start sliding around on their tummy to explore. Watch them rising up on their hands and knees to rock back and forth. And then, just when you’re least expecting it, they’ll start to crawl.
- Each time your baby pulls themselves up to stand, they’re working out those leg muscles. Add to this a good dose of coordination and your baby will start taking a few tentative steps — as long as there’s something there to hold on to, like the coffee table or your pants.
- Your baby has discovered that they can see what’s going on around them much better if they’re sitting up. Watch them sit up alone.
- Your toddler can not only walk alone pretty well, but they’re also starting to run. Watch out, though — at this stage it’s still easy for them to fall.
- Hold on to their hand tightly and your child will enjoy the challenge of walking up and down steps.
- By this stage, your child can jump with both feet.
- As your child’s leg muscles get stronger and their balance improves, they can stand on one foot for a few seconds at a time.
- Peddling a tricycle requires hand-eye coordination and arm-leg coordination that they’re starting to get the hang of.
- Your child is now able to enjoy playing on climbing frames at the park.
- Balancing on one foot is now a cinch, so your child begins to hop on one foot.
- Ball games become more fun as your child can catch a ball — almost all of the time.
- Get ready for games of jump rope now that your child can skip.
- With well-developed gross motor skills, your child is ready to learn how to skate and swim.
Always remember that each child is absolutely unique — just like everyone else. Your unique child may not follow given guidelines and that’s perfectly OK. We all develop in sync with our own internal clock.
That said, here are some things that you may want to look out for:
- Your child isn’t interested in the physical activities that their peers are happy doing. In fact, they even try to wiggle out of them.
- Your child goofs up tasks on purpose to mask that they’re having a hard time doing them.
- Your child tells other kids how catch a ball, reach the top of a jungle gym, or skip — but they won’t take part in the game.
If your child isn’t meeting many of the milestones above, you may want to reach out to your pediatrician for an evaluation. Very often, early intervention with a pediatric physical or occupational therapist can close the gaps you see.
Sometimes parents notice that their child has difficulty in many areas of physical activity. For example, if your little one is clumsy, has an unsteady gait that makes it hard to negotiate steps, and can’t manage to tie their shoes or complete arts-and-crafts projects.
When several signs come together, they may signal a condition known as developmental coordination disorder (DCD). Talk to your pediatrician if you have concerns.
There are lots of ways you can encourage these skills at different stages.
- Head position practice. Alternate the side that you position your baby’s head when you lay them down. Left one day; right the next day. This will encourage your baby to lift their head and to strengthen both sides of their neck.
- Tummy time. Tummy time strengthens your baby’s neck and back muscles. Keep your baby interested by shaking a colorful toy in front of them.
- Rattle tug. It’s never too early to start building those biceps. Put a rattle in your baby’s hand and tug gently.
- Sitting your baby up. Prop your little one up to encourage them to develop the motor skills to sit independently. As they’re learning, offer a hand to keep them stable.
- Sticky notes on the wall. Once your baby can pull themselves up to a wobbly stand, try putting Post-It notes on the wall just out of their sitting reach. They’ll delight in pulling themselves up to grab the notes and pull them off the wall.
- Free movement. Once you’ve babyproofed and created a safe space for baby, spending less time with them in bouncers and jumpers and more time encouraging them to move on their own is best. Try scattering favorite toys around a room and watch them crawl to their treasures.
- Going for walks. It won’t be as fast as cruising in the stroller, but your new walker needs lots of opportunities to practice walking. Create a safe space in your home for this by childproofing and setting up a play pen. Allow your toddler lots of time to walk around when on a grassy lawn or at the park.
- Sand play. It may look like child play, but as your child digs, scoops, pours, and sifts, they’re working on their gross motor skills.
- Create obstacle courses. Set up (safe!) objects around a room so that your toddler needs to duck, crawl, sidestep, reach, pull themselves up and even move items to get from one side to the other.
Gross motor skills are mostly developed early and, as noted above, involve just the large muscle groups. Once your child has those skills in their repertoire, they can add other layers of skill like coordination, muscle development, posture, balance, and more.
Some examples of building upon their gross motor skills include:
- hopscotch and skipping
- trampoline jumping
- playing musical instruments
Accompanying you child through their journey in life is one of the most satisfying things you’ll ever do.
When you watch your child pulling themselves up only to fall back onto that well-padded butt, you may not believe the adage that time flies. But it won’t be long and soon you’ll be eating popcorn on the sidelines while your superstar hits a home run.