You’ve probably heard your therapist, your paediatrician, or your friend who’s a parent talk about gross motor skills. But what are they, and why are they important? Babies learn so much through movement, and gross motor skills are a major aspect of their overall development. Movement is important to all of us, but especially to our developing little ones.
Gross motor skills are the abilities required to control the muscles of the body for large movements such as crawling, walking, jumping, running, and more.
Babies learn from head to toe. Our upper body muscle control develops before our lower body muscle control. As babies grow, they first develop control in their neck (head control) and trunk (sitting balance) and then they learn to control their shoulders, then elbows, wrists, and finally, their fingers. The same goes for the lower body, starting at the hips first, then learning to control their legs, feet, and eventually toes.
As kids gain control of their body, they start to build up strength. Little ones need lots of opportunities to practice movement, because that’s how they learn and grow!
We categorize gross motor movements into 3 different types:
Anything a child does to get from one spot to another is locomotion. Examples of gross motor skills in the locomotion category can include rolling, belly crawling, crawling on hands and knees, scooting, walking, running, climbing, leaping, jumping, and hopping.
Gross motor skills that are stationary include head control, sitting balance, standing on one or both legs, rising, falling, bending, stretching, pushing, pulling, swinging, swaying, twisting, and turning.
Think about all the things a child can do with a ball – they can roll, throw, catch, kick, stop, or bat a ball. All of these actions are manipulative gross motor skills.
Gross motor skill development helps children to build strength and confidence in their bodies.
Kids also enjoy the same benefits of exercise and physical activity as adults do, which is important for a healthy lifestyle, no matter your age. Developing gross motor skills helps a child grow in the ability to do more complex skills, such as navigating a new playground environment or playing a team sport.
Worried about gross motor delay? We typically see a range of development for each milestone, where kids may develop that skill in the few months before or after their peers. If you notice your child continuing to struggle with development of an age-appropriate milestone, please see your paediatrician to request a physiotherapy evaluation.
Generally, gross motor development milestones for infants and toddlers are as follows:
Again, each child develops at their own pace, so these milestones are approximate. As gross motor skills development happens at these approximate ages and stages, they build upon each other. For example, a baby needs to be able to pull up to standing before they can walk.
Cait Parr is a pediatric physical therapist at NAPA Center LA. Her favorite animal is snails, because they remind her to slow down and enjoy the beautiful details about life. She loves desserts almost as much as she loves long walks on the beach with her husband.