Gross Motor Skills: Child Development

Remember how you sat up this morning in bed, stood up, walked to the shower, shampooed your hair by raising your arms to your head, and stepped out of the shower? Well, you were using your gross motor skills. So, what are our gross motor skills and how do they compare to fine motor skills? What are the stages of development? How do these motor skills affect and play into the brain? What diseases and disorders affect these motor skills?

Gross motor skills

Gross motor skills- actions such as kicking a ball fall into the gross motor skill category

What are the gross motor skills?

Motor skills are the physical skills that require body movement. Gross motor skills are the physical body movements that involve the large muscles in the body (those that stabilize the core and abs) in order to perform everyday functions. The term gross motor skills also include eye-hand coordination skills. For instance, running, jumping, walking, sitting upright, kicking, catching, throwing, riding a bike, scooter, and swimming.

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Gross motor skills vs. fine motor skills

There are two categories of motor skills- gross motor skills and fine motor skills. Gross motor skills are the skills that are used in our coordination and movement with our legs, arms, and other large body parts such as our torso. The gross skills can be split into two further subgroups- locomotor and object control.

  • Locomotor skills can be considered swimming, jumping, sliding, and running.
  • Object Control skills can be considered kicking, throwing, and catching.

Fine motor skills are the skills that are used in smaller movements in places such as our wrists, hands, feet, and toes. Fine motor skills are essential in picking things up between the finger and thumb, blinking, moving your tongue in your mouth, and writing carefully.

There is no motor skill that is better than the other- both gross and fine motor skills work together in order to provide coordination. However, kids who are less developed (younger) work more on their gross motor skills while kids who are developed (older) work more on their fine motor skills.

Development of the gross motor skills

Gross motor skills

Gross motor skills- Pillow fights use swinging arms (gross motor skills) and grabbing onto the pillow (fine motor skills)

Gross motor skills develop during childhood. Once a child passes two years old, most children are able to walk up the stairs, stand, and run. Every day these skills are refined, improved, and built upon. It’s been shown that kids who are exposed to more outdoor activity time are better able to develop their gross motor skills. These motor skills develop from the head-to-toe and trunk and core to the extremities and limbs which is why kids move their heads before they can sit up and use their feet and arms. Essentially, a child’s development of gross motor skills starts in the middle and works its way outward. That’s why a kid can learn to control his arms before he can control his hands (think of a happy baby bouncing around moving his arms- you probably didn’t think about his hands and fingers wiggling while his arms moved around, did you?). The development of a child’s gross motor skills starts immediately after birth and continues throughout life- the most intense stage within the first five years of life.

Here is a common timeline for a child’s development of gross motor skills (keep in mind some kids develop these skills before or after these timelines).

  • 3-4 months old– a child can raise his head and keep his head balanced (not rolling side to side) when put into a sitting position.
  • 4 months old- a child is able to roll his body from its back to side gaining control of where he can roll.
  • 5 months old a child is able to roll his body from back to front… rolling over completely.
  • 6 months old a child can raise its chest and the upper part of its abdomen when on their stomach.
  • 7 months old a child is able to put weight on one hand while exploring with the other hand while on their stomach. This step is important for when the child learns to push himself up off the floor.
  • 8-10 months old the child is able to begin crawling.
  • 10-11 months old the child can cruise around the furniture and explore a bit on their own without mobility help from someone older.
  • 9-12 months old the child, when in a sitting position, can reach for a toy.
  • 11-12 months old the child can pull themselves into a standing position.
  • 15 months old the child can walk alone relatively well, squat, stand up, and walk up and down steps while holding onto a railing or someone’s hand.
  • 18 months old- the child can run, although they also easily fall down.
  • 2 years old the child can kick a ball, climb the stairs without support (holding hands or holding onto the railing), jump using both feet, and walk and run fairly well.
  • 3 years old- the child can balance on one foot for a few seconds, they can catch a large ball, and they can long-jump between 10-24 inches (25-60 cm).
  • 4 years old- the child can begin doing some somersaults, catch a ball with relatively good accuracy, ride a tricycle, run, jump, climb, and skip, as well as hop well of one foot.
  • 5 years old- the child can climb well, begin to skate and to swim okay, as well as skip using alternate feet as well as be able to participate in jump rope.
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The brain and the gross motor skills

The basal ganglia, cerebral cortex, cerebellum, and the motor cortex are the parts of the brain that control our motor skills- both gross and fine motor skills. The basal ganglia control the position and voluntary movements. The cerebral cortex controls the muscle movements specifically. The cerebellum monitors the muscles while they move as well as our bodily balance and control. The motor cortex controls the muscle movements but it also has the responsibility for moving different parts of the body.

Academically, gross motor skills are essential in brain development. Research has shown that physical activity has a positive effect on cognition- specifically on elementary and middle school-aged students. Furthermore, physical activity improves our brain function by helping our nerve cells to multiple which in turn creates more connections for learning. Other research has indicated that regular physical activity (which uses our gross motor skills) for kids can improve academic performance to the point that schools who have added physical education into their curriculum had a 6% increase in their student’s standardized testing scores compared to schools who didn’t have as much of an emphasis of physical activity.

A comprehensive review took 59 studies and, when mounted together and compared, found that there is a significant and positive effect on a child’s achievement and cognitive outcome when they do sports and physical activity using their gross motor skills- aerobic exercise has the best outcome and effect of them all. Kids develop their ability to swim around age five. Teachers who incorporate physically active lessons also have been shown to have students who are more on task with improved reading, spelling, math, and composite scores. Physically active lessons have incredible benefits. Another study showed that kids who participate in physically active lessons have better scores in general math, are faster in a mathematics speed test, and had higher scores in spelling, although there was no change in reading scores.

Research has indicated that children who have participated in an in-class physical activity were able to improve their on-task behaviors by 20%. Similar research has shown that physical activity and use of gross motor skills improve concentration levels overall. Active lessons are important because they require more coordinated gross motor skills such as reaction time, balancing, standing up quickly, etc., which are all things associated with better academic concentration.

 Gross motor skills: Brain Trauma

It’s been shown that children who have had big knocks to the head or brain damage can have long-term issues and difficulty with their gross motor skills… difficulties that can follow them into adulthood if they aren’t careful. Changes to one’s brain can have a great effect on them- even when you can’t see it. After a brain injury, it may be that your child or your friend will need to continue practicing or re-learn their gross motor skills in the years following the brain injury. When having gone through a brain trauma such as a traumatic brain injury (TBI), the gross motor skills can be affected. When there are changes to the muscle control and movement in the brain due to a brain injury, the effect can actually affect one’s daily performance. The effect can be seen in ways such as:

  • Movements being clumsy, jerky, or having difficulty with coordination.
  • A child’s growth spurts can be affected by brain injuries because they may have the tendency to have tight muscles which prevent their growth spurts from happening naturally.
  • Stiff muscles and muscles that are hard to move.
  • Join pain can happen due to a brain injury because if the posture or movement patterns (if the knee flips backward or is able to hyperextend while walking) they can experience pain while practicing other motor skills such as running, standing up, etc.
  • Paralysis- meaning the muscles are difficult to “turn on”.
  • One’s ability to learn new skills may be hampered by a brain injury. If a child has a brain injury, they may take longer in developing and learning new skills.
  • Motor planning problems such as the planning and execution of a movement become difficult. E.x. you plan to stand up from the chair you are sitting in, but the execution and reality is that it’s difficult, if not near impossible, for you to stand up from the chair.

Diseases or disorders that might affect gross motor skills

  • Dyspraxia, also known as Developmental Coordination Disorder, is a condition whose symptoms are extreme clumsiness and/or significant impairment in one’s motor coordination. Dyspraxia is diagnosed by comparing a child’s motor coordination with that that is expected based on their intelligence level and age. For example, poor handwriting, dropping things, and motor milestones such as walking.
  • Parkinson’s disease is a progressive neurological disorder that affects roughly 1 million Americans. It’s known for its effects on our motor skills as:
    • Tremoring in the arms, legs, or hands- especially when they are at rest.
    • Impaired balance
    • Difficulty standing or walking
    • Gradual loss and a slowing down or spontaneous movement- a condition known as Bradykinesia
    • Stiffness in parts of the body that makes it hard to move

How to improve and refine your gross motor skills

  • Swimming does wonders for one’s gross motor skills whether they are developing or improving on them.
  • Use unstable surfaces– walking, climbing, and running around on unstable surfaces such large pillows because it requires and improves overall body strength as well as effort.
  • Play Simon Says helps with movement planning (Praxis) and body awareness.
  • Take them to a playground help because they involve, running, swinging, and climbing.
  • Put them through obstacle courses because obstacle courses help combine lots and lots of gross motor skills and put them into one big practice.
  • Play Hopscotch to help them with their balance, hopping abilities, and to have fun!
  • Use large balls to help them begin catching. Once the child begins to master the skill of catching using a large ball, try using smaller balls to help them improve and refine their skills even more.  
  • Try wheelbarrow walking races to improve upper body strength and core control.
  • Play “catch and balance” a game that involves standing on one foot on a ball (or a pillow) while catching another ball. This game helps to encourage catching and throwing as well as balance.

Let us know what you think in the comments below!

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