What are gross motor skills in child development?

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No matter whether it’s touching, pointing, running or climbing, babies and children learn through movement. Movement is what allows children to experience exciting environments, make friends, play fun games, improve their fitness and learn new things.

Gross motor skills are a major part of a child’s development as they provide children with the necessary abilities to do all of the things mentioned above. But before a child can climb a tree or kick a soccer ball, they must slowly build up their strength, coordination and balance through quieter activities such as sitting and standing. 


What are gross motor skills?

You’ve definitely heard of the term gross motor skills, but what is the definition of gross motor skills in child development? 

Gross motor skills refer to the ability to control the muscles necessary for larger types of movement, such as running, walking, crawling and standing.

Gross motor skills are extremely important when it comes to the overall mental and physical health of a child. These skills help build muscle endurance and promote a healthy, active lifestyle. This in turn allows children to perform the important everyday functions of living – and develop confidence in doing so. 


Gross vs fine child motor skills

A key part of growing up is learning to master gross and fine motor skills. Both involve a child strengthening their muscles, however there are notable differences between these two child motor skill sets.

Gross motor skills require control over the larger muscles in the body, whereas fine motor skills rely on the smaller muscles in our hands and fingers.

Actions that enhance child fine motor development include anything that involves object manipulation, pointing and grasping. When your child buttons their jacket, brushes their teeth or plays with building blocks, they are fostering their fine motor skills.


Why are gross motor skills in children important?

Gross motor skills allow children to explore the world around them. Without gross motor skills, a child’s ability to play, learn and interact with others is limited.

Outside of building strength and coordination, developing gross motor skills and moving independently also helps children develop a broad range of other, seemingly unrelated skills. Gross motor skills in children ultimately improve skills pertaining to:

  • Language and communication
  • Confidence
  • Patience
  • Compassion
  • Independence
  • Creativity
  • Perseverance
  • Decision making


Milestones for gross motor skills in children

Milestones describe the skills that babies and children tend to develop at a similar age. While development is relatively predictable, that doesn’t mean there is one definition of ‘normal’. Every child has their own personality, interests, likes and dislikes, all of which can influence their growth and development.

Even though milestones aren’t set in stone (despite their name), they are a useful tool that helps parents anticipate when they can expect certain behaviours to emerge in their child. Parents can then use this knowledge to assist their child in building important skills through fun and meaningful activities.

From rolling over to kicking, there is a long list of gross motor skill milestones. Here are just a few of the key milestones that are important in developing child motor skills:

1. Your child can sit on their own

Sitting is a major step in developing strength and coordination – two core features of gross motor skills for children.

Before your baby can sit by themselves, they’ll need a bit of assistance from a steady hand that can guide their back and torso. You’re also likely to see your baby sit with their arms propping themselves up before their muscles are strong enough to sit by themselves.


How old should my child be?

Babies will typically start sitting by themselves at some point between 4 – 9 months.

Activities for developing this skill

You might be surprised to know that a lot of the activities you’re already doing with your baby are actually helping to build up their core muscles. Some simple activities that help babies build up the necessary muscle strength to sit up unaided include:

  • Tummy time from day one to strengthen your baby’s neck muscles.
  • Lying on the floor and sitting your baby on your stomach. Then, prop your thighs up to support your baby’s head and back and use your hands to support their armpits.
  • Using Jumperoos and other sit-up toys.
  • Lap sitting.
  • Bouncing and tipping games.

2. Your child can stand with help

Standing is an amazing achievement in a baby’s life as it marks the beginning of their journey towards learning to walk independently. 

While it may not look like it, standing requires a large number of muscles in the legs, hips and stomach to work together.


How old should my child be?

It’s generally expected that children will be able to stand with help at some time between 5 – 12 months.

Activities for developing this skill

As standing uses a lot of the same muscles for sitting and crawling, there are a wide number of creative activities that can develop this gross motor skill in children. Here are some tips for encouraging your baby to meet this important milestone:

  • Keep your baby barefoot for as much time as possible. Being barefoot allows babies to feel the ground beneath them and better adjust their balance.
  • Encourage squatting by placing toys at your baby’s feet.
  • Opposingly, put your baby’s toys on chairs and low tables to motivate them to move upwards and downwards.
  • As babies learn a lot through watching others and imitating, play dates can be a fun way to encourage your baby to stand. Seeing other babies crawling, standing and walking can inspire a baby to try out these fascinating movements for themselves.
  • Encourage them! Encouragement is one of – if not the most – powerful motivator for children and adults alike. Cheering and clapping on your baby can help them recognise their achievement and continue building their new skills.


3. Your child can crawl on their hands and knees

Before your baby can explore the world, they first need to learn to crawl. Mobility opens up a near endless amount of opportunities for your baby to learn, play and have fun. 

Babies need a considerable amount of strength in their arms and back to crawl. Outside of being a sign that walking may be on the horizon, crawling is also a fundamental skill in its own right as it refines a baby’s coordination, balance and posture.


How old should my child be?

Babies will often start to crawl between 7 and 12 months.

Activities for developing this skill

Here are some activities that can help set your baby on the path towards crawling by strengthening the relevant muscles: 

  • Plenty of tummy time activities.
  • Reduce the amount of time spent in bouncers, swings and prams.
  • Ensure that your baby has a comfortable and safe place to explore.
  • Dress your baby in long sleeves and long pants to make scooting easier.
  • Lead by example! Get down on your knees and show your baby how to crawl.
  • Encourage your baby to build strength in their arms by playing with their hands elevated on pillows or furniture,
  • Set your baby up to play with some toys in front of a mirror. Seeing their reflection can encourage your baby to investigate the intriguing movements that the mysterious baby in the mirror is making.


4. Your child can walk with help

At its core, walking is a matter of confidence and balance.

Achieving the milestone of assisted walking is an exciting point in a child’s development and is a sign that your child’s muscles are steadily preparing for independent walking.

How old should my child be?

You can expect your baby to start walking with help sometime between 6 – 14 months.

Activities for developing this skill

Here are some activities to build up your baby’s muscles and confidence: 

  • Use safe walking toys, such as a push toy or a stable toddle truck.
  • Encourage your baby to pull themselves up from sitting by gripping furniture or your hand.
  • Dress your baby in comfy clothes that aren’t too bulky. 
  • Set up a safe environment with stable objects to encourage cruising. 


5. Your child can stand on their own

When a baby reaches this milestone, they have learnt how to balance themselves well enough to stand by themselves. They won’t stand with a wide gait anymore and will instead take a more relaxed-looking posture when standing solo.


How old should my child be?

Most children will start standing by themselves between 6-14 months.

Activities for developing this skill

To encourage your child to stand independently, try these following tips:

  • Play games that require standing.
  • Let your baby play in a safe area that has lots of stable surfaces of various heights.
  • When standing with support, softly tilt your baby’s head from side to side to help them develop head righting reactions.
  • Encourage play that requires two hands.
  • Show your baby how to fall on their hands.


6. Your child can walk on their own

Now that your baby is sitting, crawling and standing, you’re most likely waiting excitedly for the moment that they take the (not so metaphorical) leap and start walking.

Don’t be discouraged by stops and starts with walking or any other gross motor skills in children. It’s fairly common for young children to start walking only to seemingly abandon it in favour of crawling. Phases come and go, but all types of movement are important when it comes to fostering a baby’s muscle strength and physical endurance.


How old should my child be?

Babies will usually start to walk sometime between 10 and 18 months old. Most of the time, walking will occur around 2 to 3 months following a baby learning to stand up by themselves.

Activities for developing this skill

Help your baby reach this special milestone with these purposeful activities:

  • Sit your baby on a small stool and then encourage them to pick toys on the ground. When your baby reaches down and pulls themselves up, they are building the core muscles needed to start walking.
  • Offer your baby push toys that are both sturdy and suitable for the flooring in your home, whether it’s carpet or floorboards.
  • Encourage your baby to hold lightweight items when they are cruising.
  • Once your baby’s mobility improves, place toys in a trail to motivate them to walk.
  • Stand a little bit away from your baby and encourage them to walk towards you.


What if my child isn’t developing fast enough?

It’s not necessarily a cause of concern if your baby’s development occurs more slowly than the average time periods described above. Most developmental delays involving gross motor skills in children aren’t serious and will typically correct themselves over time.

If you are at all worried about your child’s development or notice other patterns in behavioural differences, consult your child’s GP or paediatrician.

Enquire about Aurrum Kids child care

We’d love for your family to explore our Mornington, Ballarat or Penrith centres and meet the team of educators supporting our early childhood learning environment. Contact us today to set up a time to visit one of our beautifully-built, sustainable child care centres and discover for yourself how our Reggio Emilia inspired, play-based learning curriculum can further support your child’s physical and mental development.