Gross motor skills are the skills we develop in coordinating and controlling our large muscle groups, especially in the limbs. They allow us to acheive movement, balance, and coordination.
Gross motor skills are often contrasted with fine motor skills:
- Gross motor: control over our large muscle groups for movements that require strength and speed.
- Fine motor: control over our smaller muscle groups for movements that require dexterity and precision.
Early childhood researchers find that gross motor skills tend to develop before fine motor skills in a process called proximodistal development. Below the examples section in this article, I will present a timeline of normal development of gross motor skills which is worth checking out.
Gross Motor Skills Definition
Gross motor skills refer to the skills required in controlling and coordinating the large muscle groups of the body, particularly those in the arms and legs.
According to Singleton and Shulman (2013):
“Gross motor skills refers to movements involving large muscles, such as trunk muscles used for sitting upright and leg muscles used for walking.”
These skills play an important role in a child’s physical development, particularly when it comes to the ability to move about independently and, later, participate in sports.
Gross motor skills are fundamental for activities like walking, running, jumping, and climbing, but are also crucial for everyday self-maintenance tasks like dressing, eating, and using the toilet.
A child’s gross motor skills typically develop in a sequential manner, starting from simple movements like rolling over and sitting up to more complex ones like running and jumping.
Gross Motor Skills Examples
- Walking: Walking requires the use of large muscles in the legs, along with the core muscles for stability. Note how it doesn’t rely primarily on smaller muscles in the hands and feet, but rather the larger muscles of the legs, to achieve motion. The act of walking requires weight-shifting of the body, balance maintenance across the whole body, and controlled full-body movement. This skill is typically developed during infancy (starting at about 1 year of age) and refined over time, becoming smoother and more coordinated with practice.
- Jumping: Jumping can be considered a gross motor skill because it activates the larger muscles of the legs to achieve a thrusting motion, rather than a motion that requires fine dexterity. It activated a quick and forceful extension of the legs. This action emerges once a child has developed sufficient strength in the lower body muscles, notably in the thighs and calves. Like walking, it also necessitates mastery of bodily balance and coordination of the legs to both thrust upward and land safely.
- Throwing: Throwing is a more advanced gross motor skill. Requiring the coordinated movement of larger muscle groups in the arms, body, and even legs, to propel an object forward. It requires a combination of strength, precision, and timing. The complexity of this skill is demonstrated in the fact that even in adulthood, professional baseball pitchers can throw at varying speeds and skill levels. The skill of throwing usually develops in stages. It starts with a simple pushing motion in early childhood. As children practice and develop muscle memory, this then advances to overhand and underhand throwing, and eventually into specialized throwing styles for sports such as javelin,.shotput, baseball, and football.
- Climbing: Climbing involves using the arms and legs to pull the body upwards. It can be as simple as a child learning to climb onto a couch or as complex as rock-climbing up a vertical or near-vertical surface. This gross motor skill requires strength, coordination, and a good sense of balance. Interestingly, this still often needs to be combined with the fine motor skills of the fingers to achieve excellent grip in order to prevent falling and gain leverage.
- Running: Running always occurs following walking, and represents a more complex thrusting and balancing motion whereby the child’s legs thrust the body entirely off the ground between strides, achieving faster movement. This gross motor skill engages the large muscles of the legs and core for propulsion and stability. It requires a higher degree of coordination, strength, endurance, and balance than walking.
- Crawling: Crawling is an early gross motor skill developed after rolling and sitting upright, but before walking. It represents the first gross motor that allows children significant ability to move about their surrounds. This skill engages large muscle groups, particularly in the arms, legs, and trunk, and tends to only emerge once the child has developed sufficient strength in these muscles. The process itself also helps to develop the requisite strength and coordination that will facilitate the progression to walking a few months after crawling is achieved.
- Hopping: Hopping refers to the action of jumping off a single foot and landing on the same foot. It is a more complex gross motor skill that develops after basic skills such as walking and running. This skill requires a good sense of balance, strength in the lower body muscles, and coordination. This may then progress to jumping with a skiprope, where the hop or jump needs to be coordinated with the turning of a rope and achieving timing and rhythm.
- Catching: Catching is a skill that involves intercepting and controlling an object, usually with the hands. This gross motor skill requires good hand-eye coordination, timing, and spatial awareness. It begins with a child being able to trap a slow-moving ball against their body, gradually progressing to catching with hands only. Catching is a fundamental skill for many ball games and sports.
- Riding a Bicycle: Riding a bicycle is a complex gross motor skill that requires a high degree of balance, coordination, and strength. It involves simultaneous coordination of steering with the hands and propelling with the feet. This skill often develops in early childhood and serves as a fun way for children to engage in physical activity, while also enhancing their spatial and navigational abilities. Bicycling also helps in building lower body strength and endurance.
- Swimming: Swimming involves propelling the body through water using coordinated movements of the arms and legs. This gross motor skill requires strength, endurance, coordination, and breath control. Different swimming strokes may further refine gross motor control, spatial awareness, and timing. Swimming not only serves as a vital life skill but also provides a comprehensive workout for the entire body.
Additional Gross Motor Skills List
- Kicking a ball
- Rolling (as in somersault)
- Doing a handstand
- Balancing on one foot
- Using a trampoline
- Paddling (as in a kayak or canoe)
- Climbing a ladder
- Pushing a toy car or a shopping cart
- Swinging on a swing set
- Hitting a ball with a bat
- Riding a scooter
- Sliding down a slide
- Doing jumping jacks
- Tossing a Frisbee
- Lifting heavy objects
- Hanging from a monkey bar
- Walking on tiptoes
- Jumping rope
- Doing a push-up
- Crawling through a tunnel
- Carrying a heavy backpack
- Jumping on a pogo stick
- Walking backwards
- Running an obstacle course
- Playing hopscotch
- Throwing a javelin or discus
- Walking on a balance beam
- Volleying a ball over a net.
Fine Motor Skills vs Gross Motor Skills
Gross and fine motor skills represent two core aspects of a child’s physical development.
The former – gross motor skills – relates to the activation of sizeable muscle groups, which facilitate bodily movement and control such as: balance, running, and jumping (Beach, Perreault, Brian & Collier, 2023; Ghassabian et al., 2016). These skills are indispensable for performing day-to-day tasks including climbing stairs and moving about..
In contrast, fine motor skills necessitate the nuanced control and coordination of the smaller muscles in the fingers, hands, and face. Fine motor competencies come to the fore when we undertake tasks requiring precision, such as writing, securing buttons on clothing, and using chopsticks.
Developmental theorist Arnold Gesell posited that the progression of motor skills unfolds in a definite sequence, starting with gross motor control and then proceeding to fine motor control. He called this proximodistal development (Adolph & Robinson, 2015).
The foundational premise of Gesell’s theory is that mastery over their large muscles, constituting gross motor skills, is attained by children initially, prior to gaining proficiency in tasks that demand a higher degree of precision.
Nevertheless, these categories of motor skills are not mutually exclusive. Often, these skills evolve in tandem (Haywood & Getchell, 2021; Payne & Isaacs, 2017).
Parents, caregivers, and educators should therefore encourage play activities that stimulate the development of both fine and gross motor skills at the same time.
|Gross Motor Skills||Fine Motor Skills|
|Muscles Used||Large muscles groups, especially in the arms, legs, and trunk.||Small muscles, particularly in the hands and fingers.|
|Key Skills||Walking, jumping, running, crawling.||Writing, buttoning, cutting with scissors.|
|Function||Allows movement and navigation through the environment.||Enables precision tasks and manipulation of small objects.|
|Examples||Climbing, throwing, swimming, hopping.||Eating with utensils, tying shoelaces, drawing, and crafting.|
Theories of Motor Skill Development
Developmental experts hold varying views about how motor skill milestones emerge in children.
1. Maturational Perspective
Some theorists postulate that motor development follows a predictable sequence that’s consistent among all children, essentially guided by innate biological factors (Beach, Perreault, Brian & Collier, 2023; Goodway, Ozmun & Gallahue, 2019).
This perspective, often termed as the maturational perspective, suggests that children across the globe would reach gross motor milestones like rolling, sitting, crawling, and walking around the same age, irrespective of their upbringing or environment.
2. Dynamic Systems Perspective
In contrast, dynamic systems theorists argue that motor development is a complex interplay of multiple factors, including individual, task, and environmental elements (Payne & Isaacs, 2017).
From this perspective, the exact timing of motor milestones could vary significantly among children based on their unique physical characteristics, motivation, and the physical and social environment they are exposed to.
3. Integrative Approach
Recent research supports a more integrative approach, recognizing the role of both intrinsic developmental processes and external influences in shaping motor development (Adolph & Robinson, 2015).
the integrative approach holds that development is influenced by the child’s intrinsic physiological and neurological maturation, but also significantly by external factors, such as the physical environment, cultural practices, and opportunities for exploration and practice. This approach posits that motor skills emerge as a child interacts dynamically with their surroundings and takes advantage of opportunities to experiment with movement.
Here’s how the integrative approach works with some of these factors:
- Individual characteristics: These include the child’s genetic makeup, rate of maturation, motivation, and temperament. For instance, a child’s physical size and strength can influence when and how certain gross motor skills, like walking or throwing, emerge (Goodway, Ozmun & Gallahue, 2019).
- Task demands: The specific requirements of a motor task can affect how and when a child masters it. For example, the skill of grasping will be different when picking up a small pebble versus a large ball (Ghassabian et al., 2016).
- Environmental context: Both the physical and social environment play a role. A child growing up with plenty of space to run and climb is likely to develop certain gross motor skills faster than a child without such opportunities. Similarly, cultural practices and parental encouragement can impact when and how children reach certain motor milestones (Beach, Perreault, Brian & Collier, 2023).
- Nonlinear periods of rapid acquisition: The integrative approach recognizes that motor development isn’t always a slow and steady progression. Sometimes, children may make sudden leaps in skill acquisition, often after periods of exploration and practice (Goodway, Ozmun & Gallahue, 2019).
Gross Motor Skills Milestones for Children
Above, I explored the concept that gross motor skills milestones need to be viewed with some degree of scepticism – various social, individual, cultural, and environmental factors affect children’s physical development.
Nevertheless, practitioners often like to see gross motor skills developing within a range in order to keep vigilant and ensure children are receiving optimal care (Beach, Perreault, Brian & Collier, 2023).
So, while there’s a general sequence in which these skills usually develop, outlined below, it’s important to remember that each child is unique and variations can occur.
- 0-6 months: In these early months, infants make significant strides in developing their gross motor skills. They begin by gaining control over their head and neck muscles and can usually lift their head while on their stomach. As neck control improves, they learn to turn their head towards sounds and movements. By 6 months, most infants are starting to roll over, initially from stomach to back. They also work on strengthening their arm, leg, and trunk muscles, which sets the foundation for the next significant gross motor milestone: sitting up (Berk, 2015).
- 6-12 months: This stage involves major progress. Babies begin to sit without support, bearing weight on their hands while on their stomach, which paves the way for crawling (Kehily, 2015). They can transition from sitting to being on all fours and can pivot and move in different directions. They also start pulling themselves into a standing position using furniture for support. Many infants take their first steps around their first birthday, although some may need a few more months.
- 1-2 years: Toddlers are now walking independently and steadily (Berk, 2015). They start to run, although they may often fall due to lack of balance and coordination. They can also climb stairs with assistance, initially using a two-feet-per-step approach, holding onto the railing or an adult’s hand. Playtime activities such as throwing and kicking a ball help refine their gross motor skills during this period.
- 2-3 years: Children at this age become more adept at running, and start to jump in place. Their balance improves significantly, allowing them to stand on tiptoe and even briefly on one foot (Berk, 2015). They can kick a ball more forcefully and are able to throw a ball overhand. Climbing skills improve, and they can now walk up and down stairs placing one foot on each step.
- 3-4 years: Children can now stand on one foot for a few seconds and hop (Berk, 2015; Kehily, 2015). They’re getting better at catching a bounced ball most of the time. Riding a tricycle becomes an enjoyable activity, contributing to their coordination and strength. They also begin to exhibit more complex gross motor skills like somersaulting.
- 4-5 years: At this stage, they can hop on one foot, catch a small ball using their hands, and climb well (Berk, 2015). Their balance and agility allow them to walk backward toe-heel and perform a heel-to-toe walk along a straight line. Skipping, though still challenging, starts to emerge. Some children may start learning to swim or ride a bicycle (Kehily, 2015).
- 5-6 years: Children can now skip, do a somersault, and learn to ride a bicycle (Kehily, 2015). They can also swing and climb on playground equipment with minimal assistance. Their running speed and agility improve, allowing them to participate more actively in games and sports.
These milestones give a general idea of the gross motor skills development in children. However, if there are concerns about a child’s motor development, it’s always best to consult with a healthcare provider or a physical therapist.
Gross motor development seems to occur within a general range, but not universally in the exact same fashion for all children. An integrative approach to motor development explains why: individual differences, task demands, and environmental contexts all play a roll in shaping when a child will develop gross motor skills. Nevertheless, as demonstrated by proximodistal development theory, it appears gross motor skills tend to emerge faster than fine motor skills on average. Examples of gross motor skills include crawling, walking, running, riding a bike, and jumping.
Adolph, K. E., & Robinson, S. R. (2015). Motor development. In R. M. Lerner (Ed.), Handbook of child psychology and developmental science (7th ed., Vol. 2, pp. 114-157). New York: Wiley.
Beach, P. S., Perreault, M., Brian, A., & Collier, D. H. (2023). Motor learning and development. Human Kinetics.
Berk, L. (2015). Child development. Sydney: Pearson Higher Education.
Ghassabian, A., Sundaram, R., Bell, E., Bello, S. C., Kus, C., & Yeung, E. (2016). Gross motor milestones and subsequent development. Pediatrics, 138(1).
Goodway, J. D., Ozmun, J. C., & Gallahue, D. L. (2019). Understanding motor development: Infants, children, adolescents, adults. Jones & Bartlett Learning.
Haywood, K. M., & Getchell, N. (2021). Life span motor development. Human kinetics.
Kehily, M. J. (2015). Introduction to Childhood Studies. London: McGraw-Hill Education.
Payne, V. G., & Isaacs, L. D. (2017). Human motor development: A lifespan approach. Routledge..
Singleton, N. C., & Shulman, B. B. (2013). Language development: Foundations, processes, and clinical applications. Los Angeles: Jones & Bartlett Publishers.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]