How to Help Kids Develop Locomotor Skills

three little children running in play room
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Locomotor skills are an important group of gross motor skills that kids begin to learn as babies. Walking—one of the biggest physical development milestones of all for young children—is the first locomotor skill. In walking and the other locomotor skills that follow it, the feet move the body from one place to another. These skills are the starting point for many sports and leisure activities, from soccer to golf to dance and more.

Types of Locomotor Skills

Roughly in order of how children learn them, the locomotor skills are:

  • Galloping: Traveling with one foot always in the lead
  • Hopping: Moving up and down on one foot
  • Jumping: Going up and down, with both feet in the air at once; can also mean jumping off a height or jumping forward
  • Leaping: Jumping forward or back with one leg outstretched; taking off on one foot and landing on the other
  • Running: Sometimes both feet are in the air while traveling
  • Skipping: Alternating steps and hops
  • Sliding: Galloping sideways
  • Walking: Moving with one foot on the ground at all times

When Locomotor Skills Develop

Most children learn to walk at approximately 1 year of age and to run, hop, and jump at age 2. They begin to master the more complex skills of galloping, skipping, sliding, and leaping at about age 3. Children need some instruction to learn these skills, especially the more challenging ones. Toddlers and preschoolers need lots of opportunities to practice these locomotor skills. Most will enjoy these "practice" sessions, like the games below.

Practice shouldn't feel like a workout class, just a fun playtime. Kids need freedom and space for this kind of play, so make sure their daycare or preschool is offering enough of those.​

Strategies

If you are concerned about your child's physical development, check with their doctor or your school district's early intervention program (in the U.S.). Try these activities at home.

Games

Make it a game. Simple activities, like follow the leader or Simon Says, can encourage physical play that builds skills. When you're walking anywhere with your child, show them how to vary their movements: Speed up, slow down, swing your arms, walk on tiptoe. Play modified (that is, simplified) versions of bigger kids' games that require locomotion, like relay races and hopscotch. On longer walks, incorporate challenging skills like galloping.

If you're indoors, try working on jumping from spot to spot or counting how many hops your child can do on first one foot, then the other. Show them how marching can lead to skipping, using high knees. 

Build Running Skills

Play racing games, and sports that involve running, such as soccer. Have your child run with a goal in mind: Saving their favorite stuffed animal from a pretend roaring river (really the hallway rug), for example.

Encourage Jumping

Let them jump in a place where it's usually not allowed, such as off their bed into your arms. Try a mini trampoline, or show them how they can jump safely from a surface that's just slightly elevated (like the beam edging a playground area). Then work up to higher surfaces. To help your child jump higher, tape target pictures to the wall and have them try to jump up and tag them. You can use any kind of pictures that will motivate your child.

Help With Skipping

Have your child skip while touching a wall to help them balance. Sing songs while skipping; the rhythm helps your child follow the step/hop, step/hop pattern.

Practice Galloping

Use a hula hoop around the waist like the reins on a horse. Start with you being the horse, inside the hoop, and your child as the rider. They're outside of the hoop, holding on to it, following you as you gallop forward. This way they can see how your feet are moving. Then switch and let them try being the galloping horse.

Work on Walking

Set up ropes or strips of tape and have your child walk between them, or place small objects (like beanbags) on the floor for them to step over. Draw wavy lines with chalk or tape and challenge them to follow them. Make footprints from paper and have your child follow them—or outside, let them step in puddles or snow and make their own prints, then follow them.

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