Learn About Gross Motor Skills Development

Delays can cause serious problems

Boys jump on playground structure.
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Gross motor skills are the skills we use to move our arms, legs, and torso in a functional manner. Gross motor skills involve the large muscles of the body that enable such functions as walking, kicking, sitting upright, lifting, and throwing a ball. A person's gross motor skills depend on both muscle tone and strength. Low muscle tone, or hypotonia, is a characteristic of several disabling conditions such as Down syndrome, genetic or muscle disorders, or central nervous system disorders.

Gross motor skills also require motor planning—that is, the ability to think through and act upon a plan for motion. A person with poor motor planning abilities may have the strength and muscle tone to climb a ladder, for example, but may not have the ability to place their hands and feet in the right spots in the right order so as to safely and successfully reach the top.

Gross motor skills are distinguished from fine motor skills—​the ability to use hands and feet for complex, small muscle activities. So, for example, while gross motor skills involve running and jumping, fine motor skills are used for such activities as writing and drawing.  While these sets of skills may appear similar, they are actually controlled by different parts of the brain.

Developmental Guidelines

If you have just one child, and that child has developed at least some gross motor skills, it can be tricky to determine whether he is meeting developmental guidelines. Perhaps surprisingly, very young children should be able to manage rather complex gross motor tasks.  Specifically:

  • By 2 years old, a child should be walking smoothly, starting to run, and climbing stairs without support.
  • By age 3, a normally developing child can climb a jungle gym, pedal a tricycle, and tip toe
  • By age 4, your child should be able to kick in a directed manner, throw over and underhand, and hop. 

Of course, children do develop at different rates; some are talented in gross motor activities while others lag a bit. If your child seems to be far behind her peers, however, a conversation with your pediatrician is a good idea.

Gross Motor Ability is a Critical Life Skill

Gross motor skills are important for major body movement such as walking, maintaining balance, coordination, jumping, and reaching. Gross motor abilities share connections with other physical functions. A student's ability to maintain upper body support, for example, will affect his ability to write. Writing is a fine motor skill. Students with poor gross motor development may have difficulty with activities such as writing, sitting up in an alert position, sitting erect to watch classroom activity, and writing on a blackboard.

Addressing Gross Motor Weaknesses

If you suspect your child has gross motor weaknesses that may affect his education, discuss this possibility with your child's IEP team. Evaluation by a physical therapist or occupational therapist can determine how severe the problem is and provide therapy to improve your child's gross motor skills.

The IEP team will use therapists' assessments and other evaluation data to determine if your child needs regular therapy as a related service. If your child needs therapy to benefit from specially designed instruction, these services will be written into the individual education program.

Children grow and develop in stages, and you should learn about child development and how motor skills develop from infancy through elementary school years.

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