Gross Motor Skill Development and Delays in Childhood

Six boys jump on playground structure.

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Acquiring motor skills is an important part of child development that allows children to participate in physical activities and achieve age-appropriate developmental milestones. These skills also require motor planning—that is, the ability to think through and act upon a plan for motion.

For example, if a child has the strength and muscle tone to climb the ladder of a slide, but they can't place their feet in the right spots and in the right order to reach the top, they may have poor motor planning skills. Here is what you need to know about gross motor skills.

What Are Gross Motor Skills?

Gross motor skills are those used to move the arms, legs, and torso in a functional manner. These skills involve moving the large muscles of the body in order to perform actions such as walking, jumping, kicking, sitting upright, lifting, and throwing a ball.

Gross motor skills are distinguished from fine motor skills—​the ability to use hands and feet for complex, small muscle activities. Even though these sets of skills may appear similar, since they both involve using muscles and motor planning, they are actually controlled by different parts of the brain.

Developmental Milestones for Gross Motor Skills

It can be tricky to determine whether your child is meeting the full set of developmental guidelines. Perhaps surprisingly, very young children should be able to manage rather complex gross motor tasks.

By age: Your child should be:
2 years
Walking smoothly, starting to run, and using stairs without support
3 years
Climbing (e.g., on a jungle gym), pedaling a tricycle, and walking on tip-toe
4 years
Able to kick in a directed manner, throw (overhand/underhand), and hop

If a Child Is Late Reaching a Milestone

All children develop at different rates. Lists of developmental milestones provide a general idea of when children acquire these skills and in what order. Just as with other skills, there may be considerable individual differences when it comes to gross motor skill development.

Some kids may hit these milestones quite early, while others may not achieve them until later. If your child is behind the targets listed above, they may just need more time to catch up.

But it's also possible that gross motor skill delays could be due to a medical condition. For example, low muscle tone (hypotonia) is a characteristic of Down syndrome, as well as some muscle and central nervous system disorders.

Reasons for Gross Motor Skills Delays

In order to develop gross motor skills, kids need to have certain abilities and master certain concepts. These include:

  • Muscle strength/tone
  • Balance
  • Coordination
  • Stability and posture
  • Motor learning

If your child seems to be struggling with gross motor skills, it could be a sign of a problem that requires intervention and treatment. Talk about your concerns with your doctor if you believe there might be a physical problem interfering with your child's gross motor skill development.

If your child seems to be far behind their peers, a conversation with your pediatrician is a good idea.

What to Do If You Suspect a Delay

Your physician will monitor your child's gross motor development during regular checkups to ensure that they are meeting developmental milestones. However, contact your doctor immediately if you notice changes in your child's ability to perform movements or skills that they used to be able to do.

Parents and teachers may very well be the first to notice problems, as they observe a child's actions every day.

Evaluation by a pediatrician, as well as a physical therapist or occupational therapist, can determine how severe the problem is and begin the process of establishing a helpful course of therapy to improve your child's gross motor skills.

Interventions for Motor Skills Delays

The treatment that's recommended will depend on the type, severity, and nature of the delay.

In some cases, gross motor skill delays may not require specific intervention and will resolve as the child continues to grow. In other cases, your doctor may recommend home exercises or physical therapy to improve strength, muscle tone, coordination, balance, and body control.

For children in academic settings who have an Individualized Education Program (IEP), an 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.

Why It's Important to Address Delays

Gross motor skills play an important part in a child's development, and these abilities tend to build upon each other progressively. Learning to walk, for example, allows children to develop more advanced skills such as running and jumping.

There are a number of reasons why gross motor skills are so critical to child development and why it is so important to address delays as early as possible.

Gross Motor Ability Is a Critical Life Skill

Gross motor skills are important for major body movement such as walking, maintaining balance, coordination, and reaching. These abilities share connections with other physical functions. Such skills are important for play, sports, and fitness. They are also connected to other actions necessary for daily living and academic success.

Everyday functions such as walking and playing, as well as vital self-care skills such as getting out of bed and climbing stairs, are dependent upon gross motor skills.

Gross Motor Skills Can Impact Academic Skills

Delays in gross motor skills can also lead to problems with fine motor abilities. A child's ability to maintain upper body support, for example, will affect their ability to write.

Writing is a fine motor skill, but many aspects of it hinge on gross motor movements. 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 whiteboard.

Early intervention is also important because gross motor development may have an impact on a child's cognitive and motor abilities as they grow older. In one study looking at children with learning disabilities, researchers found poor gross motor skills were linked to learning lags, including problems with reading and math.

A Word From Verywell

Children grow and develop in stages and as with other skills, motor skills develop from infancy through elementary school years.

Monitoring the development of these gross motor skills is a good way to determine if your child is on track, but it is also important to remember that all kids develop at different rates. Some children might achieve a milestone such as walking by nine months of age, while others may several months past their first birthday before they achieve this milestone.

If you do suspect that your child may have a delay in gross motor development, discuss your concerns with your child's pediatrician.

1 Source
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Westendorp M, Hartman E, Houwen S, Smith J, Visscher C. The relationship between gross motor skills and academic achievement in children with learning disabilities. Res Dev Disabil. 2011;32(6):2773-2779. doi:10.1016/j.ridd.2011.05.032

Additional Reading

By Ann Logsdon
Ann Logsdon is a school psychologist specializing in helping parents and teachers support students with a range of educational and developmental disabilities.