Gross Motor Skills

The abilities required in order to control the large muscles of the body for walking, running, sitting, crawling, and other activities are referred to as gross motor skills.

Motor skills are deliberate and controlled movements requiring both muscle development and maturation of the central nervous system. In addition, the skeletal system must be strong enough to support the movement and weight involved in any new activity. Once these conditions are met, children learn new physical skills by practicing them until each new skill is mastered.

Gross motor skills, like fine motor skills involving control of the fingers and hands, develop in an orderly sequence. Although norms for motor development were charted in great detail by researchers and clinicians over the second half of the twentieth century, the pace varies considerably from one child to the next. The more complex the motor skills are, the greater the possible variation in the age at which they are achieved by neurotypical, healthy children. The average ages for learning to roll over, crawl, and walk have a wide range for typically developing children. The age range for turning one's head, a simpler skill that occurs much earlier, is considerably narrower. An individual child's rate of progress varies as well, often including rapid spurts of development, protracted plateaus, and lengthy periods of delay. Although rapid motor development in early childhood is often a good predictor of coordination and athletic ability later in life, there is no proven correlation between a child's rate of motor development and cognitive abilities. In most cases, delay in mastering a specific motor skill is temporary and does not indicate a serious deficit.

Gross motor skills

Infancy and toddlerhood

The other pattern of both development and maturation is proximo-distal, or trunk-to-extremities. One of the first abilities an infant achieves is head control. Although they are born with virtually no head or neck control, most infants can lift their heads to a 45-degree angle by the age of four to six weeks, and they can lift both their head and chest at an average age of eight weeks. Most infants can turn their heads to both sides within 16 to 20 weeks and lift their heads while lying on their backs within 24 to 28 weeks. By about 36 to 42 weeks, or 9 to 10 months, many infants can sit up unassisted for substantial periods of time with both hands free for play.

One of the major tasks of gross motor development is locomotion, the ability to move from one place to another. The average time frames for gross motor development change with prevailing theories about best sleep positions. As most infants spend the majority of their time sleeping, the position in which this occurs plays a significant role in gross motor development. When the norm is back sleeping, as is the practice in the early 2000s, all gross motor milestones (generally speaking) occur later than they do when children sleep on their stomachs. Infants progress gradually from rolling over to creeping on their stomach and dragging their legs behind them to actual crawling on all fours. While infants are learning these temporary means of locomotion, they are gradually becoming able to support increasing amounts of weight while in a standing position. Near the end of the first year of life, babies begin pulling themselves up on furniture or other stationary objects. By around 12 to 14 months, they generally begin cruising, or navigating a room upright by holding onto the furniture to keep their balance. Eventually, they are able to walk while holding on to an adult with both hands and then with only one. They usually take their first uncertain steps alone between the ages of 11 and 15 months and are competent walkers by the ages of 16 to 18 months. By the age of two years, the majority of typically developing children have begun to display a range of gross motor skills. They can run fairly well and negotiate stairs by holding on to a banister with one hand and putting both feet on each step before going on to the next one. Most toddlers this age climb, some very actively, and have a rudimentary ability to kick and throw a ball.


During the first two years in children's lives, most caregivers consider gross motor skills a central focus of development; a child's first steps are a universally celebrated developmental milestone. By the time a child is a preschooler, many caregivers shift the focus of their attention to the child's cognitive development in preparation for school. In addition, gross motor activity at these ages requires increasing amounts of space, equipment, and supervision. However, maintaining a child's love for physical activity can make an important contribution to future fitness and health.

By the age of three, healthy, neurotypical children walk with good posture and without watching their feet. They can also walk backwards and run with enough control for sudden stops or changes of direction. They can hop, stand on one foot, and negotiate the rungs of a jungle gym. They can walk up stairs alternating feet but usually still walk down putting both feet on each step. Other achievements may include riding a tricycle and throwing a ball; most children have trouble catching a ball because they hold their arms out in front of them regardless of the direction the ball is thrown from. Four-year-olds can typically balance or hop on one foot, jump forward and backward over objects, and climb and descend stairs alternating feet. They can bounce and catch balls and throw with a fair degree of accuracy. Some four-year-olds can also skip. By the age of four, children may become self-conscious about their motor abilities. They experience feelings of pride and success when they master a new skill, and they may harbor feelings of inadequacy when they think they have failed. This concern with success can also lead them to try risky or dangerous activities beyond their abilities, so they need to be monitored carefully.


In adolescence, coordination and motor ability increase, along with physical strength and endurance. Adolescents are able to develop better distance judgment and hand-eye coordination than their younger counterparts. With practice, they frequently master the skills necessary for adult sports.

See also Child development ; Developmental psychology; Fine motor skills ; Infancy .



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