Homeschooling Logo

Gross motor abilities: A developmental information

December 5, 2023
Homeschooling Blogs

What are gross motor skills? Gross motor skills involve the activation and coordination of large muscle groups in the torso, arms, and legs. These skills are on display during a number of activities, including

  • the muscle-powered actions we take to get from one place to another — locomotory movements like rolling, crawling, climbing, walking, running, jumping, hopping, skipping;
  • relatively stationary body movements, like swaying, waving, and twisting; and
  • manipulative gross motor behavior – as when we use our extremities (hands, arms, or feet) to roll, catch, throw, dribble, hit, or kick a ball.

In addition, gross motor skills include what researchers call “postural control.”

As noted by Karen Adolph and John Franchak, the most fundamental motor actions are postural — those tiny, stabilizing movements that allow us to maintain a position or hold ourselves steady (Adolph and Franchak 2017).

Think of it as the art of keeping your balance. Of fighting gravity with grace and control. When our babies learn to hold their heads up – or develop the strength and coordination to prop up their chests while lying on their bellies – they are exercising their gross motor abilities. Sitting without support is postural gross motor skill. So is standing.

And so is that “get ready” response that babies engage in when they are lying on their backs and they see that we’re about to pick them up. They tense their muscles in anticipation, and pull their heads towards their chests so their heads won’t snap backwards when we lift them. They also move their arms and legs in ways that make it easier for us to grab on (Fantasia et al 2016; Reddy et al 2013).

infant bracing for contact with mother, demonstrating gross motor skills

It’s a cool reminder of how motor development extends far beyond the obvious, showy movements we see when a young child is walking, or tossing toys across the room, or climbing the stairs. From the moment of birth, children are busy developing the postural control needed to keep steady and coordinate their movements with ours.

And with each new postural milestone, children unlock new possibilities.

For instance, it’s hard to reach for an object if you can’t keep your body steady. You lift your arm, and lose balance before you can grasp it. But once babies develop the ability to sit up by themselves, it’s a game changer. Now they can perfect the art of reaching – and explore objects with their hands (Rachwani et al 2019).

And from the toddler years through adolescence, good balance paves the way for better performance in areas like jumping and kicking (Ulrich and Ulrich 1985; Overlock and Yun 2006). In fact, studies indicate that exercise to promote balance control – jumping rope – can enhance the motor performance of adolescent soccer players and tennis players (Shi et al 2023; Zhao et al 2023; Trecroci et al 2015).

How do gross motor skills differ from fine motor skills?

Fine motor skills often involve the manipulation of objects, just as certain gross motor skills do. However, fine motor manipulations are distinctive because they depend on the coordination of small muscles – typically in the hand and eye – and they tend to require high precision and manual dexterity. For example, when you pick up a small item between your thumb and point finger (using the so-called “pincer grasp”) you are engaging your fine motor skills.

Does this mean that we can neatly categorize every motor action as either “fine motor” or “gross motor”? No, because many activities – such as reaching for an object – require a combination of fine and gross motor skills (Flatters et al 2014).

What does the timeline of gross motor development look like?

It starts during gestation. Babies move their arms, legs, and hands when they are in the womb. They learn to kick and wriggle and rotate – performing in utero “somersaults.” They learn extend their arms and bring their hands to their faces (so they can suck their thumbs).

These experiences probably lay the groundwork for future, postpartum motor development. As I note elsewhere, they might even account for the fact that newborn babies seem to know something about shapes and textures. They have already learned something about what stuff feels like — in this case, the “stuff” being their own body parts.

But the story takes a sudden turn once an infant is born. Now the baby has to contend with gravity in a big way. Most newborns can’t even hold up their own heads!

So from birth onwards, babies are challenged by gravity, and they tend to overcome it in a particular direction – developing their earliest motor skills in a “head to toe” manner (Adolph and Franchak 2017).

First comes the development of the neck muscles. Next, babies learn to control the upper torso, and then the lower torso. Once they’ve developed the ability to sit up without support, they experience the free hands needed to handle objects, which creates the opportunity to develop better-controlled arm and hand movements.

Eventually babies learn to pull themselves up into a standing position, and they take their first steps. Over time, young children master additional gross motor skills, such as running and jumping. We can get a general feeling for the overall trajectory of gross motor development by considering these examples.

Gross motor skills examples (by developmental stage)

Early infancy

  • Ability to lift up head while lying on belly (typically mastered by 2 months)
  • Ability to push up on forearms or elbows while lying on belly (seen in most babies by 4 months)
  • Ability to roll over (observed as early as 2 months, and present in most children by 6 months)

Later infancy

  • Sitting up without support (usually observed by 9 months)
  • Can pull self into standing position (by approximately 12 months)
  • Can walk around without assistance (usually achieved between 10 months and 18 months)
  • Can throw an object (beginning around 15 months)
  • Can walk up a few stairs (with or without help); run; and kick a large ball (present in most Western children by the age of 24 months)
  • Can jump in the air with both feet (typically present by 30 months)

Preschool age

  • Can catch a ball most of the time (usually by 4 years)
  • Can hop on one foot (usually by 4 years)

School age

  • Can learn to ride a bicycle without support (by 5-7 years)

For additional examples, see my article on motor milestones.

Does everybody hit gross motor milestones at the same time?

Definitely not! As I explain elsewhere, there is a lot of individual variation in the timing of motor development, and that applies to gross motor milestones as well as to fine motor milestones.

In part, this variation a reflection of differences in genetics. For instance, some babies appear to possess genes that contribute to hitting motor milestones at an earlier age. In addition, studies suggest that birth variables are linked with gross motor development. Babies with lower birth weights – and babies born pre-term – tend to experience slower development (Boonzaaijer et al 2021).

But a huge part of the developmental story is practice, practice, practice.

Children develop their gross motor skills in proportion to the time they spend engaging in movement, and physically challenging themselves. To see what I mean, consider cross-cultural differences in the timing of so-called “motor milestones.”

In cultures where caregiving practices restrict the movements of young infants, motor development follows a slower pace.

For example, among the Ache, a hunter-gatherer group in Paraguay, parents are reluctant to place their infants on the ground because of the perceived dangers (like predation risk). So babies are carried or held almost all of the time, and, consequently, most Ache children don’t become independent walkers until they are around 2 years old (Kaplan and Dove 1987).

Or consider infant care in Tajikistan, where it is traditional for babies to spend most of day swaddled and restrained in a “gahvora” cradle. Babies don’t get many opportunities to move around independently, and, as a result, Tajik children are slower to reach motor milestones (Karasik et al 2023).

On the other side of the coin, there are cultures where parents actively train their babies to develop gross motor skills – and these children achieve motor milestones earlier.

In places like Uganda and Kenya, babies are frequently held in an upright position and, with gradually decreasing levels of physical assistance, they are encouraged to practice sitting, standing, and walking. In dramatic contrast with norms in Western countries, the vast majority infants are able to sit up independently by 4 or 5 months (Karasik et al 2015). Many babies end up walking by 10 months.

Does this mean that anything is possible if we simply attempt to train children early enough?

No, because there are some very real physical constraints imposed by biology. For instance, young infants have large heads and chubby legs. Cute? Maybe. But these characteristics mean babies will topple over if they attempt to walk. To master bipedalism, their body proportions need to change, and their muscle-to-fat ratio needs to increase (Adolph 2008). Cultural training can speed up the development of certain motor skills, but there are still natural limits to what is possible.

Does sleep play a role in motor learning and development?

There is definitely a connection! Experimental research confirms that we perform worse on gross motor tasks when we’re not getting enough sleep, and this is true of babies as well as older folks. Moreover, studies suggest that well-timed sleep can help children consolidate newly-learned motor skills.

For instance, researchers have found that newly-walking infants are less likely to learn a gross motor skill task if their nighttime sleep is highly fragmented or disrupted (Horger et al 2021). And they are more likely to master a new gross motor task if they take a nap shortly after practicing it (DeMasi et al 2021).

So can we assume that good sleep contributes to faster motor development?

We can’t jump to that conclusion, not yet. We would need studies that track many children over the long-term, and have ways to pinpoint causation. But the correlations are consistent with the idea that good sleep is helpful. For example, in a study of more than 200 toddlers, the kids with more advanced gross motor development were the same kids who tended to sleep longer at night — and more consistently (Zhang et al 2022).

Is it true that kids experience “sleep regressions” when they are mastering new gross motor skills?

Sleep experts like Jodi Mindell tend to avoid the term “sleep regression,” because it is associated with the notion that children experience reversals in their sleep patterns at certain, fixed ages (such as a “4 month regression” or a “12 month regression”). Mindell hasn’t found any evidence for this kind of systematic, age-based trend.

But while there’s no support for a universal schedule, there is evidence that sleep tends to get disrupted around the time that a child achieving a new motor milestone, whenever that happens to be (Berger and Moore 2021; DeMasi et al 2023). So when our kids are learning to walk — or busy mastering another gross motor skill — we shouldn’t be surprised if their sleep becomes (temporarily) more restless.

What specific things can we to do foster gross motor skill development?

Give kids plenty of opportunities to exercise the large muscles of the torso, arms, and legs.

baby developing gross motor skills during tummy time

For babies under 6 months, this includes “tummy time” – time spent awake, lying on their bellies, while an adult supervises and plays with them. These experiences help babies develop neck strength, and studies report positive links between tummy time and the prompt achievement of early motor milestones, like rolling and crawling (Hewitt et al 2020).

How much “tummy time” should you aim for? The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents schedule 2 to 3 sessions each day, beginning with very brief sessions (3-5 minutes long, or even shorter, if your baby needs time to build up tolerance). The long-term goal? To reach 15-30 minutes of total, daily “tummy time” by the age of 7 weeks. Similarly, experts from Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the World Health Organization advice that babies under the age of 6 months get at least 30 minutes of daily, supervised “tummy time” (E Silva et al 2023).

As children get older, they need continuing opportunities to challenge themselves, including obstacles to climb, balls to toss and catch, and other physical goals to meet.

Not surprisingly, fun aerobic games and goal-based practice help preschoolers and school-aged children hone their gross motor skills (Hassan et al 2022). As we’ve seen above, even something as simple as jumping rope can yield important motor skill benefits.

What about gross motor skill delays?

Some children are slow to meet gross motor milestones, and in many cases, there is nothing going “wrong” developmentally. Kids develop at their own pace, and this means that some individuals will be slower than others.

But it’s important to monitor your child’s motor development, and talk to your pediatrician if you see signs of a delay. Pediatricians administer simple developmental tests to see if children are on track, and, when needed, they can refer families to specialists – like pediatric physical therapists and occupational therapists – who know how help kids “catch up.”

More reading about gross motor skills

For more evidence-based, cross-cultural information about gross motor development, check out these Parenting Science articles:

References: Gross motor skills in children

Adolph KE. 2008. Motor and physical development: Locomotion. In M. M. Haith & J. B. Benson, (Eds.), Encyclopedia of infant and early childhood development (pp. 359-373). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

Adolph K and Franchak JM. 2017. The development of motor behavior. Wiley Interdisciplinary Rev. Cogn Sci 8(12).

American Academy of Pediatrics. 2023. Back to Sleep, Tummy to Play. American Academy Of Pediatrics. Accessed at: https://www.healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/baby/sleep/Pages/Back-to-Sleep-Tummy-to-Play.aspx .

Berger SE and Moore CT. 2021. A time series analysis of the relation between motor skill acquisition and sleep in infancy. Infant Behav Dev. 65:101654.

Boonzaaijer M, Suir I, Mollema J, Nuysink J, Volman M, Jongmans M. 2021. Factors associated with gross motor development from birth to independent walking: A systematic review of longitudinal research. Child Care Health Dev. 47(4):525-561.

Butterfield SA, Loovis EM. Influence of age, sex, balance, and sport participation on development of kicking by children in grades K-8. Percept Mot Skills. 1994;79(1):691–7.

Christova M, Aftenberger H, Nardone R, Gallasch E. 2018. Adult Gross Motor Learning and Sleep: Is There a Mutual Benefit? Neural Plast. 2018:3076986.

Cordovil R, Mercê C, Branco M, Lopes F, Catela D, Hasanen E, Laukkanen A, Tortella P, Fumagalli G, Sá C, Jidovtseff B, Zeuwts L, De Meester A, Bardid F, Fujikawa R, Veldman S, Zlatar S, Estevan I. 2022. Learning to Cycle: A Cross-Cultural and Cross-Generational Comparison. Front Public Health. 10:861390.

DeMasi A, Horger MN, Scher A, Berger SE. 2023. Infant motor development predicts the dynamics of movement during sleep. Infancy. 28(2):367-387.

DeMasi A, Horger MN, Allia AM, Scher A, Berger SE. 2021. Nap timing makes a difference: Sleeping sooner rather than later after learning improves infants’ locomotor problem solving. Infant Behav Dev. 65:101652.

E Silva BFV, Sampaio SSS, Moura JR, de Medeiros CEB, de Lima-Alvarez CD, Simão CR, Azevedo IG, Pereira SA. 2023. “I Am Afraid of Positioning my Baby in Prone”: Beliefs and Knowledge about Tummy Time Practice. Int J Pediatr. 2023:4153523

Fantasia V, Markova G, Fasulo A, Costall A, Reddy V. 2016. Not Just Being Lifted: Infants are Sensitive to Delay During a Pick-Up Routine. Front Psychol. 6:2065.

Flatters I, Mushtaq F, Hill LJ, Holt RJ, Wilkie RM, Mon-Williams M. 2014. The relationship between a child’s postural stability and manual dexterity. Exp Brain Res. 232(9):2907-17.

Ganguly J, Kulshreshtha D, Almotiri M, Jog M. 2021. Muscle Tone Physiology and Abnormalities. Toxins (Basel). 13(4):282.

Hassan MA, Liu W, McDonough DJ, Su X, Gao Z. 2022. Comparative Effectiveness of Physical Activity Intervention Programs on Motor Skills in Children and Adolescents: A Systematic Review and Network Meta-Analysis. Int J Environ Res Public Health19(19):11914.

Hewitt L, Kerr E, Stanley RM, Okely AD. 2020. Tummy Time and Infant Health Outcomes: A Systematic Review. Pediatrics145(6):e20192168.

Horger MN, DeMasi A, Allia AM, Scher A, Berger SE. 2023. The unique contributions of day and night sleep to infant motor problem solving. J Exp Child Psychol 226:105536.

Kaplan H and Dove H. 1987. Infant development among the Ache of eastern Paraguay. Developmental Psychology, 23(2): 190–198.

Karasik LB, Adolph KE, Fernandes SN, Robinson SR, Tamis-LeMonda CS. 2023. Gahvora cradling in Tajikistan: Cultural practices and associations with motor development. Child Dev. 94(4):1049-1067.

Karasik LB, Tamis-LeMonda CS, Adolph KE, Bornstein MH. 2015. Places and postures: A cross-cultural comparison of sitting in 5-month-olds. J Cross Cult Psychol. 46(8):1023-1038.

Overlock JA and Yun J. 2006. The relationship between balance and fundamental motor skills in children. Journal of Human Movement Studies. 50. 29-46.

Rachwani J, Herzberg O, Golenia L, Adolph KE. 2019. Postural, Visual, and Manual Coordination in the Development of Prehension. Child Dev. 90(5):1559-1568

Reddy V, Markova G, Wallot S. 2013. Anticipatory adjustments to being picked up in infancy. PLoS One. 8(6):e65289.

Trecroci A, Cavaggioni L, Caccia R, Alberti G. 2015. Jump Rope Training: Balance and Motor Coordination in Preadolescent Soccer Players. J Sports Sci Med. 14(4):792-8.

Ulrich BD, Ulrich D. The role of balancing ability in performance of fundamental motor skills in 3-, 4-, 5-year-old children. Mot Dev Curr Sel Res.1:87–97.

Zhang Z, Okely AD, Pereira JR, Sousa-Sá E, Veldman SLC, Santos R. 2022. Associations of sleep characteristics with cognitive and gross motor development in toddlers. Sleep Health. 8(4):350-355.

Zhao Q, Wang Y, Niu Y, Liu S. 2023. Jumping Rope Improves the Physical Fitness of Preadolescents Aged 10-12 Years: A Meta-Analysis. J Sports Sci Med. 22(2):367-380.

Zi Y, VAN Beijsterveldt CEM, Bartels M, DE Geus EJC. 2023. Genetic and Environmental Effects on the Early Motor Development as a Function of Parental Educational Attainment. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 55(10):1845-1856.

image of boy balancing on log by Andrii Zorii / istock

image of mother kissing baby’s feet while baby braces for contact by PIKSEL / istock

image of baby engaged in “tummy time” by Yaoinlove / shutterstock

Related Posts

crossmenu