What are “gross” motor skills, anyway? I mean, anything with “gross” in its name sounds, well…gross. But in this case, “gross” doesn’t mean disgusting. It doesn’t mean twelve dozen. And, it doesn’t even mean total or whole, as in gross profits.
“Gross” in this case simply means large. I have no idea why they didn’t just name them large-motor skills from the get-go, but it is what it is.
Simply put, a motor skill is an action that happens when the nervous system and muscles work together. Gross-motor skills are larger movements that involve your arms, legs, and torso. Starting from birth, skills include rolling over, crawling, walking, running, jumping, climbing…even bike riding.
Motor-skill development begins in the womb, and improves steadily after a child’s birth. As with fine-motor skills, gross-motor skill development follows a predictable path.
In the first weeks, early signs of gross-motor development include wiggling and kicking, and thrusting arms and legs in play. Movements will be uncoordinated at first, but will become more coordinated over time as the child starts to gain more body control.
Once neck muscles strengthen sufficiently, a baby can begin lifting his or her head for brief periods of time, perhaps even turning it from side to side. This gross-motor milestone begins to emerge later than it once did. That’s because babies used to be put down to sleep on their stomachs, so a child naturally would have more practice lifting up his or her head to look around. Then, the American Academy of Pediatrics found that the incidence of SIDS was dramatically reduced when babies were put down on their backs to sleep. The AAP even developed a motto for parents to heed: Back to sleep. So now, since babies typically lie on their backs, they don’t lift their heads as much. Neck muscles are slower to strengthen, and the milestone doesn’t begin to emerge until at least month 1 (not the newborn month). At around 2 months of age, a baby typically is able to hold his or her head steady when sitting.
Tummy-time sessions help strengthen neck muscles. Just be sure they’re always supervised.
A few months later, a child begins making crawling movements and can able to pivot around when lying on his or her stomach.
Next, a major gross-motor milestone typically is met, thanks to improved upper body strength: rolling over from stomach to back. A month later, the child can complete the trip, rolling over from back to stomach.
On the move
At around 7 months of age, a baby is able to sit alone without support. Soon, that baby is busy trying to figure out how to move forward in some way. Typical strategies include wriggling, lunging, or pulling with one or both arms. No matter what method is used, it ultimately will lead to another huge gross-motor milestone: crawling on hands and knees.
Crawling isn’t the only big milestone to emerge when a child is around 9 months old. Once mobile, the child’s next goal is to get vertical. So after crawling to something that can be grabbed onto, they will begin to pull up to a standing position.
A month later, the child will begin taking tentative sideways steps while holding onto the playpen or furniture. As coordination improves and leg muscles (and confidence) strengthen, the child learns to stand alone, steady—albeit briefly, at first.
Walk this way
And then, somewhere between months 10 and 15, when a child’s muscle strength, coordination and balance all align, they will summon the courage to take those first shaky steps, unassisted. Walking is perhaps the most anticipated gross-motor skill of them all.
Before you know it, what started as a clumsy gait will turn into a full-on run.
Climbing up on stairs, chairs, or other furniture is the next major gross-motor milestone. He may climb the stairs, but probably cannot get down; she may climb onto a chair but will end up in it backward. It’s important to create a climber-friendly setting to limit accidents.
A balancing act
As gross-motor skills continue to improve, along with running and jumping, a child may even be able to stand on one leg. With balance comes the ability to kick a ball forward without falling down.
By around month 20, balance—that ability to keep straight and level while performing both simple and complex motor skills—is improving, leading to improved coordination and boosted self-confidence. A child runs well, and seldom falls—impressive, considering the child was just learning to walk not all that long ago. Now, both sides of the body are moving quickly and almost effortlessly in opposite motions. Such coordination indicates that both sides of the brain are communicating well and sharing information effectively.
At about 2 years of age, a child is ready to tackle the stairs. They will use two feet per step with a pause before continuing. Going up is easiest—fighting gravity slows forward motion, giving time to properly position the body.
A month later, the child has transferred stair-climbing skills to the playground—a great place to observe a child’s gross-motor development progress. Ladders—both solid and rope—are a great alternative to stairs, giving the child the opportunity to climb another way.
At around 2-1/2 years of age, a child is able to stand on one foot (for a few seconds) without support. This stability can be attributed to strengthening core and leg muscles and improved balance.
Meanwhile, the child has made good progress going up and down stairs a step at a time by putting both feet on each step before continuing. By age 3, with ever-improving gross-motor skills and balance, the child may be emboldened to try one foot per step while holding onto a railing, a banister or an adult’s hand.
Going up is attempted first. Even after that’s mastered, it may be several more months before the child feels comfortable using one foot per step going down. Invariably, kiddos jump off the bottom step to reach the floor. It’s in their DNA. 🙂