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Gross Motor Skill Development in Infants and Toddlers

During the first few years of life, children’s bodies grow stronger every day! As they develop, infants begin engaging their muscles and discovering new ways to move their bodies. These early movements are foundational to the development of gross motor skills, which utilize large muscles for important milestones such as rolling over, crawling, and walking. 

In this article, we explore gross motor development in infancy and toddlerhood, including a few ways that caregivers can support the little ones in their care as they grow strong and healthy through movement. 

Defining Gross Motor Skills

 Gross motor skills involve the movements made with large muscles, “like those in your legs, arms and torso”, according to an article and illustrated diagram posted by the Cleveland Clinic. “Gross, in this case, means ‘large’ and motor means ‘movement’. Walking and waving your arms are examples of gross movements.” 

Other gross motor skill movements include crawling, standing, jumping, and bending over. These skills support important functions related to movement, such as balance and coordination. Because movement is a part of everyday life, these skills are important for children to learn and practice as they grow. We want the little ones in our care to grow up to be strong and healthy, and supporting early gross motor skill development helps to create a strong foundation for them as they get older.

Developmental Milestones

Gross motor skill development begins in infancy, forming a foundation for further motor development throughout childhood. Below, you will find some of the key milestones in gross motor development that you might observe in infants and toddlers, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

Birth – 6 Months

In the first few months of life, children are already taking in the world around them. They are just beginning to get a sense of their ability to move and control their bodies, and they are starting to experiment with utilizing movement to explore their surroundings. 

  • Around 2 months, you might notice infants moving both arms and legs and holding up their head when placed on their tummies. 
  • By 4 months, you can often observe little ones using their arms to swing at toys, holding their head steady without support when being held, and pushing up onto elbows when placed on their stomachs. 
  • Around 6 months old, you might observe little ones rolling from tummy to back and leaning on their hands to support themselves while sitting. 

9 Months – 1 Year

As they begin to get stronger, you will notice infants trying out new kinds of movements with their bodies. 

  • By 9 months, you can often observe little ones maneuver to a sitting position by themselves and then sit without support.
  • Around their first birthdays, infants often pull themselves up to a standing position and begin to walk while holding onto furniture.

15 Months – 18 Months

After their first birthdays, infants become more mobile, as their bodies gain strength and they gain more confidence in their ability to move independently. 

  • Around 15 months old, you might observe little ones taking a few steps on their own.
  • By 18 months, children are often walking without holding on to anything, and can climb on and off a couch or chair without help.

2 Years – 3 Years

As children move towards their second birthday, they are on the move! Toddlers become faster and more skilled at moving their bodies in different ways to explore their environment. 

  • By 2 years old, little ones can often run, kick a ball, and walk up a few stairs without any help from a grown-up. 
  • Around 3 years old, toddlers will be able to start taking clothes off independently and jump off the ground with both feet. 

Supporting Skill Development through Play

As early learning professionals, there are many things that we can do to support the little ones in our care as they develop gross motor skills. A few simple suggestions are listed below. 

  • Turn on music and dance! Even during infancy, little ones often enjoy moving their body to different rhythms and tunes. Play upbeat, energizing music that encourages little ones to dance to the beat! 
  • Play catch. Playing catch is a simple way to encourage hand-eye coordination as children engage different muscles. Roll the ball back and forth while sitting with younger infants. With toddlers, you might gently toss the ball or even try kicking it back and forth to encourage them to use their arms and legs!
  • Encourage climbing. Set up your early learning space with large cushions or pillows that children can climb on. This is a fun way for them to strengthen large muscles in their bodies as they practice making big movements to move around the cushions. With toddlers, you might even make an obstacle course for them to climb around and navigate through!

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