toddler jumping

How To Help Your Toddler Develop Gross Motor Skills

Watching your toddler grow and learn can be an amazing experience. All parents want to see their children achieve to their fullest capabilities. Helping your toddler develop gross motor skills can be a great way to do just that.

If you’ve been looking for information on what they are and how to help your toddler to develop these skills, this is the article for you. Here we’ll take a look at the expected gross motor development markers and how you can help your child achieve them.

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What Are Gross Motor Skills?

Gross motor skills are capabilities your body has that are driven by large muscle groups. These are big, physical skills—walking, jumping, and running are all gross motor skills. Throwing and catching balls and basic balance skills also fall under gross motor skills. 

These are the large-scale counterpart to fine motor skills, which use small muscles, usually in the hands. Writing, painting, and precise movements are considered fine motor skills.

Why Are Gross Motor Skills Important?

Gross motor skills are the foundation building blocks to your child’s ability to do everyday things. Dressing, playing in the playground, and even climbing the stairs in your own home, rely on successfully learning gross motor skills.

These skills will help your child be able to integrate successfully with their peers and help keep them from getting hurt.

What Are the Expected Gross Motor Skill Markers?

Children don’t all follow an expected trajectory when it comes to hitting growth milestones. There are plenty of entirely harmless reasons your child may have missed an expected marker.

Children frequently focus on one area of growth at a time. If your toddler is a speaking prodigy, don’t be surprised if physical skills are a little behind where they should be.

If your toddler does have poor gross motor skills, talk with your pediatrician about possible reasons. Some of these can be easily corrected. A simple eye exam and a pair of prescription glasses may be all it takes to get them back on the expected trajectory.

Here are the gross motor skills you can expect your child to have, and when they may start achieving them:

  • Rolling over: Between 4 and 6 months old.
  • Sitting unassisted: Between 7 and 9 months old.
  • Crawling: Between 7 and 10 months old.
  • Cruising/walking: Between 10 and 12 months old.
  • Taking stair steps with alternate feet: By 3 years old.
  • Standing and jumping on one foot: Between 3 and 4 years old.
  • Climbing: Early climbing skills emerge between 3 and 4 years old, but sophisticated climbing skills typically don’t emerge until 6–7 years old.
toddler walking

Activities That Help Build Gross Motor Skills

When looking for activities that will help your toddler build gross motor skills, here’s what you want to target:

  • Body awareness: Also known as kinesthetic sense, this skill is the understanding of where the body is in relation to the space it occupies. This is the skill that helps you avoid walking into doorways or other people, and it can be easily cultivated through fun activities on the playground.
  • Balance: Balance will help your child tackle daily activities easily. Bilateral integration, crossing the midline, and hand-eye coordination are all related to the balance skill.
  • Muscle building: Helping your toddler improve the endurance and strength of their large muscle groups will make refining gross motor skills easier. Without muscle fatigue to worry about, they’ll be able to focus on growing their skill level.
  • Coordination: Balancing coffee, a diaper bag, and a bag of trash on its way out to the curb while you reach for your car keys? That’s all linked to coordination. Giving your child the opportunity to finesse their coordination skills and learn complex body processes will help improve their gross motor abilities.
  • Sensory processing: Though there may not seem to be a connection between sensory and physical development, they do intersect. Making sure your child is on top of their sensory processing can be a great way to improve their success with gross motor skills.

Here are some great activities to try out to help your toddler develop their gross motor skills.

1. Hopscotch

Hopscotch is a great way to encourage your child’s gross motor skill development. The classic way to play involves drawing a hopscotch board in chalk outside, but there are many variations to help keep things fresh. You can even find hopscotch rugs for rainy-day play in an indoor playspace.

The key to hopscotch is to offer alternating jump patterns. Encourage moments where your child will hop on one foot only and balance. This simple activity can build balance, muscle, and coordination—all while remaining fun.

2. Obstacle Courses

Obstacle courses are highly engaging. Not only do they usually offer physical challenges, but they engage the brain as well. The best thing about obstacle courses? You can use virtually anything you already own in creative ways while customizing the course to the exact needs of your toddler.

Looking for some ideas to help get you started on your first obstacle course? Here are some fun things you could consider including in your course.

  • Jumping from one defined space to another—door mats can be great for this, indoors or outdoors.
  • Crawling beneath a limbo-style bar—chairs and a broom work well in a pinch.
  • Doing a predetermined number of laps—burn off some energy and build muscle strength and endurance while creating your obstacle course route.

If you find that the newness of the obstacle course wears off, or you’re running out of ideas on what to incorporate, consider changing up the rules. Have your toddler go through the course while pretending to be an assigned animal. You can also have your children hold hands and work in pairs, or implement a speed challenge.

Don’t forget—taking your child’s ideas into account can make any activity seem more fun to them. Involve them in the planning of the activity and they may be more interested than ever.

3. Playground Equipment

It’s okay if you don’t have playground equipment of your own. Head to the local park and let your toddler use the public facilities. A public play area usually has the added benefit of being a social experience for your child—not only are they working on gross motor skills, they’re also building interpersonal abilities.

Using playground equipment can help exercise and improve virtually all gross motor skills. Balance, coordination, muscle strength, and endurance can all be improved on the playground. Older children can begin to safely build their climbing skills on approved equipment.

4. Throwing and Catching

Throwing and catching can be a great way to improve your toddler’s overall coordination and hand-eye coordination. You’ll be able to customize the activity to your child by using larger or smaller balls.

Think your little one isn’t quite ready for catching? This is an activity you can even use with a new sitter. Sit across from them and roll the ball back and forth. This can help encourage large muscle development and coordination.

child with soccer ball

6. Unsteady Surfaces

Using unsteady surfaces can help your child learn how to balance and teach their body to respond to sudden changes. This engages the muscle groups and can increase response time.

Unsteady surfaces don’t need to be fancy. Even pillows can work to provide a great unsteady surface for your child to crawl or walk on.

7. Swimming

Not only is swimming a useful skill to teach your child, it’s also a great way to help build gross motor skills. Water provides a new sensory experience and the act of coordinating breath and body movement increases body awareness and coordination.

When swimming, your child will also need to cross the midline and use bilateral integration. These are essential components of building gross motor skills. Swimming is also a full body exercise that works large and small muscle groups and will help your child build endurance.

8. Wheelbarrow Walking

The wheelbarrow walk is a great activity for building strength in the upper body while working on coordination skills. Children need to work in pairs for this activity, but an adult can be a great choice for the pushing.

To perform the wheelbarrow walk, you’ll hold your child’s lower half while they walk on their hands—just like a wheelbarrow. You can make small changes to where and how you hold your child to make this activity more challenging for them.

If you have a toddler who’s working on skills, you can make this activity easier by holding your little one near the waist. This allows you to support a greater amount of their weight. As your child becomes stronger and more advanced, you can hold their lower body near the ankles and let them support more of their own weight.

Gross Motor Skills for Future Success

Setting your toddler up for future success begins with building those early gross motor skills. These tips can have your child poised for future successes, and it’s not too early to start. Try the activities here and you’ll be amazed at how quickly you’ll see your toddler progress.

About the Author Ryan Howard

Ryan is a co-founder of Smart Parent Advice. When he isn't spending time with his wife, Cristin, or his two children, he can often be found running around on the tennis court.

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