improve your child's gross motor development: child holding up their painted hands

Big muscle development – also called gross motor development – refers to the development of the large muscle groups of the body (legs, arms and torso) which are responsible for the whole body’s movement. This includes everyday movements like sitting, crawling, standing, walking, running and jumping, as well as coordinated activities such as ball skills, skipping, swimming or riding a bike.

How do gross motor skills develop?

Gross motor development is foundational for many functional tasks and starts emerging soon after birth. Babies transition from reflex movement to more controlled voluntary movement as they reach various milestones – this includes being able to hold up their head independently, roll, sit, crawl, stand and walk. As babies progress to toddlers, gross motor skills become more controlled and advanced and they are able to do things like jump, hop, balance, climb, run, throw and catch. As they get older, these skills advance from general to specific as they gain more strength and coordination.

The development of the large muscles of the core, arms and legs can provide stability, enabling smaller muscle development which allows for more controlled, precise and accurate movements.

child painting a picture

You can’t expect a child to do things like write or draw when they haven’t developed the ability to maintain an upright posture while seated at a desk. Children develop motor skills from the center of their bodies outward – the head, torso, arms and legs develop before the fingers, toes and other small muscles.

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Why gross motor development is so important in early childhood:

  • It allows children the ability to move and gain control of their own bodies in order to complete tasks independently (e.g. to develop core stability in order to maintain a seated posture while using the toilet)
  • It helps children build strength and endurance, which assists them in maintaining good posture and performing functional tasks
  • It promotes healthy growth and better concentration through physical activity
  • It enables them to actively explore their environment and the world around them, which enhances learning on a sensory, cognitive and language-based level
  • It allows them to feel confident in their own ability and keeps them motivated to try and perform or refine new skills

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4 fun activities that will improve your toddler’s gross motor development:

One of the best ways to encourage gross motor development in toddlers is to create a DIY obstacle course which encourages whole body movements such as crawling, climbing, balancing, jumping, hopping, throwing and catching. When your toddler is still young (12 – 18 months), you will need to build the course for them and help them execute it. But, as they get older and more independent, you can encourage them to create their own obstacle course.

four toddlers practising gross motor development activities

If we don’t monitor our baby/toddler’s gross motor development through reaching of basic milestones, we may miss signs of developmental. It’s important to speak to a physiotherapist or an occupational therapist if you suspect your child has any delayed gross motor milestones.

Nanny ’n me was started in Cape Town in April 2012 by Lara Schoenfeld, an Occupational Therapist and mom of three boys. With a passion for creativity, a love for little people and nannies as well as experiencing the struggle of being a working mom, the idea was born. There was also the realisation that most nannies have never had the opportunity as children to paint or to build puzzles themselves and may feel reticent to have to initiate such activities with the child they care for.