Ages & Stages: How Children Develop Motor Skills

With practice, patience, and support, young children's motor skills grow by leaps and bounds!

  • Grades: Early Childhood, PreK–K

Stage by Stage 0 - 2

  • Locomotion begins when a baby can turn onto her tummy and pull herself forward with her arms.
  • By eight months, babies may be grasping objects and pushing forward on their hands and knees.
  • One-year-olds, learning to stand unsupported, are gaining muscle control in their backs and legs.

Stage by Stage 3 - 4

  • Preschoolers love high-energy, outdoor activities.
  • Threes and 4s enjoy working with a variety of media as they exercise their fine motor skills.
  • Developing eye-hand coordination helps preschoolers fine-tune their creations.

Stage by Stage 5 - 6

  • Dramatic growth in the development of physical skills often takes place during the kindergarten year.
  • Five- and 6-year-olds' emerging physical abilities also increase their capacity to learn new cognitive skills.
  • Games become more appealing to kindergartners as their physical skills become more finely tuned.

0 to 2 "I REACH IT!" by Carla Poole

Six-month-old Gaby gurgles as she lies on her stomach and kicks her legs. Her teacher sits on the rug and offers her an interesting toy. Gaby pushes up with her arms and lifts her head to get a good look at it. Valiantly shifting her weight onto one arm, Gaby reaches for the toy and holds it for a few moments. But much to her surprise, she loses her balance and rolls onto her back. Quickly regaining composure, Gaby thinks, "Wow, I still have the toy!"

Spending lots of floor time with a baby lying on her back or stomach helps her develop coordination, balance, and muscle strength during her earliest months. And after many weeks of focused concentration and practice, a baby will be able to reach and grasp objects, support her body weight on her arms, and roll over.

Moving Along!

Locomotion enters a baby's life when she begins to pivot on her tummy and creep by pulling herself forward with her arms. A baby is no longer dependent on others to change her location or position. She can make choices in her explorations and move toward an object that interests her. She can also communicate by moving toward things she wants or needs.

Sitting and Reaching

Eight-month-old Lola sits on the rug, eyeing a colorful toy just out of her reach. She leans over, picks up the rattle, and shakes it with glee! Lola's back muscles have developed enough for her to have stability while sitting. Now she can shift her weight, reach across her body and grasp an object. Soon she will push herself forward onto her hands and knees.

Cruising and Standing

One-year-old Skylar sits on the rug as he busily pulls apart pop beads. He sees his friend cuddling on the sofa with a teacher. Wanting to join the fun, he grabs onto the sofa, pulls himself to standing, and cruises along the edge moving toward his friends. As he begins to stand unsupported, the strength and control in his back and leg muscles increase. Next, he'll push a small wooden chair or sturdy push toy across the room. And finally, he'll take his first steps.

Walking Is Powerful!

It is such a dramatic shift when a toddler begins to walk independently. He marches to the tune of his own drummer, quickly moving from object to object, eager to explore the world! Yet he also needs to know that a caring adult is nearby to provide encouragement and security.

A Supportive Environment

The physical environment plays a key role. There should be open spaces so infants can roll and early walkers can toddle without bumping into things. Three or four carpeted steps and a short incline help them understand spatial relationships and how to move themselves up and down. A sturdy chair with arms helps the toddler learn how to get in and out of the sitting position.

What You Can Do

  • Play chasing games to encourage movement.
  • Provide soft music to encourage listening and moving.
  • Make toddler obstacle courses with pillows or baskets, which the child has to walk around.

 

3 to 4 "WATCH ME!" by Susan A. Miller, Ed.D.

Steve and Todd, 4 years old and best friends, enthusiastically grab a soccer ball, then quickly set up two orange cones to create a goal for their game. At first, they take turns, running fast and kicking the ball forward toward the goal. Then they practice stopping the ball with their feet and passing it back and forth before aiming for the goal again. They cheer loudly whenever they "score!" After watching the older boys' game, 3-year-old Natalie decides to try soccer, too. She happily kicks the ball in the general direction of the cones and laughs and hops around the ball when it stops!

Setting Their Sights on Skills

Preschoolers love to use pretend play to mimic the athletic activities of their big brothers and sisters, or the players they see on television. Such play enhances their emerging skills, and it's only natural that 4-year-olds like Steve and Todd, who can run fast, come to quick stops, and move easily around obstacles, like to practice fancy footwork with a soccer ball. They enjoy games that require quick gross motor reactions. Constantly on the move, these same boys will later zoom away on their "super chrome machines," or tricycles. Using their arm muscles to steer, they maneuver turns and corners with great confidence, skillfully avoiding oncoming "aliens." Four-year-old boys, in particular, love participating in bold, high-energy, outdoor activities with their friends.

Developing Fine Motor Skills

Care must be taken not to tire or frustrate 3-year-olds with activities that require too much concentrated hand-eye coordination. As their fine motor skills develop, however, they will be able to handle a wider range of physical manipulations, such as holding a crayon between two fingers and a thumb (the way an adult would) while drawing circular shapes, crosses, and the early stages of more-intricate designs on large paper. At the easel, 3-year-olds may still wish to cover an entire piece of paper with large paint strokes, but their improved hand-eye coordination helps them see and stay within the paper's boundaries.

Threes greatly enjoy patting, splatting, squeezing, and molding play dough and damp sand for fun or making simple things like mud pies and spaghetti. Intensely involved as he builds with colored manipulative materials, 3-yearold Robby demonstrates how skillfully he can pick up and release small objects with his well-developed pincher grasp. He excitedly reports his actions: "Help! The Blue Ranger [a small figurine] is falling down in the stinky house [the Lego building he made). Let's go! I must pick up the sleeping Red Ranger from his [Lego] bed."

Mixing Up Media

Fours are also busy using their fine motor skills and improving their hand-eye coordination in the art and writing centers. Now they can cut on lines with scissors. Jenny enjoys cutting apart a simple, recognizable picture she drew of herself and putting it back together again, just as she would a puzzle. Many 4s show interest in using markers as they attempt to print numbers and letters in big capitals. Often they'll use a variety of manipulative media (finger paint, crayons) to spontaneously draw something that may, in fact, turn out to be something else! (Four-year-old Josh takes great pleasure in using his keen fine motor skills to string various colored beads in the order shown in a sample so that he can create a "sonic necklace" to wear with his buddies.)

What You Can Do

Get children moving! Build movement into routines throughout the day. Sing action songs to help make transitions easy. Pick up and carry the blocks during cleanup. Vigorously scrub the tables with soapy sponges before and after snacks.

Offer a wide range of gross motor equipment. To keep children interested, use different items to strengthen large arm muscles (parachutes to move in the air, bean bags to toss, climbers to pull up on) or to perfect gross leg movements (swings to pump, big balls to kick, trikes and scooters to push).

Adapt materials. Offer items appropriate for different skill levels so children feel challenged but not frustrated. Look at children's motivation and persistence for a physical activity. To enhance ball-handling skills, for example, provide a basket of balls that offer children choices-a big rubber ball, a Nerf football, a fluffy pom-pom ball, light Ping-Pong balls.

 

5 to 6 "I CAN KICK IT FAR!" by Ellen Booth Church

Ms. McLaughlin quickly scans the kindergarten classroom, and smiles. Sierra is happily writing in her journal, John and Alize are carefully balancing a block on the top of their high tower, Ben is typing on the computer, and a small group is practicing the class-learned yoga postures in the quiet area. What a difference a year makes when it comes to emerging physical skills!

A quick look around your group will show just how much children have grown and changed this year. Remember those little ones who walked through the kindergarten door last fall? They have all grown in size and skills, and now most are ready for first grade. It can be hard to believe how much help they needed with such simple things as dressing at the beginning of the year, and how independent and capable they are at writing letters and words now! The development of physical skills that use both small and large muscles during kindergarten represents one of the biggest growth spurts of the early years. Children go from having very simple physical abilities to very complex ones in just one year. Learning to snap their fingers or swing hand over hand on the monkey bars is a huge achievement, considering that at the beginning of the year they couldn't button or tie and had difficulty climbing stairs.

From Preschool to Big School

When it comes to large-muscle development, kindergartners might even look different at this point in the year. Children tend to stretch out in size, moving with a mature stance and gait. The wider (and more confident) steps of a child who is getting ready to move up to the "big school" replace the little steps of the early years. Developmentally, most kindergartners can now skip, catch and throw a ball, hop and balance on one foot, ride a small bike, and walk down stairs alternating their feet. Their confidence in their physical skills makes 5- and 6-year-olds interested in games like hopscotch and jump rope, and in sports like T-ball and swimming. Children often become interested in dance at this stage. This is a good time to introduce children to these noncompetitive physical activities, which are ideally both challenging and supportive. Now is the time to celebrate what children can do with their bodies in a nurturing environment at school and home.

Making Brain Gains

Recent brain research shows that exercising large-muscle groups is good for the brain. Active sports and games oxygenate the blood and feed the brain. Children who swing their arms independently and cross them from one side to the other are actually balancing both the right and left side of the brain. Evidence suggests that these increased activities have a strong effect on a child's ability to learn.

Small Is Big

At this stage of development, the improvement and mastery of small-muscle skills has a big impact on children's success in school. Many of the tasks ahead in first grade (and beyond) require the same small-muscle skills. As children move out of the more hands-on environment of kindergarten to the world of pencil and paper, they need to be able to hold writing implements and to cut, draw, and write. Happily, all the wonderful hands-on experiences you have given children have perfectly prepared them for these tasks.

Write Away!

Most kindergartners are writing most letters and some words by May. They can copy, draw basic shapes, and enjoy drawing self-portraits with increasing amounts of detail and background. They have also chosen their left or right hand as the dominant one. These abilities help children not only in learning to write but also in reading and thinking. Research shows that small-muscle movements build synaptic connections in the brain.

Supporting the Whole Child

As you well know, the big step from kindergarten to first grade takes much more than physical readiness. Some children may have developed both large and small muscles but are not emotionally or cognitively ready. It is the whole child who steps through that door to first grade. Our task is to help parents realize that their newly grown "big kid" has to be "big" on all levels to succeed in first grade.

What You Can Do

  • Invite families to share in games and activities that demonstrate just how much children have grown.
  • Create a class yearbook with children's self-portraits and musings about how they have grown this year.
  • Photograph children participating in physical activities and create an "I Can Do It!" bulletin board.

  • Subjects:
    Mouse Skills, Physical Development
top

Early Childhood Today

We are your early childhood teaching partner! Find ideas for activities and lessons, expert advice, teaching tips, and much more!