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What You Need to Know about a Child’s Gross Motor Skill Development Before Kindergarten

By Fraser Pediatric Physical Therapist Olivia Haws and Pam Dewey • physical therapy, kids physical therapy, gross motor kids, gross motors skills kids, gross motor development kids, gross motor development children, gross motor skills checklist, back to school, kindergarten and gross motor skills, kindergarten skills, physical therapy for children, kids and physical therapy, world physical therapy day • September 07, 2023

Backpack. Crayons. Markers. Glue sticks. New shoes. After you’ve crossed all the items off your back-to-school shopping list, you might think your child is prepared for kindergarten. But what about your child’s gross motor skills checklist?

Gross motor skills are the foundation of much of the body’s movement. VeryWell Mind states, “Gross motor skills are those used to move the arms, legs and torso in a functional manner. These skills involve moving the large muscles of the body in order to perform actions such as walking, jumping, kicking, sitting upright, lifting and throwing a ball.” Kindergartners use many of these skills daily.

“In kindergarten, kids play on the playground and participate in gym class. That means they’re doing activities like kickball and tag, so they need to be able to jump, kick and throw a ball,” says Fraser Pediatric Physical Therapist Olivia Haws. “Not to mention, they need the strength to sit upright for long periods of time, so they can focus on what their teacher is saying.”

So what’s on the gross motor skill checklist?

Crawling is one of the first gross motor skills children develop, usually around 6-9 months. At age 1, kids start climbing up on things and throwing things, all important foundational skills for gross motor development. Kids should be walking by 12-18 months, and running safely about 2-3 months after learning to walk independently. By age 2, Haws says, kids typically start jumping and engaging in more risky play, including climbing on household furniture not intended to be played on, like chairs or tables.

By the time kids start kindergarten at age 5 or 6, they should be able to skip, gallop, jump and kick a rolling ball, says Haws. Knowing how to ride a bike is also great, but not a must by this age. Here are the CDC’s developmental milestones by age

What are gross development red flags?

What if your child isn’t meeting these milestones? A group of Fraser physical therapists have put together a list of gross motor development red flags to watch for:

  • Loss or regression in any motor skills at any age
  • More clumsy than peers
  • Walks or runs asymmetrically
  • Child favors one side of their body
  • Frequently walks on their toes, not on the soles of their feet
  • Exclusively sits in a W-sitting position
  • Unable to imitate movement for simple dancing or games
  • Stiffness in arms and legs
  • Excessive floppiness in limbs or trunk
  • “Walks” their hands up their body to achieve a standing position

Being “more clumsy than peers” may seem hard to gauge. Haws says if you watch a classroom full of kids, and your kid is falling a lot more frequently than their classmates, that is something to be concerned about. They might be tripping over surface changes — like carpet to hard floor — or tripping over toys that peers can navigate over or around safely. Also, if a child repeatedly falls to the floor, instead of being able to catch themselves, you should take notice.

You may also wonder what “walking or running asymmetrically” looks like. Haws says it typically looks like a child taking a long step with one leg and a short quick step with the other. If a child doesn’t swing their arms when they walk, barely moves their arms or holds one arm closer to their side with a limited swing while the other arm does a big swing, that is also something to be concerned about.  

And if they aren’t meeting gross motor skill milestones?

If your child is just slightly behind on gross motor development, consider this a yellow flag. Maybe your child can jump forward, but not as far as their peers.

“You may want to enroll your child in a movement-focused, group activity like gymnastics, dance class or soccer,” says Haws. “They can improve their motor skills by watching and mirroring those around them. It’s also very motivating to see what their friends can do, which will encourage them to catch up.”

At home, parents can help build gross motor skills by creating obstacle courses and encouraging natural exploration, like putting your child’s toys on the couch for them to reach or pointing at something out the window so they pull themselves up to look.

When might a child need more help with gross motor skills?

However, if your child’s gross motor delays impair their ability to function or be safe while participating in activities, contact your pediatrician for a physical therapy referral. Haws typically does physical therapy for 3-6 year olds.

“We work on foundational skills that help build their strength and improve balance,” says Haws. “We practice balancing on one foot, stepping over hurdles and going up stairs. Then, children build on these skills, so they can safely play tag with friends, ride a bicycle or play softball.”