Child Development and Parenting: Early Childhood
Resources
Basic Information
Development During Early Childhood, Toddler, and Preschool Stages Parenting Your Todder, Preschooler, and Young ChildToilet TrainingDisciplining Your Toddler, Preschooler, and Young ChildNurturing Your Toddler, Preschooler, and Young Child
More InformationLatest NewsQuestions and AnswersLinksBook Reviews
Related Topics

Child & Adolescent Development: Overview
Childhood Mental Disorders and Illnesses
Parenting
Child Development and Parenting: Infants

Early Childhood Physical Development: Gross and Fine Motor Development

Angela Oswalt, MSW

The term "gross motor" development refers to physical skills that use large body movements, normally involving the entire body. In the sense used here, gross means "large" rather than "disgusting."

Between ages 2 and 3 years, young children stop "toddling," or using the awkward, wide-legged robot-like stance that is the hallmark of new walkers. As they develop a smoother gait, they also develop the ability to run, jump, and hop. Children of this age can participate in throwing and catching games with larger balls. They can also push themselves around with their feet while sitting on a riding toy.

Children who are 3 to 4 years old can climb up stairs using a method of bringing both feet together on each step before proceeding to the next step (in contrast, adults place one foot on each step in sequence). However, young children may still need some "back-up" assistance to prevent falls in case they become unsteady in this new skill. Children of this age will also be stumped when it's time to go back down the stairs; they tend to turn around and scoot down the stairs backwards. 3 to 4 year olds can jump and hop higher as their leg muscles grow stronger. Many can even hop on one foot for short periods of time.

Also at this age (3 to 4 years), children develop better upper body mobility. As a result, their catching and throwing abilities improve in speed and accuracy. In addition, they can typically hit a stationary ball from a tee with a bat. As whole body coordination improves, children of this age can now peddle and steer a tricycle. They can also kick a larger ball placed directly in front of their bodies.

By ages 4 to 5, children can go up and down the stairs alone in the adult fashion (i.e., taking one step at a time). Their running continues to smooth out and increase in speed. Children of this age can also skip and add spin to their throws. They also have more control when riding their tricycles (or bicycles), and can drive them faster.

During ages 5 to 6, young children continue to refine earlier skills. They're running even faster and can start to ride bicycles with training wheels for added stability. In addition, they can step sideways. Children of this age begin mastering new forms of physical play such as the jungle gym, and begin to use the see-saw, slide, and swing on their own. They often start jumping rope, skating, hitting balls with bats, and so on. Many children of this age enjoy learning to play organized sports such as soccer, basketball, t-ball or swimming. In addition, 5 to 6 year olds often like to participate in physical extracurricular activities such as karate, gymnastics, or dance. Children continue to refine and improve their gross motor skills through age 7 and beyond.

Physical Development: Fine Motor Skills

Fine motor skills are necessary to engage in smaller, more precise movements, normally using the hands and fingers. Fine motor skills are different than gross motor skills which require less precision to perform.

By ages 2 to 3 years, children can create things with their hands. They can build towers out of blocks, mold clay into rough shapes, and scribble with a crayon or pen. Children of this age can also insert objects into matching spaces, such as placing round pegs into round holes. 2 to 3 year-olds often begin showing a preference for using one hand more often than the other, which is the beginning of becoming left or right-handed.

Around ages 3 to 4 years, children start to manipulate clothing fasteners, like zippers and snaps, and continue to gain independence in dressing and undressing themselves. Before they enter school, most children will gain the ability to completely dress and undress themselves (even though they may take a long time to finish the task). At this age, children can also begin using scissors to cut paper. Caregivers should be sure to give children blunt, round-edged "kid" scissors for safety reasons!

3 to 4 year- olds continue to refine their eating skills and can use utensils like forks and spoons. Young children at this age can also use larger writing instruments, like fat crayons, in a writing hold rather than just grasping them with their fist. They can also use a twisting motion with their hands, useful for opening door knobs or twisting lids off containers. Because children can now open containers with lids, caregivers should make certain that harmful substances such as cleaners and medications are stored out of reach in a locked area to prevent accidental poisonings.

During ages 4 to 5 years, children continue to refine fine motor skills and build upon earlier skills. For instance, they can now button and unbutton their clothes by themselves. Their artistic skills improve, and they can draw simple stick figures and copy shapes such as circles, squares, and large letters. Drawing more complex shapes, however, may take longer.

5-7 year-olds begin to show the skills necessary for starting or succeeding in school, such as printing letters and numbers and creating shapes such as triangles. They are able to use paints, pencils and crayons with better control. Children can also complete other self-care tasks beyond dressing and undressing, such as brushing their teeth and combing their hair. Children of this age can also independently feed themselves without an adult's immediate supervision or help.