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Child Development and Parenting: Infants

Physical Nurturing: Gross Motor Activities in Early Childhood

Angela Oswalt, MSW, Natalie Staats Reiss, Ph.D and Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

Pre-operational aged children continue to work on mastering and refining a wide range of gross and fine motor skills. Parents can help encourage children's physical growth and development by promoting activities that require children to display increasing levels of physical strength and skill.

Gross Motor Activities

Gross motor skills involve large-body movements. With practice, kids can build speed, balance, endurance, and the more sophisticated levels of coordination necessary to master new physical activities, such as bicycle riding, roller skating, dancing, swimming, swinging on a jungle gym, and team sports such as baseball, soccer, and basketball. Beyond honing physical abilities, parental encouragement of physical activity will also instill a love of physical fitness (and health) that can continue through adulthood.

Most complex activities children try will seem difficult at first, and require lots of patience and practice to master. Parents can be both teachers and cheerleaders; modeling how to swing a baseball or balance on a bicycle, as well as encouraging their children as they inevitably fall and must start over again.

Most young kids enjoy learning how to balance and to move on wheeled toys such as tricycles, bicycles, roller skates and skateboards. Most will also enjoy learning new sports, when games are modified for their skill and ability levels. Children who are learning to play baseball can use light, plastic "whiffle" balls with holes in them and similarly light plastic bats. These balls and bats are easier and safer for children to throw and catch and will hurt less should an accident occur. Parents can mount standard size basketball hoops low down to the ground or improvise a basketball hoop by placing a kid-friendly ring at an appropriate level on the garage door or shed wall. The use of squishy "Nerf" balls, smaller playing fields, and a no-tackle rule can also help adapt games like soccer and football so that little children can play them safely.

Kids can even practice a safe form of preschool archery. Parents can paint a large bulls-eye on a piece of old cardboard and hang it from a sturdy tree limb. Children can then throw bean bags at the bulls-eye to improve their throwing skills and hand-eye coordination. A bean bag toss is another activity that helps hand-eye coordination. Parents can cut the bottom ends off gallon plastic milk jugs, and kids can practice with a partner catching and throwing the bags in the jugs.

Parents can also consider signing children up for physical activities or team sports outside the home. Children's participation on such teams helps foster their development of social and teamwork skills such as taking turns, following instructions, and working toward a common goal. Children can join a soccer, T-ball, or basketball team at the local community or recreation center. Alternatively, children can take swimming lessons, join a swim team, or enroll in music and movement, tumbling, gymnastics, ballet, karate, tap dance, hip-hop, or other physical education classes at local recreation centers, YMCA's, or dance schools. Many communities feature a wide variety of children' s activities at a relatively low cost. In some areas, lower income families can apply for scholarships to subsidize their children's participation.

The simpler and cheaper physical activities available to families, such as walking to the park and playing on the playground, do a fine job of building children's muscle strength, coordination, and stamina, and have the added advantage of being convenient. For younger toddlers, parents can lead games of "Simon Says," where kids copy adult movements, such as reaching to the sky, standing on one foot, or doing jumping jacks. Older preschoolers can be challenged by running through safe obstacle courses in their backyard or playground. For example, kids can hop inside a plastic hoop (e.g., a hula-hoop) and then back out, or go from one tree to another while skipping. Timing children to see if they can improve can provide them with additional challenges.

Another physical activity that can help burn extra energy, improve gross motor skills, and make everyone laugh is pretending to act like animals. Kids can hop like a frog; walk like an elephant and swing their "trunks"; "swim" around the yard like a fish; or slither on the ground like a snake. Littler toddlers can do simpler moves, and older preschoolers can get more involved and intricate.

Parents need to ensure that children remain safe during all physical activities. Children should play in an area that is large enough to accommodate the particular activity they are practicing, and also free of hazards like broken glass, hidden holes, or oncoming traffic. Open yards and playgrounds tend to be safer than busy streets or fields littered with broken bottles. Parents also need to make sure that children are using appropriate safety gear. Whenever children are on wheeled equipment, such as bicycles or skateboards, they should always use proper helmets or pads to prevent injuries. As well, children who are participating in water activities should always use flotation devices (e.g., life vests or inflatable arm bands) until they have mastered swimming skills. Children's physical activities should always be supervised, no matter what form they may take. Children cannot be relied upon to make appropriate safety decisions as their judgment abilities are still forming. Adult supervisors can prevent young children from making too-risky choices and can swoop in quickly and take charge should accidents occur.

Though supervision is vital and important, children do need to be afforded enough space and freedom in their play in order for them to make mistakes and have accidents. Adults who limit children's activities too much risk squelching their children's physical potential. Children need to take some risks, try new things, and fail at times in order to grow and develop to their fullest potential.

Children and dirt go together. Active children will get dirty and sweaty, as well as rip a pair of pants or two in this process. This is normal and should be expected and anticipated by parents. Parents should not send their kids to the park in their newest birthday outfit and then scold them for ruining good clothes. Instead, children should be sent out to play in older clothing. Hand-me-downs and outfits picked up at thrift stores or garage sales can work well for play purposes, which can be bleached and repaired as many times as necessary until they are no longer useful.