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Gross Motor Skills and the Development of Play in Children

Gross Motor Skills and Development of PlayThe Functional Skills for Kids is a 12-month long series written by occupational and physical therapy bloggers on the development of 12 functional skills for children. This month the topic is play! Each month throughout 2016, we will discuss the development of one functional skill in children addressing the many components of that skill. The ability to complete the functional task of play in childhood requires gross motor, fine motor, sensory processing and cognitive skills.

Active play in children is required for brain growth, physical development, communication and social growth. From birth (and even before while in utero) throughout childhood, children use motor skills to play and interact with the environment. Infants begin with visual exploration of their environment and play space. Simple movement through space begins when a caregiver carries and places an infant under a mobile for example. Active exploration of space during play time for an infant includes such basic movements as turning and lifting the head to visually explore the play space. The infant progresses to simple movements across level surfaces including rolling to begin spatial exploration to move closer to people or toys. The ability to physically interact with toys moves along a continuum of swatting at toys, grasping toys, reaching for toys and finally manipulating toys. By 10 months of age, infants being to establish preferences for certain objects and manipulate these in more complex ways than less-preferred play materials. These playful manipulations of objects provide the building blocks for the development of later object control skills, such as throwing and catching (Trawick-Smith, 2014).

As gross motor skills continue to develop, the baby moves from rolling to sitting to crawling and to walking. As the baby moves through space to play he/she is learning about different surfaces, friction and tactile input. The gross motor skills needed to climb over, under, around and in between objects in the play space environment begin to develop. Not only are babies developing postural control and muscle strength in the extremities, they are also developing body awareness and motor planning. As babies develop crawling and walking, they can now move throughout larger play spaces to learn and interact more fully with the environment. The ability to perform crawling and walking improves through play. Children have to crawl up, stop short, move quickly and more during play schemes. All of these actions require balance, coordination and grading of muscle movements. Research indicates that the amount of experience babies have while walking during play at home was found to be the most powerful predictor of advancement in walking ability. Learning to walk with control and balance requires daily experiences (Adolph, 2003).

Once infants begin to move through their environment, they will also transport play objects. For example, the baby may crawl with a toy in the hand or mouth. Once upright, the child will not only carry toys but also push, pull and ride objects through space. These gross motor activities again encourage body awareness, motor planning, postural control, muscle strengthening and grading of muscle movements. By moving toys, the child will learn such important gross motor skills such as squatting to pick up a dropped toy, reaching in standing to grab a toy, throwing toys and standing on one foot momentarily to kick a toy.

Spatial exploration through play continues to progress when children begin to run around 18-24 months. Running during play requires speed variations, muscle grading, coordination and balance. Children must learn to run on different surfaces, around stationary objects, moving objects and people. These running abilities are crucial skills for outdoor play, physical education class, recess and unstructured free play.

The further development of higher level gross skills, helps to enhance children’s abilities to play. Children begin to squat during play, jump in place, go up and down slides, catch/throw a large ball, ride a tricycle, walk on a line, balance on a beam, go up and down stairs independently, jump in different directions, hop, climb jungle gyms/ladders, kick a ball, skip and ride a bicycle. In general, active play is synonymous with gross motor skill development. All of these activities are continuous sources of fun that help children improve: muscle strength, eye hand coordination, balance, body control, body rhythm, bilateral coordination and spatial awareness.

Babies need to play on the floor, with free range of motion, in order to acquire important motor skills. Equipment intended to keep babies stationary may actually impede development (Abbott, 2002). For example, babies who spend long periods of time in baby walkers tend to walk later than babies who do not.

As children get older, deficits in gross motor skills may greatly affect play skills.  A lack of spatial exploration skills can lead to poor body awareness, decreased sense of personal space and uncoordinated movements which interfere with play skills during recess and outdoor time especially.  Recess play time frequently translates into running, jumping and climbing with your peers.  Without these motor skills, options for play can be limited.

Motor play experiences in preschools are necessary to promote physical health. Low physical activity level in the early years predicts later health problems. Preschool aged children who exhibited low levels of physical play activity were found already to have greater health risk factors, such as higher triglycerides, cholesterol levels, blood pressure, and body mass index. For some children, these risk indicators appeared as early as age 4 (Saakslahti, 2004).

Research also indicates that children with deficits in gross motor skills may exhibit delays in play skills. School-aged and preschool children with developmental coordination disorder (DCD) are known to be less involved in play and more socially isolated than their typically developing peers (Kennedy-Behr, 2013).


1. Musical play can encourage babies to move in infancy. Provide different musical experiences for babies even right after birth to facilitate motor responses. Singing with your own voice seems to have the greatest impact on infant behavior (Eckerdal, 2009).
2. Even infants show a preference for certain kinds of toys and will display higher levels of play when using preferred toys. If necessary, change the selection of toys in the home or classroom to increase the interest of the baby or child (Schneider, 2009).
3. Babies not yet crawling should spend play time on their stomachs on the floor with preferred toys and people/peers near them. Babies who are walking should be provided with ramps, mats, pillows, and other surfaces and objects to walk over or around.
4. Provide open-ended equipment that has many uses and can be used by children of different levels of play ability. Play equipment that is too challenging, not challenging enough, or not related to children’s play interests will not help children develop a sense of mastery in their motor play (Martin, 2000).
5. Offer vestibular input activities such as swings, scooter boards, ride on toys, bicycles, etc. to help children learn to process movement sensations.
6. Try proprioceptive activities such as pushing/pulling wagons, lifting heavy objects, jumping games like hopscotch, trampolines, stop/start, etc. to help children with grading motor skills during play.
7. Playing in the dark (ie under a blanket or a glow in the dark hunt) help children to develop body awareness without visual input.
8. To help children with motor planning skills, let them formulate play ideas, select objects and create play activities rather than providing a structured play environment.
9. If necessary, provide adaptive equipment for children with physical disabilities to engage in active play and facilitate free movement.
10. Provide at least 60 minutes per day for unstructured, active play!

Play Move Develop from https://www.yourtherapysource.com/playmove.htmlNEED IDEAS for active play?  Check out Play – Move – Develop.  This book by Your Therapy Source Inc includes 100 reproducible games and activity ideas to encourage motor skill
development and learning in children. Great resource for fun, playful activities that encourage motor skill development.  FIND OUT MORE.

This post is part of the Functional Skills for Kids: 12 Month series by Occupational and Physical Therapists. You can read all of the functions on childhood HERE. Read all of my monthly posts in this series HERE.Functional Skills for Kids - 12 month series by OTs and PTs


Looking for more information about the development of the functional skills of play in childhood? Stop by to see what the other occupational therapists and physical therapists in the Functional Skills for Kids series have written.

The Developmental Progression of Play Skills | Mama OT

Building Fine Motor Skills Through Play  | Sugar Aunts

Gross Motor Skills and the Development of Play in Children | Your Therapy Source

Playing with Friends: Supporting Social Skills in Play  | Kids Play Space

Using Play to Increase Attention | Miss Jaime OT

Help! My Child Won’t Play – Adapting Play for Individual Kids | Growing Hands-On Kids

How Play Makes Therapy Better | Therapy Fun Zone

How the Environment Shapes the Way Kids Play | The Inspired Treehouse

Why is my child “just playing” when they see an OT?  | Your Kids OT



Abbott, A. L., & Bartlett, D. J. (2002). Infant motor development and equipment use in the home. Child: Care, Health and Development, 27, 295-306.

Adolph, K. E., Vereijken, B., & Shrout, P. E. (2003). What changes in infant walking and why. Child Development, 74, 475-497.

Eckerdal, P., & Merker, B. (2009). Music and the “action song” in infant development: An interpretation. In S. Malloch & C. Trevarthen (Eds.), Communicative musicality: Exploring the basis of human companionship (pp. 241-262). New York: Oxford University Press.

Kennedy-Behr A, Rodger S, Mickan S. (2013). A comparison of the play skills of preschool children with and without developmental coordination disorder. OTJR (Thorofare N J). 2013 Fall;33(4):198-208. doi: 10.3928/15394492-20130912-03.

Martin, E. (2000). Developmentally appropriate equipment: What does that mean? Teaching Elementary Physical Education, 11(6), 5-8.

Parham, L. Fazio, L. (1997). Play in Occupational Therapy For Children. St. Louis, MO. Mosby-Year Book Inc. p 95-105.

Saakslahti, A., Numminen, P., Varstala, V., Helenius, H., Tammi, A., Viikari, J., et al. (2004). Physical activity as a preventive measure for coronary heart disease risk factors in early childhood. Scandinavian Journal of Medication Science and Sports, 14, 143–149.

Schneider, E. (2009). Longitudinal observations of infants’ object play behavior in the home context. OTJR: Occupation, Participation and Health, 29, 79-87.

Trawick-Smith, Jeffrey (2014). “The Physical Play and Motor Development of Young Children: A Review of Literature and Implications for Practice.” Retrieved from the web on 3/12/16 at http://www1.easternct.edu/cece/files/2014/06/BenefitsOfPlay_LitReview.pdf