Gross motor skills are larger body movements, such as rolling, crawling, walking or kicking a ball. It is important to encourage gross motor development in babies as it affects their balance and coordination for the rest of their life.
Without proper gross motor development, they may have issues later doing practical life skills, like dressing themselves, or getting on/off the toilet. It is also intertwined with their fine motor skill development.
There are many easy, fun ways to encourage gross motor development with things you may already have around the house.
I am purposely not listing these by age range, because every baby is different and I find that sometimes it becomes unnecessarily stressful if you think your baby is “behind” or it becomes a competition. Obviously, there are exceptions where intervention may be needed. If you’re concerned about your baby’s milestones, please talk to your pediatrician.
Gross motor activities for babies
During the first few months, they’re building strength in their trunk or core muscles. It may seem like nothing is happening, but every head lift, leg kick or arm flail is making them stronger and stronger.
Most babies hate tummy time, it’s not just your baby, trust me. You may only get a few minutes at a time and that’s okay!
Don’t push them if they truly hate it. But here are some ways to make it more fun:
- Sensory bags/paint in plastic baggie
- Boppy pillow or towel under chest so they’re slightly raised and can see more
- Floor level mirror
- Pictures of family members
- Books or picture cards propped up
- Get down on the floor with them
- Water play in a small tray
- Jingle bells, or noisy things in a metal tray
- Stretches – once they get a little stronger, take turns very gently stretching a leg or arm backward
If your baby is truly hating tummy time, you can also just lay them on your chest. There is a misconception that if you hold your baby “too much” it will delay their physical development.
However, holding your baby, and baby wearing actually helps develop the same core muscles as tummy time. So, hold that baby!
Floor Play on Back
When moving them from stomach to back, actually roll them to train their muscles to do the same. You can place your arms on their sides to support them and gently rock them back and forth a few times before flipping them over.
While they’re on their back, they are still using gross motor skills by flailing their arms (which will lead to grasping items, a fine motor skill), kicking their feet and moving their head to look around. So, all you want to do is make it fun.
A set of toy links are a must-have and can be attached to anything (they will come in handy during teething too). You can hang scarves, ribbons, jingle bells or plush toys from the gym as well.
Here’s some other ways to encourage gross motor development while on their back:
- Montessori mobile
- Place crinkly or noisey things under their feet to get them kicking (my daughter loved brown packing paper!)
- Get outside and let them look up at the trees, talk about what you see
- Hang some things from the inside of an open umbrella
- Do bicycle kicks or leg pumps with their legs
At the beginning they can still be a bit unbalanced, so make sure to put blankets or a boppy pillow around them. They’re starting to gain more confidence and independence at this stage. Always keep them supervised when they’re learning to sit.
- Add ribbons and hanging toys to a large box for them to sit in
- Balls – roll or bounce to them
- Place things slightly out of reach
Resist the urge to hand them everything, you want them to try to reach for things themselves. The reaching movement helps them build balance, and will lead into them going down to their belly, and then eventually to crawling.
Gross motor activities for toddlers
Mobile Stages (Crawling to Walking)
Once they’re on the go, you’ll see a change in their independence. They are excited that they can do more on their own, so activities get easier.
Your job at this stage is to build their confidence! You can supervise and be there for them to prevent actual injury, but give them space to figure things out and to struggle a bit.
When they’re learning to pull themselves up on things, try not to be right there catching every slip. This may seem crazy, but your child needs to learn how to fall.
Not only do they need to build the capability and muscle memory to catch themselves, but by constantly interfering, you’re essentially telling them they can’t do something on their own. Please read Sue's post on the need to allow your child to take risks.
Activities during the mobile stages:
- Play tunnel, build a fort, or use a cardboard box to climb through
- Climbing mats/foams
- Obstacle course with pillows, blankets and/or plush toys
- Crawling around the couch (with close supervision and cushioning on the floor)
- Spread out toys so they have to crawl/walk to them, make different stations in the room
- Stairs – yes, let them climb your stairs with close supervision. This is an excellent gross motor developing activity!
- Pull up bar
- Place toys on top of lower furniture, like a coffee table or couch, to motivate them to pull themselves up
At this stage, it’s helpful to have a Yes Space for them.
Gross Motor Development For Babies of All Ages and Stages
- Music and Movement– dance around the house to any type of music, and sing movement songs like “head, shoulders, knees and toes”
- Airplane – fly them around on their belly (slowly and supporting their head and neck when they’re young)
- Get outside! Play in the grass, play at a playground. Let them climb, slide and swing!
I hope you enjoy doing these activities with your child, and I'd love to hear some of the gross motor activities you do with your child. Remember, these activities are meant to make each stage enjoyable and to allow for natural gross motor development.
For the most part, babies know exactly what they need to learn next, if we allow them the freedom to do so!