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Gross Motor Skills from an Occupational Therapist & Mom’s Eyes

by on July 14, 2014

This week I watched in awe as the preschoolers at my daughter’s school navigated the monkey bars, zip line, trapeze bars, and climbing wall.  These kids were able to problem solve how to move their bodies to accomplish amazing things.  At times they fell, but they got up and tried again.  They watched their peers, and then they attempted the new skill, like skipping bars on the monkey bars.  They yelled for the adults and their friends to watch them, and laughed as they played together.

This unfolding of gross motor skills that seems to happen effortlessly for many kids actually involves a variety of complicated processes.  The child needs to be able observe and understand the demands of their environment, including spatial relationships, other children, and properties of the equipment.  The child needs to know how to observe others performing the skill and imitate those body movements.  This is a complicated process that involves both visual skills as well as ability to plan motor movements (known as “motor planning”).  In order to be successful with new motor skills the child needs to have good body awareness, including awareness of his head position (“vestibular” sense) and how his body is positioned and moving (“proprioceptive” sense).  The child also needs to have good foundation skills, including strength, postural control, balance, and ability to coordinate both sides of the body and upper/lower body.  Finally, the child needs to have perseverance in order to repeat, repeat, and repeat until successful at a new skill!

What happens when this process doesn’t happen naturally for a child?  With all the component skills needed it is no wonder that some children struggle in learning new motor skills.  Some children may just need some extra practice to learn motor skills.  Others can benefit from specialized intervention such as occupational or physical therapy, depending on the underlying component(s) that are limiting their gross motor participation.  Studies show that (on average) children with more significant motor challenges tend to be more socially isolated and physically inactive than their peers.  So don’t hesitate to seek out help from a professional if you are concerned about your child’s motor skills!

Here are some basic tips for caregivers can help their child be more successful with motor skills:

-Start learning new motor skills in isolation and gradually add complexity.  For example, bounce a ball back and forth with your child before signing her up for basketball.  Next add in another player or add movement to the bouncing.

-Break down the task into parts.  For example, don’t try to have your child jump on the bike and try to get him to go!  First, practice climbing on and off the bike successfully and without help.  Once that is mastered, add practicing maintaining balance without pedaling (for a great reference on learning to ride a bike see:  Gradually build upon learned steps until the child learns the complete task.

-Practice in the child’s natural environment.  If you want your child to feel comfortable navigating their playground at recess, go to that specific playground after school and practice.  Practice wherever the child is expected to implement that new skill.

-Talk your child through a task when learning.  Say things such as “place your arms in front of you about this wide” when preparing to catch a ball.  Soon your child will internalize those messages and she won’t need them anymore.

-Provide your child with specific feedback about HOW they did.  So, not just “yay, you threw the ball”, but “You swung your arm back before letting go.  I think that really helped the ball to go far”.  So, emphasize the process rather than the product, or end-point.

-Practice, practice, practice!  In animal and human studies, it is estimated that it takes 300-500 repetitions to learn a new motor skill!  That’s a lot of time, and it may take even more repetitions for children who struggle to learn new motor tasks.  Practice may be difficult in the beginning for the child who struggles because he may have learned to avoid it.  Try to be patient, find fun ways to motivate him, and build in some rewards.  As your child becomes more successful at a task you will see the motivation and pride grow!


Dianne Rios, ScD, OTR/L

Occupational Therapist

MOSAIC Children’s Therapy-Seattle

  1. Thanks for very nice post we are also same in this business and welcome you to visit our website.

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