Motor skills: what are they and why are the important?


A significant feature of living things is their ability to grow and develop. This is true of all multi-cellular and more complicated life forms of which humans are an example. It is important that humans will grow physically because they need to be able to live as far as possible a meaningful, independent, and productive life. Physical growth should eventually develop into cognitive and social growth and development that will add meaning to the human condition. Humans are intellectual, social and spiritual creatures who are meant to interact and live with themselves and all other living organisms and their environment in a meaningful way. Truth is that when a human is born the meaningful life envisaged above is still very limited. It needs to be developed and here the expression “baby steps” needs to be taken quite literally. An infant and a young child need to acquire motor skills in order to develop other skills of life. So, what are motor skills?


What are motor skills?

There are two types of motor skills: gross motor skills and fine motor skills.

Gross motor skills develop when the large muscles of the body are used in a coordinated and controlled way. Here we are looking at movements of the whole arms, the legs, and the trunk (the body of a person excluding the head and limbs). Examples of such movements are catching a ball, balancing, climbing, jumping, running.

Fine motor skills are all about the small movements performed by the hands and fingers. Such movements would be for example picking up objects, using cups, knives, and forks, puring drinks, dressing, holding and using pencils, pens, scissors, and keyboards.

Motor development usually follows a pattern. First the large muscles develop and then followed by the smaller ones. You can see this in children who find it easier at first to run than cutting with scissors. The tendency with children to develop in a head-to-toe pattern: babies move their eyes, head, and hands long before they learn to crawl.


How do gross motor skills develop?

They key actions are practice and repetition. A baby takes weeks to master the skill of rolling, sitting, or crawling. The development of gross motor skills can even already be assisted by changing the direction of a baby in the crib every night. Just change the direction he sleeps. This will make him see things from a different angle by rolling the eyes and turn the head towards the object.  A more grown child can take a whole season to learn how to catch a ball while running.

For children to master skills they need to be exposed to different opportunities to move freely and experiment with different situations and objects/apparatus. For normal gross motor development the brain, spine, nerves, and muscles need to be intact and  functioning normally. If any damage has been caused by birth trauma, accident, or illness normal gross motor skills maybe affected and special methods and support will be needed for the development of these skills.


What can affect the development of motor skills?

Gross motor development can not be rushed because the nervous sytem must be ready before the motor skills can develop. On the other we need to intervene as well by giving opportunities to practice movements and move about. If we don’t do that we can slow down development. Apart from abnormalities there are other obstacles that may affect motor developments:

·         Individual differences in progress may be influenced by health issues. Children with disabilities especially may not have the resilience to overcome or compensate for these issues.

·         Feedback on position, and depth and distance perception could be reduced by visual impairment.

·         Hearing impairments will negatively impact the ability to follow instructions.

·         Heart abnormalities that are not corrected could reduce energy and stamina considerably.

·         Children who are overweight will have a lack of enthusiasm and may even find it uncomfortable to perform actions that require gross motor skills.

·         It can not be denied that computers and television has brought a lot of advantages for entertainment and gaining  knowledge and information. But do not let this be at  the cost of children missing out on the development of their physical motor skills.

·         Low muscle tone or high muscle tone can negatively impact the child’s ability to control the body’s muscles.

·         To grow up in a protected envirornment can be detrimental to one’s health. We don’t let children play outside or walk to the park or cycle to friends anymore. It is understandable to want to keep them safe but if not managed properly their motor skills and subsequent health could be adversely affected because of lack of physical opportunity.

·         Babies spend a lot of time in car seats, walking rings, and in front of screens. Modern life makes these gadgets necessary, but too much of these could hamper motor development.

·         For many people life has become very inactive – a sedentary lifestyle – and accompanied by too much rich food. This leads to a smaller likelihood of adults to engage in physical games with their children. This is not the desired model for children to lead healthy, active lives.


How can we encourage movement?

Movement development starts from the top to the bottom. The child has to learn to control his head before the arms and legs can be controlled and then control the body before walking. A child who is older and still immobile must be encouraged to stand with support. This will help him to become stronger and to learn what a standing experience is like. Here are a few suggestions how to go about it.

·         Always start with a good position.

·         For a baby the knees need to be bent up and the legs separated. The shoulders must be brought forward and the arms turned slightly turned outwards. Then slowly lift the child and his head should follow.

·         With older children your hands should not placed behind his neck but rather behind his shoulders. Separate his legs with your own knee or arm. Then bring his shoulders forward and pull him up into a sitting position keepeing his arms turned slightly outwards. As he gets stronger you can lift him up by only holding his hands.

·         Do these activities every day when you lift the baby from sleep or changing a nappy. Make a game of it and let it be fun.

These are but a few ideas how to teach your baby to gain control of the head and later the arms and legs. For more please read .


For some practical everyday ideas the following activities are suggested:


·         When your child’s friends come to play, spend some time with them and play with them. Show them how to rope jumping; build an obstacle course, or run around in races. They will love that your are participating for a few minutes and will be encouraged to continue after you leave them.

·         Go to the park frequently and encourage them to climb, swing and run.

·         At home you may want to have beanbags, a trampoline, therapy balls, or other equipment that will encourage physical activities.



Early motor skills and language development


Motor skills are clearly important for a child to develop to eventually become as independent as possible. Recent research, however, has shown that motor skills may also have a significant influence on the child’s cognitive development such as talking.


It is a very long process for infants to learn language. They have to learn how to use their mouths to make sounds. First the bubbles come, then the babbling, and then the first word. Finally the sentences and conversation follow. Have you noticed that before the babbling starts, infants show a lot of arm movements such as banging, shaking or waving. But, interestingly, after the start babbling the movements become much less.


It is suspected through these studies that the babbling and arm movements let the infants see what happens when an action is repeated and therefore they get used to the sounds and fallings of their bodies. They learn when they do something it causes something else to happen. It is like when you press a button a light comes on.


Language and communication problems are typical of children with autism but these children also show difficulties with motor skills. Studies have shown that motor skills at seven months could indicate how language development will progress and some of these children then turned out to be children with autism.


It is important not to be unnecessarily alarmed with the findings of this research. So-called slow motor skill development at an early stage is no indication of a definite disability of some sort. Each child’s rate and manner of development is different from the other. Some children start crawling between 5 and 13 months. Others do not crawl on hands and knees at all, but shuffle, creep or just start walking.



Humans have the need to be healthy in different ways: physically, emotionally,spiritually, and relationally.  We are creatures who want socialise and interact with others. If a child can master the basic skills of walking, talking, playing, and doing the basic chores of life it will boost his confidence and self-esteem. Mastered motor skills will aid the child to relate to and socialise with others in game playing and working. These opportunities will teach children to interact with others in an acceptable way and to build meaningful relationships of friendship and working partnerships.