Student Stories: Improving Gross Motor Skills

My passion for helping children start school prepared to succeed is fueled by my experiences in the classroom. Each year I worked with children who arrived at school without some basic skills and I witnessed their frustration and sadness. In this series of Student Stories, I’ll take you into my classroom to meet a real child who worked to overcome initial skill deficits in one of the 8 Key Developmental Areas. (While the stories are true, I have changed the name of each student for privacy reasons.)

First, I’ll discuss one child’s specific weaknesses in the given developmental area. As you read about the child, consider whether your child is showing any of the same warning signs that he or she may also be struggling to develop important skills.

Second, I’ll highlight numerous activities I did in the classroom with the child (and activities you can easily do at home) to help the child develop strong skills in that particular developmental area. For the vast majority of children, focused practice through engaging and fun activities is all it takes to develop critical skills.

Gross motor skills: Meet Danny

Let me introduce you to Danny, an adorable boy, who was large for his age with a big smile to match. He began his preschool year with a great deal of enthusiasm and quickly made friends with his classmates. I noticed early in the year that Danny often plowed into other children when running on the playground or lining up in class. He would always apologize and his personable nature normally meant that he was quickly forgiven by his classmates. He also periodically fell out of his chair while working at his desk or stumbled out of line as the children were waiting in line to walk to recess.

In watching Danny more closely in the classroom and on the playground, I noticed that many of his gross motor movements lacked control. For example, he often fell out of his chair while sitting at his desk and he frequently needed help carrying large bins or trays of materials. He also slowed the line of children walking up or down a flight of stairs since he would step forward only with his right foot, bringing his left foot to the same step before stepping off with his right foot again. And while other kids would bound up and down the stairs, he clung to the railing as he walked, using the banister for balance.

The physical education teacher also noticed some lags in Danny’s gross motor development. She reported that he was unable to skip smoothly and would instead gallop (again leading with his right foot and bringing his left foot to rest next to the right one before moving again). He was also uncomfortable doing jumping jacks or jumping rope since he struggled to move his arms and legs in a coordinated movement.

Initially, Danny’s exuberant personality kept him from getting overtly frustrated. However, as the year progressed and his skills did not, he slowly began withdrawing from activities that required gross motor skills. For example, he would offer to collect balls for others or help the teacher set up games rather than participate himself. And on the playground he would dig in the dirt or play with the sand rather than use the swings or jump rope with his classmates.

One day in early October, while walking to gym class, he claimed he hurt his foot and insisted on sitting on the bleachers while the other children played dodgeball. Since his foot had been fine just moments before in the classroom, I quickly realized that we needed to intervene to help get Danny back on the right track.

Try this at home

The key to developing strong gross motor skills is practice, practice, practice. It takes time for muscles to learn how to move in new and unfamiliar ways.

As a first step, ensure your child understands the terms “right” and “left.” Your child will need to be able to confidently identify the different sides of his body in order to complete many gross motor tasks, since the instructions often include something like, “First take a step with your left leg, then hop on your left foot before taking a step with your right foot,” as when teaching a child to skip. Consider using fun “Following Directions With Right and Left” worksheets to help your child solidify an understanding of right and left.

Once your child understands the terms “right” and “left,” begin with activities that involve using both hands at the same time in a coordinated movement. (This skill is needed when carrying large bins around the classroom, for example.)

  • Sit on the floor opposite your child. With legs spread apart, use both hands to push a medium or large rubber ball back and forth between you.
  • Ask your child to bounce and then catch a large rubber ball, only allowing it to bounce one time between catches. When he is comfortable with this activity, stand 5 feet away from your child and throw him the ball by bouncing it once on the floor before he catches it. Encourage him to use both hands simultaneously to catch the ball.

catching a ball

Once your child is comfortable moving both hands in a coordinated movement, introduce activities that require him to move both his hands and his feet in a coordinated movement. (This skill is needed when running on the playground or marching in gym class, for example.)

  • Ask your child to sit on the floor with his legs apart and his arms straight in front of his body. Encourage him to open and close his legs as he opens and closes his arms (clapping each time his arms close).
  • Ask your child to lay flat on a carpeted floor and make “snow angels” by moving both arms in an arc motion from the sides of the body to above the head while simultaneously opening and closing both legs. If your child initially struggles with this activity, direct him to first move just his arms and then try moving both his legs.

making snow angels

As a final step, introduce activities that require your child to move his arms and his legs is different but coordinated movements. This activity helps to improve overall body awareness and coordination. (This skill is needed for sitting quietly in a chair or walking around the classroom without bumping into peers or furniture.)

  • March with your child around the room, using music with a strong, even beat. Encourage your child to lift his knees up high as he marching, taping his right knee with his left hand and his left knee with his right hand as he moves.
  • Ask your child to stand with his right foot slightly in front of his left foot and his right arm extended in front of his body, as if he was about to begin walking forward. Then yell “switch” and, without taking a step forward, have him change positions so that his left foot is in front of his right foot and his left arm is extended in front of his body. This is a complex gross motor skill that will require him to hop slightly in the air and change the positions of both feet and both arms at the same time.

hopping and switching feet position

What can you share with other parents?

Have you noticed any hesitations from your child when gross motor skills are required for an activity?  Which gross motor skills seem to pose the biggest challenge for your child? How have you managed these situations?

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Images used under Creative Commons from diongillard, GoonSquadSarah and riverartscenter.