Gross motor skills are those abilities related to movement of the large muscles of the body (unlike fine motor skills which are controlled by the small muscles).

In human development, gross motor skills are generally learned sooner in life and with greater ease than fine motor skills. However, gross motor skills like catching a ball or jumping rope that can involve complex timing and planning may remain difficult for some individuals into adolescence or adulthood.

People with good gross motor skills often enjoy and excel at sports, whereas people (like me) with poor gross motor skills have difficulty playing sports and thus may have difficulty socially in elementary school!

Observations Regarding Gross Motor Skill Development Typical of Three-Year-Olds

A person's physical development (the changes in their body over time) occurs in a variety of categories, including body size, body proportions, tissue makeup (muscle-to-fat ratio), skeletal growth, hormone production, and motor skills, which child development specialists subdivide into gross and fine. This writeup focuses on gross motor development, specifically gross motor development in a three-year-old, though a researcher can apply the observation techniques discussed to a subject from any age group.

Gross motor skills allow individuals to move around in their environment. For example, the gross motor development of an infant involves gaining control over the skills of crawling, walking, and standing (Berk, 2003). According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, typical developmental milestones reached by the end of three years include climbing well, walking up and down stairs with alternating feet, kicking a ball, running easily, pedaling a tricycle, and bending over easily without falling (2000). It is reasonable to expect a three-year-old to have these gross motor skills.

Often, parents have a strong desire to determine whether or not their child is performing age-appropriately. How do they best do so? Wise parents recognize that they cannot fully trust their own observations, due to the problem of observer bias: "they may see and record what is expected rather than what participants actually do. Therefore, people who have no knowledge of the investigator's hypotheses-- or who at least have little personal investment in them-- are best suited to collect the observations" (Berk, 2003, p. 45). The parents may wish to involve an independent researcher: an experienced observer who has no personal investment in their child's development level. Such researchers usually receive training in both naturalistic observation and structured observation techniques.

Structured observations occur in a laboratory setting; the investigator sets up a situation that evokes the behavior of interest. In one study, in order to observe children's comforting behavior, researchers played a tape recording of a baby crying in the next room. Using an intercom, children could either talk to the baby or flip a button so they did not have to listen. The researchers recorded the children's facial reactions, the length of time they talked, and the extent to which they spoke in a comforting manner (Eisenberg et al., 1993).

For certain behaviors, however, structured observations become less feasible. It may make much more sense for the observer to perform naturalistic observation, "to go into the field, or the natural environment, and record the behavior of interest" (Berk, 2003, p. 44).

In order to assess the physical, cognitive, and social/emotional development of three-year-old "K", including her gross motor development, I performed nine naturalistic observation sessions in the spring of 2004. These sessions varied in duration with some as short as forty-five minutes in length while others lasted for two or three hours. I sat in the play room at the Early Childhood Education Development Center where K received day care and took detailed notes on her behavior. I documented all of her activities and periods of inactivity in order to create a specimen record, a description of K's entire stream of behavior-- everything said and done over a certain time period (Schoggen, 1991).

The Center subdivided its playroom into several areas: a space dedicated to dramatic play, a block space filled with toys for the children to first build and then take apart, a library space lined with books, a space dedicated to sensory play, an art space that had tables used for different activities at different times of day, and a space dedicated to manipulative play. The center had registered fifteen children in K's age group, which spanned from 2.2 to 3.9 years. The Center provided a rotating staff of three teachers, who ensured that the children participated in certain mandatory activities like lunch and the early afternoon nap. During other periods of time, the children self-selected what area(s) of the playroom to spend time in. K had a range of possibilities to select from and a measure of control over how her day went, and my specimen record reflected this.

I wrote the specimen record in a log book. This allowed me to keep track of how K reacted to stimuli presented by her environment, including interactions with her peers and with the adult teachers. After documenting this painstakingly by hand in the format of an itemized list organized point-by-point chronologically, I later transcribed the notes into an electronic record. After the third observation session, I took the next step past mere transcription and began to edit my notes in order to create a running narrative account of the session's events. This allowed me to select a theme to focus upon. For example, the theme selected for the fourth observation session was “how K moves/uses her body”; these notes were of course particularly relevant to gross motor development.

After concluding all nine observation sessions, I reviewed my electronic transcriptions and analyzed them for examples of gross motor play. Unfortunately, the Center limited K’s opportunities to exhibit her gross motor skill level during the first eight observation sessions. The teachers had been trained to discourage climbing on the equipment of the playroom, and the toys available were not designed to be kicked, thrown or pedaled. During the ninth session, however, I joined K for a period of time in what was actually called “the motor room”.

The mats covering the floor of the motor room ensured that the children could play exuberantly while remaining safe. In addition to mats, the motor room was equipped with bean bags for the children to throw, a slide that had stairs leading up to it, hollow cubes that the children could crawl into and over, angle-sided tubes connecting the cubes, and a round tube to be crawled through. This space allowed K greater freedom for gross motor play. I noted how she climbed the stairs using alternating feet; K climbed the six-step stairs for the slide six times, stumbling once on her second climb and using the same foot twice in a row for one step on her fourth climb. Interestingly enough, K chose to use her forelimbs also when climbing the stairs for the first five times. (I inquired of K during this time as to whether or not K could go up the stairs using only her feet, and K said that she could, but did not do so.) On her sixth climb, she did use the stairs’ hand rails for some of the time. K also exhibited her ability to climb in the gross motor room by climbing up the slide. She did not successfully reach the top of the slide, but this may have been deliberate, in order to enjoy sliding back down on her belly.

I documented several other, more sedate, examples of gross motor play over the course of the nine sessions. In the first session, K ran to one of the teachers, and pushed a mass of cars across the block area. In the second session, K went to one of the teachers in order to show off her hand, ran to the snack table, and ran from the snack table to the block area. In the third session, K ran across the room twice from adult to adult and left the dramatic play area to wash her hands for snack time. In the fourth session, K kicked a book across the floor, turned her trunk to look at something behind herself, kicked her feet with alternating motions and turned in an adults lap to pedal her feet across the floor.

At this point I noted in my unpublished specimen record, “her coordination seems fine and her motor skills appropriately developed for a three-year-old".

Because the parents received no charge for my work, the observation sessions continued, as did the gross motor play. In the fifth session, K stood up from an adult’s lap, crossed to play from the snack table to the block area, stood from playing with a toy in the library area and crossed to an adult then returned, then crossed to the arts area, left the table to go sit with an adult, crossed to a table that had puzzles laid out on it, then crossed over to another table. In the seventh session, K ran from the arts area to the manipulative area, noting with pride “I run faster.” She also kicked a ball across the eating area floor.

The only one of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ motor skill milestones that I did not observe over the course of the nine sessions was “Bends over easily without falling” (2000). However, given the level of detail I achieved in my specimen record, if K had fallen over at any point in time during the sessions, I would have noted the fall. It therefore seemed reasonable for me to assume that K did not fall on a regular basis, and that she had developed physically to an appropriate level of gross motor skill for her age of 3.00 years. Any fears that her parents may have had about this aspect of her physical development could have easily been assuaged.


  • American Academy of Pediatrics. (2000). Medical Library: Developmental Milestones by the End of 3 Years. Retrieved February 19, 2004 from
  • Berk, L. (2003). Child Development, 6th Edition. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
  • Eisenberg, N., Fabes, R.A., Carlo, G., Speer, A.L., Switzer, G., Karbon, M & Troyer, D. (1993). The relations of empathy-related emotions and maternal practices to children's comforting behavior. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 55, 131-150.
  • Schoggen, P. (1991). Ecological psychology: One approach to development in context. In R. Cohen & A.W. Siegel (Eds.), Context and development (pp. 281-301). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

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