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!

PHYSICAL DEVELOPMENT: Gross Motor Development

The term “physical development” refers to the changes that occur in a person’s body over time. Physical development 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 can be subdivided into gross and fine. This writeup focuses on gross motor development, specifically gross motor development in a three-year-old, though the observation techniques discussed could be used on a subject from any age group.

A gross motor skill is best defined as an ability to perform actions that 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, by the end of three years, a child should be able to climb well, walk up and down stairs with alternating feet, kick a ball, run easily, pedal a tricycle, and bend 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. What is the best strategy for doing so? If the parents are wise, they will recognize that their own observations may not be trustworthy, 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, children's comforting behavior was observed by playing 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. Children's facial reactions, the length of time they talked, and the extent to which they spoke in a comforting manner were recorded (Eisenberg et al., 1993).

For certain behaviors, however, structured observations are not feasible. It may make much more sense for the observer to perform naturalistic observation, that is "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 Kaitlyn, including her gross motor development, nine naturalistic observation sessions were completed in the spring of 2004. These sessions varied in duration; some were as short as forty-five minutes in length, while others lasted for two or three hours. An observer sat in the play room at the Early Childhood Education Development Center where Kaitlyn received day care,and took detailed notes on her behavior. The observer documented all of her activities and periods of inactivity in order to create what is termed a specimen record, a description of the entire stream of behavior-- everything said and done over a certain time period (Schoggen, 1991).

Kaitlyn's playroom at the Center was subdivided into several areas: there was a space dedicated to dramatic play, a block space filled with toys that could be first constructed and then taken apart, a library space lined with books for Kaitlyn to select from, 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. Kaitlyn was not alone in this playroom; a total of fifteen children were registered for her 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 were allowed to choose what area of the playroom to spend time in. Kaitlyn had a range of possibilities to select from and a measure of control over how her day went, and the observer's specimen record reflects this.

The specimen record was written in a log book, and it allowed the observer to keep track of how Kaitlyn 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, the observer later transcribed the notes into an electronic record. After the third observation session, the observer took the next step past mere transcription and began to edit the notes in order to create a running narrative account of the session's events. This allowed the observer to select a theme to focus upon. For example, the theme selected for the fourth observation session was “how Kaitlyn moves/uses her body”; these notes were of course particularly relevant to the gross motor development that is the topic of this writeup!

After the nine observation sessions were completed, the electronic transcriptions were reviewed and analyzed for examples of gross motor play. Kaitlyn’s opportunities to exhibit her gross motor skill level were somewhat limited during the first eight observation sessions. Climbing on the equipment of the playroom would have been discouraged by the Center’s teachers, and the toys available were not designed to be kicked or thrown. There were no tricycles at the Center. During the ninth session, however, there was a period of time in which the children were taken out of their normal playroom into what was actually called “the motor room”.

The floor of the motor room had been covered with mats so that the children could play more exuberantly while remaining safe. In addition to mats, the motor room had been equipped with bean bags which could be thrown, 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 Kaitlyn greater freedom for gross motor play. While she was there, the observer noted how she climbed the stairs using alternating feet. Kaitlyn climbed the six-step stairs for the slide six times, stumbling once on her second climb and not alternating her feet for one step on her fourth climb. Interestingly enough, Kaitlyn chose to use her forelimbs also, when climbing the stairs for the first five times. The observer inquired of Kaitlyn during this time as to whether or not Kaitlyn could go up the stairs using only her feet, and Kaitlyn 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. Kaitlyn 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.

Several other, more sedate, examples of gross motor play were documented by the observer over the course of the nine sessions. In the first session, Kaitlyn ran to one of the teachers, and pushed a mass of cars across the block area. In the second session, Kaitlyn 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, Kaitlyn 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, Kaitlyn 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. The observer noted in the unpublished specimen record, “her coordination seems fine and her motor skills appropriately developed for a three-year-old".

The observation sessions, of course, continued, as did the gross motor play. In the fifth session, Kaitlyn 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, Kaitlyn 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 was not observed over the course of the nine sessions was “Bends over easily without falling” (2000). However, given the level of detail in the observer’s specimen record, if Kaitlyn had fallen over at any point in time during the sessions, it would have been noted. It seems reasonable to assume that Kaitlyn does not fall on a regular basis, and that she has therefore developed physically to the level of gross motor skill that is appropriate 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.
This writeup formatted in APA style, the way God intended psychological writing to be done.

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