How to Help Your Toddler Develop Her Gross Motor Skills

Here are some fun and easy ways to help your little one master those motor skills

Illustration by Deanna Halsall

It turns out some jobs are best left to the family dog. That’s what Allison Giggey and her husband learned as they attempted to encourage their daughter, Laine, now 15 months, to throw a ball. However, the only family member able to accomplish the feat was Lola, their golden retriever. “We would try to get Laine to throw a ball, but she wasn’t interested,” says the Charlottetown-based mom. That changed when Lola recently started bringing Laine the ball. “Laine actually picks it up and throws it now but only for Lola.” While this interaction is just a fun game of fetch for the family pet, for Laine, the tossing action actually helps her grow and develop her gross motor skills.

Don’t have a dog? Don’t worry. There are lots of other ways to help your child develop her gross motor skills.

Mastering Moves
Gross motor skills involve larger muscle groups and are skills such as crawling, standing, walking, jumping or throwing a ball. According to Ester Fink, physical therapist and owner of Canadian Medek Centre and Physiotherapy Clinic in Vaughan, Ont., which specializes in the development of gross motor skills in children with movement disorders, these skills are integral to a child’s development, both from a physical and mental standpoint. “Babies learn about space by moving from one place to another,” she says. “By experiencing movement, children de-velop posture control, muscle strength, balance and coordination, and these are all conducive to and important for developing brain function.”

A Hop, Skip, and Jump
For children between 12 and 24 months, the best thing parents can do is provide space to explore and roam. Keltie Wattie and Linette Lahey, physical therapists and co-owners of Calgary Youth Physiotherapy, say parents should encourage their toddler to be active and move in fun, playful ways such as walking like an animal, chasing after bubbles, pushing and pulling wheeled toys, running through a homemade obstacle course and catching and kicking balls. “Old mattresses or pillows are also great to set on the floor to jump and balance on,” says Wattie, as are sheets that can be used for tent-making and parachute play and stuffed animals that can easily be tossed and caught.

Music is another key movement-maker for young kids, says Dr. Darcy Fehlings, head of the University of Toronto’s Division of Developmental Paediatrics and physician director of the child development program at Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital. Her advice: Put on a song and get her hopping and clapping her hands. She also advises parents to promote independent movement. “Say a child is having trouble reaching for a toy,” says Dr. Fehlings. “Instead of passively bringing their hand to the toy, hold the toy close to them and get them to reach for it themselves.”

Another smart tactic for encouraging movement is to limit your toddler’s screen time, make play dates for her with kids of similar ages and visit your neighbourhood playground often so she can run and jump around and explore the age-appropriate play structures.

Expectations and Concerns
Every child develops at their own rate, but by 12 to 18 months it’s typical to expect that they’ll be walking and crawling up stairs. By 24 months kids should be able to go up and down stairs with two feet on each step, jump off a step with a two-foot takeoff and stand on one foot for a few seconds as well as kick a large ball, throw a small ball and step over low objects. “There’s always a range when it comes to normal development, but if a child is more than three to four months delayed, it’s more of a cause for concern and a reason to see your doctor,” says Dr. Fehlings.

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