Motor development from baby to toddler
Tips for at home from professionals
One moment you look at your new-born baby, so sweet and vulnerable; then you blink twice and suddenly there they are, toddling around proud as a peacock, ready to discover the world. Child development is incredibly fast, especially in the first year. Birth weight doubles in the first year. Height, around 50 cm at birth, reaches 75 cm after a year. The brain also goes through a major growth spurt, increasing in weight by about 50 per cent. As the brain grows, so do your child’s motor skills.
In this article, paediatric physiotherapist Tessa van der Velde discusses the different phases of your child’s motor development and our own education and development coach Mieke van der Kroft explains how the staff at Hero stimulates children’s motor growth. They give you practical tips on how you can also do this at home in a playful way.
Motor development from 0 to 4 years
A child’s motor skills change a lot in the first four years. All the movements the body makes require cooperation between brain, muscles and limbs. The brain is activated by motor development; through a lot of repetition of certain movements, they become automated. This means that the movements like walking ‘come naturally.’ By trial and error, they are practised over and over again until, eventually, they occur without us having to think about what is happening and how to do it.
There are two different types of motor skills: gross motor skills and fine motor skills. Gross motor skills are all the large movements you make with your body, such as crawling, walking and cycling. Fine motor skills are all the small movements you make with your hands and fingers, such as drawing and writing.
Development proceeds with motor milestones, such as rolling over, sitting, standing and walking. It is important to understand that when and how children reach these milestones varies greatly, with sometimes as much as months difference between children. So you don’t have to worry if your baby or toddler can’t do something (yet)!
Motor development 0 to 1 year
Discovering their own body
Theory: In the first weeks, a baby lies mainly on their back and will start to follow movements and turn their head. This is important to prevent a preferred posture and possible head flattening. The prone position (on the belly) is also very important to train the neck and back muscles that will later be needed for rolling, sitting and standing.
Around 3 months, a baby can raise their head for some time and jerky movements with the arms and legs become more fluid. Where in the first weeks the hands are balled up in a fist, the fingers now begin to open and relax more. Reaching and grasping goes from involuntary to purposeful, to grab a toy, for example.
From exploring their own hands and bringing their feet to their mouth, a baby will increasingly attempt to roll on their side and eventually over onto their belly. Most children have mastered rolling around 6 months.
Once they are able to roll to their bellies, a baby will start moving forward by (belly) crawling. Most children start scootching forward on their belly around 7-8 months and start crawling on hands and knees around 9/10 months. Around this age, the muscles in the back and neck have become strong enough for baby to sit upright independently. Fine motor skills are also developing. From involuntarily grabbing something with the entire palm of the hand, baby will increasingly use a tweezers grip; picking something up with two fingers, putting blocks in a box, for example.
After crawling, we often see babies starting to pull up to stand while holding on to furniture. This is followed by taking steps along the furniture while holding on, stepping between two pieces of furniture and then, finally, walking independently. It takes a lot of practice to master walking, so be sure to help your child put in the metres! On average, children begin to walk between 13 and 15 months. Around 1 year, fine motor skills such as turning (board book) pages and drinking from their own cup develop.
In practice: At Hero, we give babies plenty of room to move. The group rooms are designed so that very young children can move around safely on the floor. Children are often laid on their stomachs to strengthen their neck and back muscles. When children can roll over and grasp toys, we encourage them to move by placing a toy just beyond their reach so that they have to make an effort to grasp it. We step in to help when a child does not manage to grab something, of course. By being physically and emotionally close to the baby, we can challenge and guide them in their motor development. When babies start taking steps, we help them by offering support. The room is designed so that there are also opportunities for babies to take steps along low cupboards or tables.
Tips for at home: Does your baby often lie in the playpen or bouncer? Then regularly lay your baby on its stomach and play together to challenge them to pick up their own toys.
Motor development 1 to 2 years:
Theory: Development continues during the second year, but the changes will be less dramatic than the first year. Walking becomes more automated and balance improves. When children are able to walk well, you will see more variation. They start walking backwards, tiptoeing and walking with something in their hand, for example. Children often also become better at standing up from being seated on the ground and climbing stairs without help. Around 1.5 years, children will start to throw or kick a ball more often.
Dressing and undressing becomes easier at this age. Children will start taking off their own socks. They practice eating with a fork or spoon. Their block tower will get higher and higher.
In practice: At Hero, children get a lot of exercise. We achieve this by offering various physical activities that are incorporated in our Uk & Puk play and learning method. Uk & Puk stimulates all areas of development, including motor skills. We play outside with the children every day, where they also have plenty of space to move around. We ask children to help undress themselves as soon as this is possible and they eat independently and learn to drink from a normal cup at an early age.
Tips for at home: Each child develops at their own pace. This pace is partly determined by a child’s own ‘drive’ to develop and learn new things, but it can also be influenced by their environment. Think of siblings or parents who hand a child whatever they ask for. You can imagine how this stimulates motor development less because the child has come up with another solution to get to toys, eat or take off their socks. It takes a bit more time, but encourage your child to try things on their own even if they don’t always succeed right away.
Motor development 2 to 3 years:
Growing by leaps and bounds
Theory: Between the second and third year of life, the movement repertoire expands and children are constantly trying out new combinations. Children learn to apply specific strategies to better adapt to their environment. They can adapt their walking pattern to step over a threshold or adapt their grasp to the shape of the object they want to hold, for example. Movements are further automated during this developmental phase.
Around this age, children start to experiment with jumping. At first they will not get off the ground but this will improve quickly. Climbing stairs, kicking a ball and catching are also skills that are practised a lot at this age. Balance will also improve and a balance bike will be a fun challenge.
Interest in pencils will develop from now on. Lines will be drawn on a paper with a pencil held in the palm of the hand. Opening things like pots will also become increasingly interesting.
In Practice: By offering different activities, we encourage children’s motor development at Hero. Courses are set out for toddlers to climb, ball games are played and balance bikes are available during outdoor play. Fine motor skills are also stimulated through crafts and drawing, for example. We play a lot of circle games and we are aware of the fact that children need to move a lot so we don’t let them sit still unnecessarily. The activities are offered by the Uk & Puk method as mentioned earlier, but there are also workshops to stimulate children’s movement, such as ‘beweegkriebels’, when an external exercise coach visits locations to offer various activities related to motor development.
Tips for at home: Offer many different toys so your child exercises both fine and gross motor skills. Provide puzzles with large pieces, a shape cube or blocks, put on some music to dance together and go outside often to run, climb and build sand pies.
Motor development 3 to 4 years:
On the road to independence
Theory: Toddlers love to climb and scramble and start pushing their boundaries. They get stronger and their balance improves. They can walk over a bench or tree trunk with increasing ease, and can jump higher and higher. Whereas initially the ball was pressed directly against their body when caught, you will now see that children can catch the ball without pressing it against their body.
Children at this age are becoming more independent. This can be seen in dressing and undressing, eating with cutlery and drinking from a cup. Small objects can be grasped properly and making a puzzle also becomes easier. Children start to hold a pencil with the three-point grip they learn at primary school.
In Practice: Hero encourage children to be independent. Children are allowed to undress themselves before going to bed, for example, with our assistance when necessary. Children get their own coats and put them on independently when going outside. They are also allowed to try spreading their sandwiches themselves. We also offer smaller toys such as LEGO to toddlers who are ready for this challenge to stimulate their fine motor skills.
Tips for at home: Is catching a ball still a bit tricky? Practise with a balloon, which comes down less quickly and gives children more time to catch it. To practise balance, turn kerbs outside into balance beams. Offer lots of different pencils and crayons, both thick and thin, to encourage fine motor skills like grip and drawing.
About the writers:
Mieke van der Kroft is an pedagogy coach for the Hero day-care centres. She coaches our staff on educational and developmental topics and advises them if there are children who have developmental challenges and would benefit from some extra attention.
Tessa van der Velde is a paediatric physiotherapist and co-owner of De Fysio Studio, a physiotherapy practice in Amsterdam West. She works in the practice and collaborates a lot with primary schools. She is the mother of Senne (3.5) and Mats (1 year old) who attend childcare 2 days a week at Hero KDV Crommelinstraat.