Basics of Mature Motor Skill Development
By Sallie Tidman, Occupational Therapist, and Lucille O’Neil, Physical Therapist
We are really tuned in as parents the first time a baby rolls or sits up. We celebrate a baby’s first steps and words with video cameras, scrapbooking, and calls to relatives. However, milestones get lost for many of us after that. Not many of us talk about the first time a child throws or kicks a ball.
Motor skill development remains important past year two. There are many components of motor development$mdash;some easy to understand and others more complex—but all are critical parts of a child’s physical development and the base for all motor skills from walking to running to sports abilities. Below is an overview of the underlying skills that work in unison as a child develops useful motor skills.
While we typically think of strength in our arms as we flex an elbow or leg strength when a child runs, Trunk Strength involving both back and stomach muscles is particularly important. A child needs a base of strength in the trunk to use legs and arms, and strength of the trunk, shoulders and arms to be able to use wrists, hands and fingers successfully. Without the ability to keep our body upright with the trunk muscles, all other motion becomes non-functional.
Balance is the ability to react and readjust posture to movement. In order to maintain balance, your center of mass (weight) needs to be directly over your support surface (your feet when standing, your bottom when sitting, etc.). Balance is controlled by the vestibular system and the visual system, which work together to tell the body where it is in space. Without these systems, we would topple over when trying to sit or stand, let alone walk or run. As balance develops, we can shift as our environment changes, such as maintaining a standing position when standing on a moving carousel.
Postural Control involves automatic control of muscles. As strength becomes more coordinated, and balance reactions improve, then postural control improves. Think about a time you watched someone downhill ski for the first time. They were most likely stiff, with their hands high in the air. Chances are their toes were bunched up tight in their boots. As one practices an activity, postural control develops. They keep a stable base at the trunk, making adjustments as needed. They relax using the strength in areas they need—in skiing one uses their legs and pelvis, but relaxes arms and upper body. They even begin to anticipate when a balance reaction is needed and can adjust to the shift in mid-activity.
Bilateral Coordination is the ability to use arms and legs together. This could be our arms or legs doing the same activity or different activities. In running, our legs are doing the same movements, but not at the same time. In galloping, our legs are doing different activities. In tennis, often all four limbs are doing different things at the same time.
Plain and simple, Visual Skills are what we see. Our vision puts the environment in perspective for us. Visual Perceptual Skills are used in intercepting what the eyes see. There are many components that make up visual perception—visual closure (being able to “see” a partially finished picture for what it will be), depth perception (judging an object’s distance from us) and position in space. Basically, it is using the information our eyes see usefully in what we are doing. These skills are particularly important in anticipating timing and getting into proper position when catching or hitting a ball.
Progress in the development of these motor components is evident as a child learns to run, jump and master similar skills. Beyond making it possible for a child to engage in physical activities, acquisition of these skills illustrates progress in a child’s ability to adjust their movements to changing or unexpected conditions, which helps a child more safely navigate the world around them. Understanding the steps in the process can help parents encourage their child’s development. The chart on the following page outlines some of the motor skills that develop after the well-recorded first two years and ways to support children as they build a large repertoire of skills.
Special Focus: Steps and Strides in Motor Skill Development
The first Running happens not too soon after learning to walk. This is not real running. This is walking fast without any control yet. As the child practices walking, their postural control develops. They will first develop a run/hurried-walk, which appears “waddly.” They learn to control the speed and eventually develop a true run, with a “flight” phase, when both feet are off of the ground at the same time. This takes both strength and speed to propel the body forward.
Working on running with children is as easy as chase-and-catch games, playing tag or making up races. Falls are inevitable. To keep it safe, soft carpet and grass work well, but the softer the surface the harder it will be to push off. Make sure there are no sharp corners or dangerous objects around, and make getting up from a fall part of the game. Another important motor skill related to running is the ability to stop quickly. This is more complex than running and “red light, green light” is a great way to practice, as is a good game of “freeze” where the child becomes motionless when the music is stopped.
In Galloping the front leg steps while the back leg slides. This generally begins to develop between ages 2 and 2 1/2. Galloping around playing horse is a fun way to work on this, and slowing it down to a “step-slide” can help develop this pattern.
Skipping is a step followed by a hop alternating between right and left legs. Children generally develop this skill around age 5. Once able to hop on one foot, children can practice skipping with a slow motion “step-hop.”
Around age 2, children start to Jump. When learning, children will partially squat and then extend, but their feet will not actually leave the ground. Children have to coordinate the “squat” and then have the power (strength and quick speed) to propel themselves off the ground. They also need to be able to control a landing by gradually relaxing muscles while maintaining balance.
Practicing jumping initially with hands held makes learning easier, as you can assist with both speed and timing. Remember to practice landings as well, as it is important for children to learn to bend their knees as they land to decrease the shock on their joints. As a child becomes more skilled, try frog jumps (jumps from a deep squat), bunny hops (knees only bend a little and most of the push is from the toes) and long jumps.
Most kids learn to Hop on One Foot around 3 years. This is harder than jumping because it requires the ability to balance on a single leg, and requires double the strength to propel the body upward (as one leg is propelling the entire body weight rather than splitting the work between both legs). Practice can start with hands held, or going from two feet to one foot such as in hop-scotch. After mastery of hopping forward and in place, sideways hopping and hopping over obstacles can be fun.
Skills related to Throwing a Ball begin to develop just after the first birthday. Children develop an underhand throw before an overhand throw. First throws develop in sitting, as balancing in standing while throwing is much more complex. Initially, throwing is difficult because the child does not know when to release. By 2 1/2 to 3, a child usually is able to pull the arm upward and back before forward to release in an overhand throw. Practice at home with “balls” of all shapes—yarn balls, sponges, bean bags and even pieces of laundry. Use hoops to drop and throw items through. Also, try throwing over a rope or into a basket.
Catching a Ball is considerably harder than throwing. Catching begins to develop between ages 2 and 3. The first catches are traps against the chest. As the child develops, they are able to visually track the ball and time bringing hands together with the ball’s arrival. Tips for at-home practice: play catch in both sitting and standing, toss balls slowly, and use soft balls so there is no fear of being hurt. Start with a large ball, but not too large (12 to 16 inches is ideal for a beginner). When two adults are available, have one stand behind and guide the child’s hand to close around the ball.
Children are generally able to Hit a Ball between 4 and 5 years of age, occasionally earlier. In most racquet sports or baseball, all four limbs are doing something different; this takes good visual skills and bilateral coordination. Practice at home by hitting a baseball off of a stationary batting tee (when the ball is immobile, the child does not have to incorporate timing into the skill) or playing badminton with a balloon or soft ball. Balloons are ideal “starter” balls as they move very slowly in space, allowing the child to develop timing of their swing. Initially the swing will be an overhead downward movement, which will progress to level motion. Starting with a very large light bat or racket with a large hitting surface makes hitting much easier.
Originally published in the August 2008 issue of Tid*Bits
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