Gross Motor Skills: Key Milestones for Toddlers

What milestones should your child meet and when? Get the scoop from a local pediatric psychologist.

There comes a time when every bouncing baby upgrades from a crawl to standing tall. Major developments in these gross motor skills – otherwise known as the use of large muscles in the legs and arms – typically occur during ages 1-3.

With these skills, toddlers begin to run around the house, climb up jungle gyms, cruise around on a tricycle and take on hopscotch.

Whether the prospect of a mobile munchkin excites or terrifies you, Jennifer Butcher, a pediatric psychologist at the University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, says there are plenty of ways parents can help their toddlers meet the necessary milestones.

“Luckily, kids are prone to just developing on their own, but certainly it’s good to get them outside when the weather is nice to play, run and jump around,” she says. “It’s important for parents to allow them active play time.”

Milestones to meet

Walking, running, going up and down stairs, balance and climbing are a few things Butcher says parents should be looking for in toddlers.

“Normal walking should be right about 15 months; that’s a big thing to watch out for,” she says. “Advanced navigation skills happen around 1-2, like stepping sideways and backwards without holding onto things.”

The pace then quickens as children grow in strength and confidence.

“By 2, they should be running in a fairly quick and coordinated manner, and they should be able to walk up and down stairs without using their hands,” Butcher says. “(At) 3, you’ll see them get more balanced in general, so when they’re running they will be able to stop quickly and they can climb on playground equipment.”

The U.S. National Library of Medicine says more accidents occur during toddler years than any other point in childhood, so tots shouldn’t be left alone for even short periods of time. Childproof your home, too.

“Install window guards, gates on stairways, cabinet locks, toilet seat locks, electric outlet covers and other safety features to keep the child safe,” the NLM advises.

Problem signs

“If they’re not walking by 15 months, that’s a big red flag,” Butcher says. “It’s also a concern if, after kids have been walking for a while, they’re falling a lot or seem to have balance issues.” Another flag: “If they’re not running with their feet together. That’s what we call a narrow base gait.”

While clumsiness is likely normal, Butcher says if kids are severely accident prone and observably clumsier than their peers, tell your pediatrician.

In rare cases, Butcher says a doctor may recommend Early On Michigan, a state early intervention service for ages 0-3 with developmental delays and/or disabilities.

“There are lots of reasons (children may have delays),” she says. “There are things that present greater risk: Children who were born significantly pre-term, kids who have other medical difficulties, neurological problems, history of seizures or any kind of brain injury after birth or congenital/chronic illnesses.”

Taking action

While Butcher says gross motor skills should develop naturally, there are activities for little ones to gain strength and work on balance.

It’s easy to get kids active in the summer, when they’re likely to be running in the backyard, heading to the park or splashing in a pool. In winter, try gymnastics/tumbling or indoor climbing classes – especially if there are early motor delay concerns.

“It’s also good to make sure you’re limiting non-active play in terms of screen time. At minimum, they need an hour of active play a day.”

Being active is key. “Kids just need a lot of time to play, and it’s even great when parents get them moving by singing and dancing.”


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