The Importance of Motor Development in the Early Years

Posted February 18, 2020

by, Kylen Glassmann

This Spring has presented me a new set of personal challenges. I have stretched myself professionally and taken on a new role as an adjunct instructor at the University of Minnesota, teaching a course entitled, “Creative and Motor Learning in Early Childhood” through the Institute of Child Development. So far this experience has been exciting and insightful. It has reminded me of the importance and interdependence of all developmental domains. Motor development is often thought of as something that children learn innately; eventually, everyone learns to walk, run, jump, hold a pencil, and color a picture; we don’t “teach” infants to take their first steps in the same way we teach a child to add, subtract, or read. However, a child’s environment and the support they receive while developing any skill is key to learning – as is repetition, new experiences, and practice.

As I began preparing for my course at the University, two things immediately grabbed my attention: the fact that movement frequently takes a back seat in elementary education, often to the detriment of our children, and more and more children are entering school with under-developed fine-motor skills. Fine-motor has to do with small muscles (e.g. fingers and toes), whereas gross/large motor involves the larger muscle groups (e.g. legs and arms). Think of walking and jumping versus gripping and pinching. Although these are separate sets of skills using different parts of the body, everything is interrelated and when one area suffers, the other can too. When a child has a hard time holding a pencil with a pincer grip, they likely lack strength in their hand, which makes controlled movement very challenging. More evidence is also pointing to the bigger picture; what about gross motor development? If a child lacks core strength, has weak hand-eye-coordination or balance, they will likely have a hard time sitting and controlling a pencil or manipulating scissors, even if their hand strength is fully developed. 

Although it’s not necessary to teach a toddler to write their name, and it is something that we structure appropriately in preschool depending on the child’s abilities, at home you don’t have to wait to support your child’s motor development! Just as we encourage infants to grasp an object or pull themselves up to standing by putting a toy just out of reach and offering encouragement, we can do the same for our toddlers and preschoolers. Children are tactile beings that learn through engaging with and manipulating the world around them, and I don’t mean screens! When our bodies move, our brains our firing, sending out healthy messages that help us learn and grow. Even as adults! We all know the worst part of working out is getting to the gym, because if we always felt the way we do after a good sweat, we’d never leave the gym! 



Supporting motor development can be as simple as putting children in the right environment and providing them with the right tools and materials. Make going outside once a day, or a few times a week, a priority and see how your child is encouraged to run, climb, and play with sticks. Set out some markers and paper while you’re preparing dinner. Have a dance party or do some yoga before getting ready to wind down for the evening. Go with their interests and encourage them to try new things! An important thing to keep in mind is to make things fun and don’t force something that your child isn’t ready for. 

Here are some other ways to support your child’s motor skills: 

  • Let them help with cooking or baking projects.
  • Let them serve themselves at the snack table, using tongs or their fingers. 
  • Encourage children to use utensils while eating (even if it’s messy). 
  • Put out coloring materials for them to use when they are interested.
  • Craft with them and encourage them to make things with their hands. 
  • Play a game of red-light, green-light when you’re outside or at the park (practicing different movements like hopping, galloping, crawling, etc.) 
  • Make an obstacle course in your backyard or basement and have them challenge themselves (I wonder if you can go faster this time, or slower and more controlled)
  • Turn a pretend play space into a gym or gymnastics tournament( This was my FAVORITE thing to do as a kid!)
  • Provide them with sensory materials like playdough, clay, slime, and even water or sand with funnels, pipettes, and scoops/shovels. 
  • Dance and stretch.

Using their whole bodies frequently – from fingertips to toes and everything in between – helps children develop their motor skills, and preparesthem for the work they will do as they continue to grow.

Friendship In the Early Years

Posted February 4, 2020

by, Sarah Kern

They are common questions at parent/teacher conferences: Who does she play with? Does she have friends? Who is his best friend? I surprised myself at my daughter’s own parent/teacher conference when the question tumbled out of my mouth: Is there anyone she likes to play with? She’s one year old! Clearly this is on the mind of parents — we want our child to be social, well-liked, and have friends. But how does friendship develop in the early years? There is a typical progression, but it should be said that the development of these skills varies from child to child and is affected by personality and temperament, the environment a child experiences, and any special needs a child may have.

Social awareness begins at birth. Babies prefer to look at faces above all else, and some studies suggest babies can recognize their parents’ faces within a few days of birth. We are programmed to be social, right out of the womb. For one and two year olds, the interest in others begins to grow. In the toddler classroom at All Seasons, we see lots of independent and parallel play. Children are beginning to prefer to be near their peers as they play, but they aren’t quite able to organize play with a peer. Playmate preference is dominated by shared interests. We also see growing empathy at this age — reading emotions and the beginnings of checking in with a classmate who is hurt.  Children are also learning how to enter play, and much about social development can be gleaned by watching this behavior. In fact, asking the question, “Can I play?” is often the beginning a friendship. 

At age three, we see social skills continue to grow. Independent and parallel play continue to play a predominant role. Children this age understand sharing and taking turns, but they may still struggle to consistently implement these skills. Symbolic pretend play becomes more common — a block can now be a cup of coffee, a stick can be a wand. Children this age feel most comfortable joining a group activity, such as playing at the play dough table. Observation and imitation are an important part of development, too. 

At age four, children develop the ability to collaborate and cooperate with peers. Playmate preference increases, and a child may mention a “best” friend at this age. Conversation and negotiation increase, along with increased self-regulation. This is also the age children may begin to exclude others. A child is more likely to proclaim, “You’re not invited to my birthday party!” than they are to hit, and the sting is often worse. Still, children are generally quick to bounce back from this kind of conflict.

At five, play becomes more elaborate, developed, and imaginative. Themes can last an entire playtime and even pick up again at a later time. The ability to take turns, share toys, and understand differing ability levels is generally solid. Helping a younger child is appealing, and the sense of humor grows. 

The adult has an important role to play in the development of these skills. Adults model important social skills, facilitate play, and help children read and respond to social cues. In our mixed age classrooms, peers help each other, too. Many of our students have the opportunity to grow through these stages in the same classroom at All Seasons. It’s a magical thing to watch, and few things are more satisfying to a teacher than a moment of kindness between two children, or the simple answer of “YES” to the question of “Can I play?”