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.