Learning and Development

Gross Motor Skills

From a baby’s first efforts to crawl to complex endeavours like climbing a tree, large motor movements must be nurtured in early years settings, says Angela D Nurse…

This is the final article in my series dedicated to physical development (if you haven’t read the earlier instalments, you’ll find part one on the impact movement has on children’s health, wellbeing and cognitive skills here and part two on fine motor skills here) and will focus on large motor movements. I hope, however, that the previous articles have brought to you all a broader understanding of what physical development encompasses and that you feel the need now to investigate more widely. Although the articles each concentrate basically on a different aspect, I have endeavoured to demonstrate that these strands cannot be separated if we are to understand how complex skills develop and how movement and the senses feed information to the brain, which in turn coordinates the work of the body. To be at ease within one’s own body engenders confidence and wellbeing as well as ensuring good general health. Margaret McMillan (see panel) recognised the importance of space and physical activity:

To move, to run, to find things out by new movement, to feel one’s life in every limb, that is the life of early childhood.

So, what does this aspect of physical development comprise? Firstly, there are certain movements a human learns to do from the early days of infancy to ensure survival and to become independent of his adult caretakers. These, in general order, though there are exceptions to the sequence, are reaching, sitting, crawling, standing, walking and running. They develop in the first 18 or so months if conditions are optimal and there is nothing to impair progress – in infants with Down’s Syndrome, for example, muscles tend to be very slack and this delays progress, often requiring therapy to ensure these physical skills are achieved. Again children with cerebral palsy may have difficulties in reaching motor goals; sometimes these are not achieved. As practitioners, working with therapists it is essential to ensure that we do all we can to encourage and challenge children to progress.

Motivation and determination is important and often crucial; I have often thought, probably based purely on my own experience, that although most aspects of infants’ development occur in tandem, in some, language or physical skills ‘take off’ while others plateau. An investigation of ‘schemas’ is useful here. In my immediate family, for example, the infants have all been slow to talk (though understanding was always fine) but movement has always been foremost in their thoughts, probably to escape from me! Both my daughters were born early yet the elder crawled at five months, before she could, or was prepared to, sit. She wanted a toy and I did not get it for her, so she made strenuous attempts to reach it herself, but unfortunately kept moving backwards. She was cross.

In less than a fortnight, however, she had managed this and then, at six months she hauled herself up my mother’s stairs. By just 11 months she was walking securely and at 12 she followed her dad up a ladder into the attic. Her sister walked at 10 months and is now a fine musician. Neither, though, has gained much from this precocity in adult life, when applied to physical activity, though the elder is still far more interested in sport than her sister. What has this taught me as a teacher of young children? Firstly that tick lists do not capture the richness and variety of children’s development and detailed observation is needed to ensure we provide sufficient challenge for individuals, helping them to maintain motivation and increase confidence in what they are able to do for themselves.

Secondly, there are skills that people acquire and take to great lengths, as we witnessed during the UK Olympics and Paralympics in 2012. Some of these athletes will have discovered a talent in childhood and been fortunate enough to have an adult, whether teacher or parent, who encouraged and guided them for many years. Others, particularly those who have experienced injuries, will come to a sport in later life. In all motivation, hard work and sheer determination bring their rewards.

Practice makes perfect

Children need to understand what their bodies can do and how to control their movements to their best advantage. One aspect often overlooked is how quickly children grow and the effect this can have on movement. Sometimes this is more gradual and different body dimensions can be incorporated into a child’s repertoire quite easily. At other times, there are growth spurts that can upset a child’s sense of where his limbs start and finish and other aspects such as balance or length of stride. For most this is momentary – others find it harder, including parents who have to find new clothes and shoes! This can account for children’s transitory loss of confidence, especially after a short break from nursery, on pieces of climbing apparatus or stairs, for example. They soon adjust if given support to try again.

Over the years there has been much resistance to ‘rote’ learning, particularly in education circles. This has been applied mainly to tasks like learning times tables (though this has been helpful to me throughout my long life) but it has also been reflected in the ways children absorb other tasks. It obscures the need for repetition as children learn. A parent, older child or practitioner will find tedious the process of holding a small hand numerous times, but when a child masters climbing a slide it is a magical moment, leading on to much experimentation: heads first, on their backs and so on.

In the previous article, the concepts of ‘motor strings’, automatic movements and kinaesthetic sense were raised. To become embedded, these need practice. As an example, let’s consider what a child needs to do to become proficient at riding a bicycle. Not only does she require good large motor skills, she needs her senses to be in tune with her task: sight to position herself and look out for obstacles; touch for the surface of the road and control of the handle bars; hearing to listen out for others approaching and to check that all is well with the mechanics of the bike. First steps usually involve sitting on a push-along trike which the infant learns to control by pushing along the ground with her feet. Think through the sequence of movements she needs to accomplish to do this. Then she needs to master the three-wheeler and the art of pedalling (how I enjoyed my freedom to roam on my trike as a three-year-old). Eventually, she graduates to a two-wheeler with stabilisers and then has the confidence to take them off and go. Once acquired, they say the art of riding a bicycle is never lost. Fifty years after my last bike ride I am loathe to put this to the test!

Spatial awareness

There is another linked aspect of physical development that is important to how we find our way in the world. Perception is more than observing; it is the interpretation of what we see and then putting this information to practical use. We are fascinated by those pictures in which are hidden different images – an old man, say, or a beautiful young woman according to which details you concentrate on – but it has more important implications for how we find our way in the world. For example, many of us were brought up in the city and know where we are because we are familiar with the buildings that surround us. We know how cities work because we have walked, run, climbed and hopefully cycled our way around them. Outside the town, in wide open spaces where there are trees and other greenery, we are not so assured. We find it much harder to distinguish trees and hedges than we do houses, unless there are other landmarks. This is because early experiences have instilled in us, through moving through our locality, mindsets that absorb and interpret the information in especial ways.

This spatial awareness is important not just to how we know where we are but can impact on the way we are able to deal with certain aspects of geography and mathematics. Children who lack this experience can have more difficulty with, perhaps, shapes, 3D and geometry. This has been noted in children who have conditions like cerebral palsy, which limit their ability to move freely in infancy. As practitioners we need to do all we can to offer children space and opportunities to roam, ensuring that the environment they encounter is safe but not lacking in challenge.

How can we do this? Many outside areas I have seen, whether in state, private or voluntary provision, have been very limited and limiting. Some have no garden areas at all, others are so small or separated from the inside that there can be no free access and some have been downright dangerous. We have to be imaginative and creative. If the area is too small for wheeled toys and climbing apparatus, then growing areas, maybe in pots, or a musical area can provide for large muscle use.

Freedom to roam

Activities to ensure good large motor development can be organised or can come about freely, but too few children have the opportunity to roam as I did as a preschooler; therefore as practitioners we need to demonstrate to and provide for them in ways that do not reveal our anxieties for their physical safety. This, in the end, makes them fearful of their own ability to care for themselves and to understand the possible outcomes to the risks they choose to take. Jumping off a high wall with no previous practice is not a good idea. Instilling enjoyment of physical activity into a child so that he continues to value it well into old age is a gift I wish someone had given to me.

Indoors and out

One interesting option to consider is a physical area indoors where as much thought goes into the environment as for the writing or mathematics corners. The Jabadao Project in Kirklees provides ideas for these (see Physical Development in the Early Years Foundation Stage pp58–9 for more details).

Other providers have become involved with the forest school movement, which restores many ‘lost’ activities such as tree-climbing and shelter building. A number of books on this subject have been published recently, which a search online will reveal. One of the best summers my girls had was spent totally in the garden with my neighbour’s grandchildren, climbing fences and trees, living in their own imaginative world. Ages ranged from four to 12 and social skills were enhanced as well. I only had one trip to casualty when the youngest fell out of the tree, but all was well…

Further reading

Jabadao Developmental Movement Play

McMillan, M The Nursery School 2nd edition (Dent & Sons, 1930)

● Williams-Siegfredson, J Understanding the Forest School Approach (Routledge, 2011)

Angela is the author of Physical Development in the Early Years Foundation Stage. She was formerly head of the Department of Childhood Studies and a principal lecturer in early years at Canterbury Christ Church University.