By Stacy Whitman
I’ll never forget my son Whit’s first triumphant steps. For months, he’d been walking while clutching onto something, usually my hand. But shortly after his first birthday, he fi nally got the courage to let go. Holding out his hands to brace for a fall, he tentatively put one foot in front of the other, into my waiting arms. As I cheered, he broke into an enormous smile and an excited giggle. He couldn’t have been more proud—and I couldn’t wait to call his dad.
From walking and running to climbing and jumping, the toddler years are a time of major development of gross motor skills. While watching your little one meet each milestone can be fun, it also signals that he’s on track developmentally. But to master these movement skills, kids need lots of practice, notes pediatrician Tanya Remer Altmann, author of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) book The Wonder Years: Helping Your Baby and Young Child Successfully Negotiate the Major Developmental Milestones (Bantam Dell, 2006). And she and other experts say that toddlers can be helped along with the right activities and environment.
The mind-body connection
Gross motor skills refer to large movements of the limbs and torso that require a complex interaction between the brain, nervous system and muscles. When babies are born, the parts of their brain that control and coordinate movement are immature, Altmann explains. Plus, they don’t have the physical strength to lift their head, much less stand up and walk. But over time, “nerve pathways are laid down and corresponding muscles strengthened so that they can respond to the nerve impulses and produce the required action,” says Altmann.
Most children acquire movement skills in the same predictable pattern, with the achievement of one milestone serving as a building block for the next, Altmann adds. For example, they crawl before they walk, and walk before they run, skip or hop. In turn, gross motor skills set the groundwork for fi ne motor skills, or small, precise movements of the hands, fingers, feet and toes.
“If a child has good head and neck control and a strong trunk from an activity like crawling, he’ll have an easier time sitting and practicing fi ne motor movements like eating with a spoon and coloring,” explains Gay Girolami, P.T., executive director of Pathways Center in Glenview, Ill., a pediatric therapy clinic for kids with early motor delays.