Physical & Motor Development
Gross Motor Development
Core Finding: PM-GMO-C02

The environment that an infant spends the most time in is the dominant setting during a child’s early years. Safe learning spaces and outdoor play are crucial to a child’s gross motor development.


In the early years or first 3 years, a child’s primary environment is the environment in which the most time is spent. Many studies draw relationships to characterise the home environment to different aspects of child development. For example, researchers created the Home Observation for Measurement of the Environment (HOME) inventory

to examine the effects of the child’s home environment on cognitive and social development. One of the most striking and consistent HOME findings is that there is strong relationship between stimulating play materials and motor skill development, exceeding that of the relationship between motor skills and other "global measures of environmental quality such as socioeconomic status (SES)."
  1. Bradley, R. H., Caldwell, B. M., Rock, S. L., Hamrick, H. M., & Harris, P. (1988). Home observation for measurement of the environment: Development of a home inventory for use with families having children 6 to 10 years old. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 13(1), 58-71.

Safe and interesting spaces with stimulating play materials appropriate for the child’s developmental stage provide richer affordance landscapes than others and thus have greater potential for fostering child development.

The location and props should be kept stable because frequent changes in the dominant environment are disturbing to babies. When alterations are essential, it is important to maintain the look and location of the environment’s most important elements. Importantly, access to immediate settings (in the home, infant care and outdoor environments) represent an ecological fit that can promote the child’s motor development.

A child’s motor development is heavily influenced by relationships within an ecological framework. According to developmental psychologist Bronfenbrenner’s bio-ecological theory, the microsystem refers to the immediate context in which face-to-face interactions occur, such as the home, neighbourhood, day care centre, school, and so on.

This person–environment transactional relationship is also the focus of Gibson’s theory of affordances. According to a researcher, affordances are properties of the environment with reference to an animal (or in our case, a person).
  1. Gibson, J. J. (1977). The theory of affordances. Hilldale, USA.
The theory of affordances describes how children perceive functionally the properties in their environment and adjust their actions in accordance to their capabilities.

The home and infant care environment contains opportunities for children’s interaction and forms specific demands for their motor behaviour. Environmental stimulation has a critical role in boosting different aspects of gross motor development.

High levels of development and motor control occur in rich contexts that are full of support and opportunities. Several different studies have provided converging evidence that less favourable motor development was associated with limited availability of stimulating home or infant care affordances. Such evidence sparked the interest of mass market where stimulating environmental affordances such as infant swimming classes and infant equipment are readily available.

Even though infant swimming classes have captured the attention of parents wanting the best possible developmental environment for their children, much needs to be done. In a study by researchers, Alberta Infant Motor Scale (AIMS) scores were examined before and after 4 months of swimming classes in 12 full-term babies (ages 7 to 9 months old) assigned to Experimental and Control groups matched on age and developmental status.

The Experimental group had 16, 45-min. swimming lessons, one per week for 4 months. The Control group had no systematic practice apart from daily life experiences. Both groups were tested before and after the intervention. The test sessions were video recorded and later analysed to judge the babies' developmental status.

The AIMS comprises of 58 test items administered in four positions to evaluate the infant's movement competence: prone, supine, sitting, and standing. Results revealed that infants from both groups improved their developmental status from pre to post test, indicating that infant swimming classes have no effect on infants’ gross motor development. As the study is based on a small sample size and the reliability of AIMS requires more validation, no conclusive judgement can be determined.

Currently, there is scant scientific evidence on the effects of infant swimming classes. A study revealed that swimming skills could be acquired more readily once motor development had reached the 5-year-old level.

Most children younger than 4 years require longer instructional periods to learn skills and are limited by their neuromuscular capacity. An infant who started swimming lessons as young as 7 months old may not acquire a higher level of swimming proficiency compared to those taking lessons at a later age. According to American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), children generally are not developmentally ready for swimming lessons until after their 4th birthday.

Parents need to be realistic with their expectations when sending their infants to infant swimming classes. Without specific training, babies can perform rudimentary swimming movements in the water sometime around their first birthday, so they do not need infant swimming programmes to teach them to acquire complex swimming skills.

Therefore, having children begin swimming lessons at an earlier age does not translate to a more rapid mastery of aquatic skills or a higher level of swimming proficiency compared with those taking lessons at a later age. Most importantly, the key is to provide opportunities for children to move about at appropriate developmental stage under the care of their caregivers.

Similarly, parents need to be cautionary towards infant equipment claiming to develop baby’s gross motor skills available in the mass market. Choices include, but are not limited to, jumpers, baby walkers, infant seating devices, swings, and exer-saucers. The results of a cross-sectional study suggested that infants who have high equipment use tend to score lower on infant motor development or that infants who have low equipment use tend to score higher on infant motor development.8 43 mother–infant dyads were recruited to determine the relationship between both total equipment use and the use of individual pieces of equipment and infant motor development. Total and individual equipment use by 8-month-old infants was determined by parental survey and infant motor development was assessed using the Alberta Infant Motor Scale (AIMS). However, limitations of this cross-sectional study make it difficult to determine causality between equipment use and infant motor development.

This is consistent with studies reporting that infant equipment use, and motor development are inversely related for typically developing infants. A researcher investigated the effect of baby walkers on early mobility of infants developing typically.

In this study, 66 mothers were interviewed to determine the timing that their 8 to 12-month-old infants demonstrated independent sitting, prone mobility, and walking. The children were divided into three groups according to the length of time they spent in a baby walker: non-users, low-users (under two hours per day), and high-users (greater than two hours per day). There was no difference between the groups in age at onset of sitting or walking, but children in the high-user group showed a significant delay in onset of prone locomotion compared with the low-user and non-user groups. This suggests that for some infants the excessive use of baby walkers alters the pathway of normal locomotor development.

With the understanding of the importance of movement and how it impacts infants' brain development and the establishment of neurological pathways,

parents are advised not to let their babies spend too much time in cribs, highchairs, swings, or other infant equipment. Reseachers found that the quality of walking patterns was significantly different between these groups of infants.
  1. Kauffman, I. B. & Ridenour, M. (1977) Influence of an infant walker on onset and quality of walking pattern of locomotion: an electromyographic investigation. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 45, 1323–1329.
The investigators found that the group of infants assigned to using a walker demonstrated decreased knee flexion and stride length and greater forward lean when walking independently than the control group. They suggested that the baby walkers allowed the infants to commit mechanical errors when learning to walk. However, on a second testing situation, after the baby walkers were no longer being used, many of these mechanical errors had disappeared or diminished, suggesting that the effects of baby walkers on the quality of walking patterns may be temporary.

Hence, parents should be educated to moderate use of equipment. Additionally, parents should provide adequate floor time at home to practice and experiment with motor abilities is recommended to enhance motor outcomes of vulnerable infants.8 When considering activities for babies to develop their gross motor skills, safety is paramount in all parts of the environment, including equipment, tools and play materials. Infants and toddlers need safe spaces filled with opportunities to explore, discover and learn though sensory experiences that reinforce developing motor skills. Sensorimotor development is built on this premise of looping and spiralling discovery, reinforcement, and new discovery.

It is the fundamental tool for infant and toddler learning.

Creating a safe and secure environment for baby to explore is the best way for babies to develop gross motor skills and build cognitive skills. A German study on 9-month-old babies found that infants who had the opportunity to crawl around may be better at spontaneously observing and exploring objects than those that did not. The study found that the mental representations of two-dimensional and three-dimensional object of 9-month-old infants was related to their abilities to crawl and manually explore objects.

Through exploration of the environment, peek-a-boo and other games that involve hiding objects, adults can support children’s emerging awareness of the environment around them. It is critical that infants spend many of their waking hours on the floor during the day, where they can move around and practice their motor skills. An open and safe floor area allows infants the freedom to move their bodies in many ways.

When babies are given opportunities to crawl and move around to explore their surroundings, they have higher cognitive scores. This is supported by a study in the poor rural Qinba mountainous area in the northwest of China. This study, on eight to ten-month-old infants who were born in winter and in summer, found that babies born during the winter months tended to have higher cognitive scores than those born in summer. This is probably because babies who were born in winter months started crawling in summer and often wore very light clothing when they became more mobile in summer. Hence, there were more opportunities for them to crawl on the (warm) floor. Caregivers were also more willing to take their infants outdoors in the summer, which meant their infants were exposed to more stimulation. In addition, longer daylight hours meant higher activity levels and more stimulation received by the babies.

Caregivers need to observe infants’ readiness baby before providing the appropriate environment. In a sequential mixed methods study in Netherlands, they developed and validated a home-video method for parents, enabling pediatric physical therapists to assess infants’ gross motor development with the Alberta Infant Motor Scale (AIMS).

To investigate the feasibility of this home-video method from the parents’ perspective, 34 out of 45 participating parents responded to online five-point scale questionnaires and eight parents agreed to an interview. The instructions and home video recording resulted in an increased parental awareness of, and insight into, the gross motor development of their infants.

Qualitative data revealed that a mother acquired new insights on how to optimise motor development through video recording of her child’s gross motor development during tummy time. She observed that the baby was moving around on a larger surface, so she decided to let her baby have tummy time more often. By placing children for short periods on the tummy, they can explore objects and the environment is helpful for exploration and discovery.

As children progress and become more mobile, play and interactions in the outdoor environment supports the development of gross motor skills and emotional well-being. A case analysis

of teacher-child interactions during an everyday bush walk in New Zealand revealed how resilience and well-being can be supported through outdoor environments when the adults shape the permissive space, children can act
  1. Waters, J. (2017). Affordance theory. In Waller, T., Ärlemalm-Hagsér, E., Sandseter, E. B. H., Lee-Hammond, L., Lekies, K., & Wyver, S. (Eds.), The SAGE handbook of outdoor play and learning (pp. 40-54). London: Sage.
in ways that align with how they perceive the space. Neighbourhoods with decreased housing and increased outdoor parks were associated with greater levels of physical activity in 4-year-old children.
  1. Roemmich, J. N., Epstein, L. H., Raja, S., Yin, L., Robinson, J., & Winiewicz, D. (2006). Association of access to parks and recreational facilities with the physical activity of young children. Preventive Medicine, 43(6), 437–441.

Hence, the time spent outdoors is an essential determinant of children’s physical activity and independent mobility.

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  1. Schaefer, L., Plotnikoff, R. C., Majumdar, S. R., Mollard, R., Woo, M., Sadman, R., Rinaldi, R. L., Boulé, N., Torrance, B., Ball, G. D. C., Veugelers, P., Wozny, P., McCarger, L., Downs, S., Lewanczuk, R., Gleddie, D., & McGavock, J. (2014). Outdoor time is associated with physical activity, sedentary time, and cardiorespiratory fitness in youth. The Journal of Pediatrics, 165(3), 516–521.

  2. Wen, L. M., Kite, J., Merom, D., & Rissel, C. (2009). Time spent playing outdoors after school and its relationship with independent mobility: A cross-sectional survey of children aged 10–12 years in Sydney, Australia. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, 6(1), 15.

Children who regularly play outdoors tend to be fitter and leaner, develop stronger immune systems, play more creatively, have more active imaginations, report lower stress levels and demonstrate greater respect for themselves and others.
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  1. Burdette, H. L., & Whitaker, R. C. (2005). Resurrecting free play in young children: Looking beyond fitness and fatness to attention, affiliation and affect. Archives of Paediatric and Adolescent Medicine, 159, 46-50.

  2. Fjørtoft, I. (2004). Landscape as Playscape: The effects of natural environments on children’s play and motor development. Children, Youth and Environments, 14(2), 21–44.

However, a researcher warned that adult over-protection during outdoor play could potentially contribute to children’s risk anxiety and loss of confidence when presented with overcoming a risk-taking task.
  1. Hyndman, B. (2015). Should educators be ‘wrapping school playgrounds in cotton wool’ to encourage single-use equipment limits discovery and pretend play? Exploring primary and secondary students’ voices from the school playground. Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 40(6), 60-81.
It also impacted cognitive development negatively due to reduction in active play.

Parents are the primary mediators of gross motor play in their young children. Parents should be encouraged to maximise the opportunity for their children’s outdoor play especially when the affordances of home environment are limited, in relation to how children perceive functionally significant properties in their environment and adapt their actions according to their own capabilities.

Several studies have provided converging evidence that less favourable motor development was associated with limited availability of stimulating home affordances.3,8 A study found that children with physically active parents presented higher scores on measures of fine and gross motor skills than did children whose parents were not physically active.

Their results indicated that characteristics of the primary care provider and the amount of early intervention guidance from them reduced the risk of the children showing delays in gross motor development.