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Motor Development - The First Five Years

by Anita Gurian, PhD

Navigating One's Way in the World

In the first years of life wonderful and dramatic things happen. Babies usually triple their birth weight; they move from being totally dependent to crawling or walking. They are soon able to communicate and to move around to explore the world from different spatial perspectives.

Milestones are flexible; they are approximate times when certain abilities are observable. There is no strict timetable for acquiring abilities or confronting different challenges, and there's a wide range for what's considered normal. Every child grows and adjusts to the world at his or her own pace. This article outlines the motor milestones that enable the child to become physically active in exploring the environment.

First Year Milestones

The newborn has little control of her movements; usually by one year she has learned how to get to where she wants by crawling, cruising or walking. Reflexive movements give way to purposeful movements. This new found mobility enables her to experience the world in new ways.

Between birth and 4 months the child

  • develops control from head down; holds her head up for l0 or more seconds while held on parent's shoulder or lap
  • reaches or swipes and grabs for toy
  • sits steadily when held or seated supported by pillows or in a baby seat
  • pushes up on arms while lying on her stomach, straightens her arms and lifts up her head and chest completely
  • begins to hold a hand away from her body, which is a major neurological achievement in the process of building what's referred to as a proprioceptive map, or a sense of the body in space. (Proprioception is one of the senses that, like hearing, sight or smell, enables a child to explore physical relationships in the world. A proprioceptive sense underlies the ability to extend an arm to catch a ball or climb stairs without looking at the steps below)

Between 5-8 months the child

  • creeps, crawls or otherwise moves about
  • moves purposefully to things she wants; she may be a roller, tummy crawler, scooter or have another unique way of getting around
  • begins to use her hands by passing things from one hand to the other without dropping them
  • pulls self to standing by holding on to an adult's fingers, furniture or other object
  • picks up small toys or food with fingertips
  • uses the pads of her fingers and thumb, rather than her whole hand or palms
  • makes walking motion when held; walks forward, bearing weight on alternating feel when held by the hand or under the arms

By 9-12 months the child

  • creeps or crawls up two or more steps
  • walks, holding on to furniture or cruising along furniture holding on for support and balance
  • picks up and puts down small toys intentionally
  • stands alone; intentionally lets go of support and stands for a few seconds unsupported
  • sits down from standing position

Second Year Milestones

The child's growing motor skills enable him to view the world from different spatial perspectives and to navigate more independently. This new mobility allows him to take more physical risks and to learn more about his physical power and limitations.

By 15 months the child can

  • walk alone
  • stoop down and stand back without help
  • climb on furniture
  • control his fingers better; can hold a crayon and scribble

By 2 years the child can

  • jump in place
  • jump from a low step with both feet together at the same time
  • kick a ball and momentarily balance on one leg while swinging the other to kick an object
  • run forward
  • stand up easily from a sitting position
  • throw a ball overhand

Between 25 and 30 months the child can

  • walk up and down stairs alone. May use a handrail or wall for support, but walks up and down stairs without help, even if she puts both feet on a step at the same time
  • jump in place 2 or more times with feet landing at the same time
  • run or walk on tiptoe
  • climb on a jungle gym
  • walk backward l0 or more feet to pull toys, arrange things or to move out of the way

Third Year Milestones

Between 3 and 4 years the child can
  • jump forward with both feet together
  • stand on one foot unsupported for 2 or more seconds
  • steer and pedal a tricycle
  • throw a ball underhand
  • walk upstairs one foot on each step

Four and Five Year Milestones

Her coordination and control of her body are improving and she can:
  • jump in place
  • walk down stairs
  • balance on one foot for ten seconds
  • a ball purposely overhand
  • a ball with hands
  • gallop
  • jump over an object with both feet
  • walk backward toe/heel
  • climb stairs with one foot per step
  • put simple parts together
  • copy a circle
  • build a tower
  • build constructions using imagination
  • improve in cutting with scissors and coloring within lines

From birth to five years of age, development proceeds at a pace more rapid than any other phase of life. During this time children quickly develop the motor capacities that prepare them to be physically competent, enjoy physical activities, and to handle physical challenges.