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This topic covers three stages of motor development, spanning the ages 0 to 12, beginning with early reflexes, and developing through the various milestones that a child reaches as they mature.

 Stages of development

There are three stages of motor development in children.

The first stage is marked by extremely rapid growth and development, as is the second stage. By the age of 2 years old, this development has begun to level out somewhat. The final stage does not have any marked new developments, rather it is characterised by the mastering and development of the skills achieved in the first two stages.

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The Newborn Child

It is argued that many of a newborn's reflexes contribute to motor control as the child learns new motor skills. For example the stepping reflex promotes development areas of the cortex that govern voluntary walking. This and other examples can be seen in the table below.

Reflex name
Age Disappears
Motor preparation
Tonic neck
Assumes fencing position; 1 arm extended in front of eyes on side to which head is turned. Other arm flexed.
4 months
May prepare for voluntary reaching
Lifts one foot after another in stepping response
2 months
Prepares for voluntary walking
Palmar grasp
Spontaneous grasp of adult's finger
3-4 months
Prepares for voluntary grasping

Assessing reflexes in newborns will determine the health of the nervous system, as reflexes that are weak or absent, exaggerated, or overly rigid may indicate some brain damage. Therefore stages will need to be modified slightly.

The average ages at which gross motor skills are achieved during infancy may vary. This range may be seen in the table below.


Motor Skill

Average Age Achieved

Age Range (90% Infants)

Head erect & steady when held upright

6 weeks

3 weeks-4 months

Lifts self by arms when prone

2 months

3 weeks-4 months

Rolls from side to back

2 months

3 weeks-5 months

Grasps cube

3 months, 3 weeks

2-7 months

Rolls from back to side

4 ½ months

2-7 months

Sits alone

7 months

5-9 months


7 months

5-11 months

Pulls to stand

8 months

5-12 months

Plays Pat-a-cake

9 months, 3 weeks

7-15 months

Stands alone

11 months

9-16 months

Walks alone

11 months, 3 weeks

9-17 months

Builds tower of 2 cubes

13 months, 3 weeks

10-19 months

Scribbles vigorously

14 months

10-21 months

Walks up stairs with help

16 months

12-23 months

Jumps in place

23 months, 2 weeks

17-30 months

 Although the sequence of motor development is fairly uniform across children, differences may exist individually in the rate at which motor skills develop. A baby who is a late reacher may not necessarily be a late crawler/walker. Concern would arise if the child's development were delayed in many motor skills.


Summary of Table

  1. Motor control of the head comes before control of the legs. This head-to-tail sequence is called the cephalocaudal trend.
  2. Motor development proceeds from the centre of the body outward; i.e. the head, trunk and arm control is mastered before the coordination of the hands and fingers. This is the proximodistical trend.
  3. Physical growth follows these same trends throughout infancy and childhood.

Once the child has grasped these gross motor skills, they are then able to explore their environment further by grasping things, turning them over, and seeing what happens when they are released. Infants are then able to learn a great deal about the sight, sound and feel of objects.

Reaching and grasping development is a classic example of how motor skills start out as gross, and then graduate to mastering fine motor skills.

  • At 3 months voluntary reaching gradually improves in accuracy. It does not require visual guidance of arms and hands, but rather a sense of movement and location.
  • By 5 months reaching is reduced as the object can be moved within reach.
  • At 9 months an infant can redirect reaching to obtain a moving object that changes direction.
  • 6-12 months the infant can use a pincer grasp, thus increasing their ability to manipulate objects.

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The period of the most rapid development of motor behaviors is the period between 2 and 6 years (also known as the preschool years). Skills that appear are:

  • Basic locomotor
  • Ball-handling
  • Fine eye-hand coordination
  • Walking leads to running, jumping, hopping, galloping, and skipping
  • Climbing evolves from creeping.

The following points need to be highlighted.

  1. By the age of 3 walking is automatic.
  2. By 4 years the child has almost achieved an adult style of walking.
  3. By 3 years the child has attempted to run, albeit awkward in style and lacking control.
  4. By the age of 4-5 years the child has more control over running and can start, stop and turn.
  5. By 5-6 skills in running have advanced to the level of an adult manner.
  6. Between the ages of 3 and 6 climbing proficiency using ladders, etc., has developed.
  7. By 6 years children can hop and gallop skillfully, and jumping distances are longer.
  8. At the age of 3 children begin a shuffle which evolves into skipping by the age of 6.
  9. At the age of 2 children learn to kick, as their balance mechanism has developed. A full kick with a backswing has developed by the age of 6.
  10. Throwing at the age of 2-3 years is not very proficient although is attempted. This has improved by the age of 6 when the child will include a step forward.
  11. At the age of 3 a child can catch a large ball with arms straight; at 4 elbows will be in front when catching; and by the age of 6 years, elbows will be held at the side.

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After the age of 6 years old, it becomes increasingly difficult to describe changes and differences in motor skills development. The following characteristics are evident:

  • Changes are more subtle, and are often to fine motor skills only
  • By 9 years eye-hand coordination has developed to being very good
  • Growth is relatively slow
  • This stage is terminated by the onset of puberty
  • Motor skills are perfected and stabilized
  • Links can be made to physical development.


The following are assessed during this stage.

  1. Running. This will become faster depending on the length of stride and tempo.
  2. Jumping. The ability to jump higher will become greater due to body size, weight, age and strength.
  3. Throwing. Boys begin to throw further with a better technique and accuracy.
  4. Balancing and coordination. This increases as the child becomes older and control is perfected.

These areas can benefit greatly from systematic instruction in motor skills, and physical education programs at school. The quality and type of environment a child is exposed to will influence the extent to which the child develops the motor skills learned in the first two stages of development. Furthermore a child's motor interests will be determined by his or her opportunities. Differences in gender also come into play in this stage.

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