Children's muscle development can be divided into two groups: gross motor skills, which include the larger movements of arms, legs, feet, or body, and fine motor skills which are smaller, more precise actions made primarily with hands and fingers. Fine and gross motor skills ideally develop together, as physical actions often require coordination between the different muscle groups.
When people think of children's physical development what they are usually picturing first in their mind are gross motor skills: activities like running, jumping, playing ball, or doing somersaults. These skills involve using the whole body, or several parts of the body at one time.
When considering whether a child is on track for the development of gross motor skills, one important area to consider is muscle tone. Every person's body is put together in a way that is either on the loose side, or somewhat tightly. If a child's body has high tone, or is put together tightly, movements may not flow or coordinate well, or be jerky. A child with low tone, or a loose body structure, may lack strength and move more slowly. When focusing on gross motor skills, adults will want to help children increase muscle strength and improve the coordination and smoothness of movements by providing plenty of large motor practice.
Children should also be increasing their ability to make movements that span the entire length of the body. An important developmental skill is called "crossing the midline", in which children reach or move across the middle of their body to the other side. Passing an object from hand to hand, or reaching with the right hand to pick up something toward your left, are examples of crossing the midline. Some experts claim that activities that involve crossing the midline engage both sides of the brain, thus increasing the number of neural connections and enhancing children's focus. Midline crossing also helps to strengthen the dominant hand, which is important in developing strong fine motor skills.
When it comes to active outdoor play, the first priority of parents or caregivers should be safety. Children's active play should be limited to safe, supervised areas, using proper safety equipment such as helmets, knee pads, and the like. It is also important that children be aware of the rules, not only of the game or activity, but also appropriate traffic and pedestrian rules. If children are drawn to tumbling, wrestling, or other full-body activities, make sure they confine their play to carpets, lawn, mats, or other more forgiving surfaces. Have Band-Aids and ice-packs readily available; chances are they will be needed on a fairly regular basis.
Children's body-eye coordination is still developing, so skills like kicking, catching, throwing and striking are still emerging. These will improve with practice, especially if they are able to learn from a skillful partner, and active children will progress more quickly. Aim and control is difficult at this age, so focus on strong force or distance over accuracy in activities like throwing, hitting, or kicking. Encouraging children to participate in dance lessons, team sports, or backyard play will go far in developing their gross motor skills.
And, of course, the greatest way you can support your child is by giving the gift of yourself. Riding bikes together, playing ball, chasing, wrestling or rough-housing, or any other active play provides important lifetime experiences while enhancing your child's physical development.