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Definition of Motor Skills in Children

author image Norma DeVault
Norma DeVault, a registered dietitian, has been writing health-related articles since 2006. Her articles have appeared in the "Journal of the American Dietetic Association.” She holds a Doctor of Philosophy in human environmental sciences from Oklahoma State University and a Master of Business Administration from the University of Tulsa.
Definition of Motor Skills in Children
An infant uses gross motor skills to lift his head from a prone position. Photo Credit Piotr Adamowicz/iStock/Getty Images

Rapid advances in motor or movement skills occur during infancy and early childhood. Motor development reflects a child’s ability to control and direct voluntary muscle movement. Motor control develops from the top down and from central to peripheral muscles according to Gerber, Wilks and Erdie-Lalena in Volume 31, 2010 issue of “Pediatrics in Review.” Therefore, a baby first masters holding his head up and much later learns to walk. An infant will first learn to control her shoulders and arms before the muscles in her hands and fingers according to Judith Brown in the text “Nutrition Through the Life Cycle.”


Traditional views of child development of motor skills simply detailed stages in posture and movement capability during the first few years of life. The degree of motor development was seen as the stages of lying prone, lifting the head, rolling over, sitting, standing and walking. More recently, a new perspective called developmental biodynamics has emerged based on an integration of neurosciences, biomechanics and behavioral sciences. This view shows how perception and action integrate and emphasize exploratory activity in the development of motor skills.


Motor skills are identified as gross or fine. Gross motor skills involve the use of large muscles such as those used for walking or moving the arms. Fine motor skills involve refined movements such those requiring finger dexterity.

Gross Motor Skills

Gross motor skills that develop in the first 15 months of life enable a baby to gain an increasing degree of independence, begin exploring his environment and initiate social interactions with caregivers according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. John Santrock in the text “Life-Span Development” states that a baby has little control over muscle movement at birth and must learn skills that allow him to lift his head from a pronated position, then later, roll over, sit without support, crawl, stand with support and walk easily.

By 18 months, a toddler can pull a toy attached to a string and climb stairs using both hands and legs. By 24 months, she can walk fast, balance on her feet in a squat position, walk backward and kick a ball. She can also throw a ball and jump.

Fine Motor Skills

Fine motor skills begin with the development of reaching and grasping during infancy and they become more refined during the first two years of life. Crude shoulder and elbow movements later become more precise with the addition of wrist movements, rotation of the hands and coordination of the thumb and forefinger in pincer movements. Fine motor skills improve as hand-eye coordination matures in the first few years, so the child can manipulate buttons, pencils, zippers and scissors.


Specific accomplishments, as defined by gross and fine motor skills, serve as markers of normal development and indicators of readiness for new experiences such as the introduction of solid food, toilet training, and other physical and sensory challenges. For instance, a caregiver should not offer an infant solid food until the infant has developed the ability to support her head in an upright position and the motor skills to chew and swallow solid food. Finger food should be offered only after an infant has developed pincer movements that enable him to grasp and hold small pieces of food.

The actual month in which milestones occur along the time line of the first two years varies as much as 2 to 4 months, but the sequence of accomplishments is fairly constant. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics the definition of motor skills in children is important to pediatricians who monitor motor skills development as an indicator of normal growth and development. Delayed development of motor skills can be associated with certain diseases and abnormal conditions.

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