Developing Motor Skills at Your Child’s Pace

A smiling baby boy crawls outdoors on grass

Developing Motor Skills at Your Child’s Pace

Contrary to popular belief, motor development – how the body and muscles intentionally move – does not naturally occur with age. Just like learning to read or play the piano, practice is required to learn and develop motor skills. Children do not just wake up one morning knowing how to skip or throw, just like (unfortunately) they don’t become potty trained over night!

Physical development is age-related, but not age-determined. For example, many 3-year-olds can gallop, but that doesn’t mean simply being three guarantees a child will gallop. These types of skills develop sequentially and progress over time, though the rate of development can differ from one child to the next. Motor skill development is also cumulative, meaning simpler skills must be developed before more complex skills. Most children will be able to strike a ball with their hands before they are able to strike it with a bat. 

Because the development of motor skills isso individualized, it’s important to meet children where they are. That is where developmentally appropriate practice, or DAP, comes in. DAP is a research-based approach to teaching that involves tailoring curriculum activities and teaching strategies to meet a child’s developmental needs. 

You may remember spending elementary and high school physical education classes playing dodge ball, being picked for teams, and doing numerous sit-ups, push-ups or laps. For many, these activities and the way they were presented were demotivating. Just imagine what your attitude about physical activity would be if you were frequently picked last for a team, or regularly had to sit on the bench and watch others play games. This approach to physical activity is partially responsible for turning off a generation of youth and adults to leading active lifestyles.  

Thankfully, in accordance with DAP, the National Association for Sport and Physical Education (NASPE) has created physical education guidelines for ages 3-5. Today, these guidelines help teachers select appropriate activities, equipment and strategies for teaching physical skills so children receive instruction from caring teachers who understand where they are developmentally. By meeting children where they are, teachers utilizing DAP are poised to instill a lifelong love of movement in children, which will translate into a lifetime of good health. 

Below are a few tips you can practice at home with your 3-to-5-year-old based on the NASPE guidelines linked to above:

  • Assess your child’s developmental readiness before introducing her to a new skill. Carefully observe your child’s responses and interests so you can adapt learning experiences to best meet her individual needs.
  • Demonstrate a positive attitude toward fitness. At this age your child is emulating your actions and attitudes. Emphasize the importance of physical activity as a lifelong habit through your words and actions.
  • Combine regular indoor and outdoor play experiences so your child can freely practice and develop skills. Young children learn by interacting with people and objects, so you can help your child develop motor skills by creating age-appropriate environments for play that are conducive to practicing physical skills.
  • Allow for repetition and variation. Emphasize the same motor skills across different environmental contexts to allow for the gradual development and refinement of skills. For example, when practicing throwing, you might practice throwing objects of various weights, shapes and sizes. Depending on your child’s skill level, you might have your little one aim at targets of different heights or distances.

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