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Large and Small Motor Development
During Early Childhood

Sara Gable, Ph.D. State Specialist & Associate Professor, Human Development & Family Studies, Human Environmental Sciences Extension, University of Missouri-Columbia


During early childhood, children's body fat decreases, the torso gets larger to accommodate organs and the spine straightens, allowing for posture and balance to improve. By age 5 to 6 years, a child's body is streamlined and longer-legged, resembling the proportions of an adult. With improved balance comes the ability to experiment with new skills that involve the arms and torso, such as throwing and catching. Later, upper and lower body skills work together in more refined actions, such as steering and pedaling, running and throwing. Control of hands and fingers also improves, so that children are better able to care for self and engage in creative activities. The sequence of these achievements is similar in groups of children, the rate of growth and development is what varies by individual.


Age Large Motor Skills Small Motor Skills
2-3 years Walks more rhythmically; hurried walk changes to run. Put on and removes simple items of clothing.


Jumps, hops, throws, and catches with rigid upper body. Zips and unzips larger zippers.


Pushes riding toy with feet; little steering. Uses spoon effectively.


3-4 years Walks up stairs, alternating feet, and downstairs, leading with one foot. Fastens and unfastens large buttons.


Jumps and hops, flexing upper body. Serves self food without assistance.
Throws and catches with slight involvement of upper body; still catches by trapping ball against chest. Uses scissors.





Pedals and steers tricycle. Copies vertical line and circle.
  Draws first picture of person, using tadpole image.
4-5 years Walks downstairs, alternating feet. Uses fork effectively.


Runs more smoothly. Cuts with scissors following line.
Gallops and skips with one foot. Copies triangles, cross, and some letters.
Throws ball with increased body rotation and transfer of weight on feet; catches ball with hands.  
Rides tricycle rapidly, steers smoothly.  
5-6 years Increases running speed.


Uses knife to cut soft food.
Gallops more smoothly; engages in true skipping. Ties shoes.


Displays mature throwing and catching pattern. Draws person with six parts.
Rides bicycle with training wheels. Copies some numbers and simple words.


Skills for Preschool Children to Develop: Examples

Locomotor (first) Stability (next) Manipulative (later)
Walking Turning Throwing
Running Twisting Catching/collecting
Hopping Bending Kicking/punting
Skipping Stopping Dribbling
Galloping Rolling Volleying
Sliding Balancing Striking with racket




Striking with long-handled instrument
Climbing Stretching movements  
Crawling Curling  
Chasing/fleeing Swinging  



Barsley-Marra, B. L. (1993). Understanding and encouraging your young child's large motor development. University of Missouri, Extension Publications. GH6113.

Berk, L. E. (2001). Development through the lifespan. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

Furuno, S., O'Reilly, K., Inatsuka, T., Hosaka, C., Allman, T., & Zeisloft-Falbey, B. (1987). Hawaii Early Learning Profile. Palo Alto, CA: VORT Corporation.

Newborg, J., Stock, J.R., & Wnek, L. (1984). Batelle Developmental Inventory. Allen, TX: LINC Associates.

Sanders, S. W. (2002). Active for Life: Developmentally appropriate movement programs for young children. National Association for the Education of Young Children: Washington, DC.



Last Updated 05/05/2009









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