What are Gross Motor Skills?
Gross motor skills are skills that involve the large muscles of the arms, legs and trunk such as sitting, walking and running. They also include higher level skills such as climbing, skipping, and throwing and catching a ball.
When a child’s gross motor development is delayed, pediatric physical therapy is often prescribed to help a child work towards gaining gross motor skills. A physical therapist works on an array of foundational skills to help a child maximize his or her gross motor potential including:
- Muscular Strength and Endurance
- Motor Learning and Planning
- Body Awareness
- Sensory Processing
- Postural Control
- Muscle Tone
- Crossing the Mid-Line (moving arms or legs across the middle of the body to perform a task)
Gross Motor Activities for Indoor or Outdoor Play
Here are 15 indoor and outdoor gross motor activities that will keep your child engaged and progressing toward their goals you and your pediatric physical therapist have set.
1. Simon Says
Simon Says is a fun way to help your child improve body awareness and movement planning. Start by having your child point to specific body parts and imitate body poses that you demonstrate. Once your child is able to imitate your modeled direction, increase the challenge by just saying the action you want your child to execute.
Dancing is a way to work on gross motor skills while expressing freedom and creativity and teaching a sense of rhythm at the same time. Choose songs that you know your child will enjoy and that include specific movements, like “I’m a Little Teapot” and the “Hokey Pokey.” Dancing will help develop balance, coordination, sensory processing, motor learning and planning and body awareness.
3. Walk Like an Animal or Wheelbarrow Walking
Walk like a bear on all fours to the bathtub. Crab walk to your bed. Wheelbarrow walk to the car. Animal walks are a great way to develop upper body strength, body awareness and overall coordination.
4. Homemade Obstacle Course
Whether used as an indoor gross motor activity or outside, setting up a small obstacle course with objects found around the house is a great way to build several gross motor skills into one activity. Pillows make great stepping stones, tunnels can be found rather inexpensively on Amazon, and old pieces of wood make excellent balance beams. You can make the course as basic or as complex as your child can handle, and you always have the option of changing it to add variety and greater challenge.
Outdoor Gross Motor Activities for Toddlers & Kids
Parents, do you look out at your backyard and see only work to be done? Toys to pick up, out of control weeds, a playhouse in need of a few repairs, a grass lawn desperate for a trim…
Well, your pediatric physical therapists here at NAPA see your backyard in a different light — a world of opportunity for your child or toddler to engage with these gross motor activities!
When thinking up gross motor activities, the possibilities are endless, but here is a list of 11 outdoor gross motor activities to help develop gross motor skills for your child or toddler. To get you started, these next 7 gross motor activities all involve sidewalk chalk!
5. Drawing on the Ground with Chalk
Draw on the ground, either sitting or lying on belly. Bearing weight on non-dominant hand as they draw with dominant hand strengthens non-dominant side.
- How to make it easier: draw together! With your hand over your child’s hand, draw a big rainbow together to encourage your child to use full arm range of motion
- How to make it harder: draw with non-dominant hand!
6. Draw a Balance Beam with Chalk
Just draw a long straight line with chalk and ta-da! Instant balance beam!
Encourage your child to try to walk on the line without stepping off.
- Easiest: just keeping one foot on the line the whole way
- A little harder: both feet staying on the line, putting one foot in front of the other with each step!
- Tricky: heel of front foot must touch toe of back foot. This tandem stance is a real challenge to balance
- Advanced: walking along a line and toe tapping on red solo cups or paper towel rolls placed on both sides of the line
- Super advanced: walking backwards or sideways along the line (Try a squiggly line ~~~~~~ getting fancy!)
To take the balance beam up a level, use a curb or low retaining wall instead of a line on the concrete for an additional balance challenge.
7. Make A Hopscotch Game with Chalk
Targets balance, coordination, hopping, jumping, sequencing, timing, and visual system
- Jumping forward over the line from one square to the next
- To work on jumping farther, try jumping over a square (say, “The LAVA square will burn your feet! Better jump over it to the safe square!”)
- Jumping with feet together, then apart, then back together develops coordination
- Harder: hopping on one foot requires single leg balance AND muscle power
- Hardest: combining all in one – one foot, two feet, together and apart!
8. Make a Racetrack!
A track for their ride-on toy, trike, bike, or scooter – tracing the chalk line wherever it goes targets motor planning and bilateral coordination for steering.
- Riding a bike or scooter works on coordination, endurance, and overall strengthening
9. Sidewalk Chalk Obstacle Course
- Putting all these sidewalk chalk ideas together – walking the chalk line, jumping through hopscotch squares, stomping on some chalk circles, drawing hand and footprints to walk on, or any other ideas from the picture below will encourage gross motor movement with a variety of activities all in one.
10. Backyard Twister Made From Chalk
Works on color recognition, knowing left and right, and motor planning required to arrange their body to reach each color. Reaching and stretching, and then bearing weight in unique positions and balancing to maintain these positions works the vestibular sense, as well as targets strengthening!
- Draw chalk circles on the ground. Lots of smaller circles everywhere makes it easier for smaller bodies, like toddlers, but bigger kids can play with fewer and bigger circles
- Randomly call out left or right, then hand or foot, and then a color. Each player has to place the corresponding hand or foot on the circle of that color!
- Keep going until someone falls, and then play it again!
11. Better Ball Skills
Just Roll with It!
- Draw a chalk design on the ground, the fence, the side of the house, wherever is allowed in your family, and then have your child trace the design made by rolling a ball along it
- If the design is on the ground, try first on hands and knees
- Too easy? Try on hands and feet, with knees up off the ground for increased arm strengthening
- If design is on a vertical surface like a fence or side of the house, have your child trace it while in tall kneeling, half kneeling, or standing on only one leg
- Try adding a dynamic surface like a couch cushion from patio furniture (sitting, kneeling, or standing on it, or even standing with only one leg)
- Another way to roll with it: with both hands on the wall, place a ball between your kiddo’s knee and the wall or fence and have them roll the ball up and down the wall by bending and straightening their knee – strengthens hip flexors and core
» Throw it:
Pick a target, any target, just not a window! Pick which arm will be their throwing arm, then have the kiddo STEP forward with the opposite foot, POINT at the target with the opposite hand and arm, LOOK at the target so their ball knows where to go, and THROW at the target. Step, point, look, and throw – we say it as we play it so the motor plan will stick! Hand-over-hand guidance can help encourage beginner throwers!
» Shoot it:
We don’t need a hoop to play basketball! Gardening buckets, the kiddie pool, a chair with arms, anything can be a basket for basketball. Or you can duct tape a pool noodle to make a circle, and there’s your basketball hoop!
» Kick it:
Soccer play targets single leg balance to kick with one foot as well as motor planning to coordinate where we want the ball to go. Any spot in the yard can be a soccer goal!
» Hit it:
Modify baseball with a pool noodle as a bat and your choice of a ball:
- Regular balloons – these “baseballs” move slowly, making it easier to coordinate movements in time to hit
- Beach balls – these are usually faster than balloons, but still allow increased time for motor planning as kids learn this skill
- Water balloons – these are typically much smaller targets, and therefore harder to hit, but may come with a fun splash if they get hit just right!
12. Playing Catch
Catch is a time-tested tradition and also a great way to work on gross motor skills . Start with larger balls and gradually make them smaller as your child’s skill level increases. Use balloons, deflated beach balls, or soft, spongy balls for children who are still mastering catching – they move slower and are more forgiving if a catch is missed. If your child picks up the catching and throwing movements quickly, consider increasing the challenge by having them stand on a squishy surface (pillow, couch cushion) or on one leg while playing.
- Pulling weeds or picking dandelions – targets arm strength and anticipatory postural responses to maintain their balance!
- Collect sticks or wood chips from all over – repetitively squatting to pick something up strengthens legs and improves balance
- Water play – fill a bucket, have your kiddo carry it around to help water the plants, and secretly work on strengthening! (More Fun: Our 7 Favorite Water Play Activities)
- Just playing in the dirt – holding a deep squat is great for ankle stability, and getting messy is great sensory play!
14. Get Outdoorsy
- Navigating up and down hills or across uneven surfaces like grass or gravel builds strength and endurance
- Side stepping or forward stepping over rocks encourages balance and ankle strengthening
- Lying in the grass, encourage your kiddo to army crawl/ slither like a snake and sneak up on an unsuspecting family member. Army crawl engages the entire body and strengthens the core and arm muscles
- Playing barefoot in sandbox strengthens ankles and legs – especially while squatting, jumping, and digging holes with feet
15. Mastering the Monkey Bars
- Got a play set with monkey bars? This is a fantastic opportunity to work on arm and core strength, coordination, and motor planning!
- First, just help your child get used to holding onto one bar. Swinging or counting to ten helps develop grip strength and arm strength for supporting their weight
- Next, support their body weight by holding them while they practice reaching through with their hands, one hand on each bar. This develops coordination to reach through with their hands and look for the next bar without the work of supporting their own body weight.
- Practice the swing through. Only one hand on each bar may seem harder, but when they get two hands onto the same bar, kids tend to turn off their core, stopping the momentum they have going and making it more work to move to the next bar. Swinging through with one hand on each bar teaches efficient use of momentum and keeps the core engaged, decreasing the work of hands and arms.
- Practice makes perfect! Repetition is important to help kiddos get going across the bars
- Bonus round: lifting knees to chest works deep abdominal muscles responsible for balance, posture, and toileting (and kids can practice this anywhere there’s a sturdy bar to hang onto)
With these 15 therapeutic gross motor skills activities in your back pocket, your outdoor playtime can help your kiddo develop their gross motor skills! Tag us in your backyard adventures on Instagram, @napacenter! We can’t wait to play together again soon!
Find More Gross Motor Activities and Resources in the NAPA Blog:
About the Author
Cait Parr is a pediatric physical therapist at NAPA Center. Her favorite animal is snails, because they remind her to slow down and enjoy the beautiful details about life. She loves desserts almost as much as she loves long walks with her husband on the beach at sunset.
About NAPA Center
At NAPA Center, we believe in creating individualized programs that address every child’s specific needs across a range of different therapies. Every child is unique, which means implementing unique therapy programs is the only way to help them truly reach their full potential. Contact us today to learn more about our process and our track record of results.