Developing Your Toddler's Motor Skills

From climbing stairs to riding a trike, your toddler never stops. Here's how she masters these complex moves.

One Step, Two Steps

Once your baby is proficient at putting one foot in front of the other, he's got a whole new set of challenges to master, like climbing stairs and leaping over a puddle. Unlike an adult, or even a 6-year-old, a toddler has to ask himself, Which muscles do I need to use? "Being creatures of brute force, toddlers tend to overdo it, and 'turn on' too many muscles, which makes their movements stiff and awkward," says Jody L. Jensen, PhD, associate professor of kinesiology at the University of Texas at Austin. But through trial and error, they'll learn how to isolate the particular muscles they need and eventually become more graceful. Sounds complicated, but remember it's only a matter of time before they'll leave you in the dust!

One Step, Two Steps

Babies are hypnotically drawn to stairs. They'll start off crawling up and scooting down on their bottom (while you hover below, ready to catch them if they miss a step!). But it will take them three to six months of practice walking before they're ready to scale the staircase upright, at around 18 months. The challenge? "They're trying to figure out how to shift their weight onto one foot so they can lift the other leg. One leg's got to be stiff, the other one bent," says Jensen.

At first, in an attempt to create stability, toddlers tend to stiffen both legs, resulting in an awkward Frankenstein-like rocking movement, which doesn't allow them to get the lifting foot in proper position. When they learn to relax the muscle in the knee, they can put that foot on the next step. Another hallmark of beginning climbers is putting one foot up a step, (always the same one) then bringing the other foot up to join it. The big switch to alternating legs may not come for several more months.

Living through your child's obsession with stairs is nerve-racking, but with practice he'll become adept. Just be sure to install safety gates at the top and bottom of stairs so he can't climb them without you.

Spring into Action

Between the ages of 2 and 3, your toddler will master four skills in the following order: running, jumping, galloping, and hopping. Each activity builds on the previous one, and adds a new challenge. What's the significance of mastering these activities, beyond being able to play childhood games like hopscotch? Learning how to balance on one foot, spring into a jump, or master an asymmetrical gait are skills that allow you to adjust your movements to changing or unexpected conditions -- for example, shifting your weight on a moving bus or sidestepping a branch on a sidewalk so you don't stumble. (Beginning walkers don't have these skills -- they love wide-open spaces but when confronted with an obstacle they have little ability to maneuver around it.)

  • Run, run fast as you can! The first time your child runs usually happens when he is walking fast, gets excited, and starts pushing off faster, creating what kinetic experts call "the air-time flight phase." He can go fast and straight, but if he has to stop on a dime or turn a corner, he may fall.
  • Giddyap Why is galloping a crucial milestone? It's the first motion in which one leg is doing something different from the other -- the front leg is walking, the back one is running. "It takes babies about twelve months before they can do different things with each hand. It takes them another year before they develop this ability with their legs and feet," says Jensen. "Galloping is the equivalent of opening a jar with your hands -- one hand is holding the jar and the other is turning the lid," she says.
  • Hippity-hop Hopping presents much more of a balance challenge than jumping. Kids have to figure out how to balance on one leg, push off, and then absorb the force of landing -- a pretty advanced move that most kids can't do until the age of 3.
  • 1-2-3-Jump! Kids typically begin jumping with a two-foot takeoff around age 2. The challenge is learning how to calibrate force to get their body in the air, then control it in flight. It's hard enough just becoming airborne. But with practice, toddlers will figure out how to change their force and speed to reach different heights and distances.

Pedal Pushing

If you've ever watched a beginning triker, you may have noticed that she's not adept at getting where she wants to go. Intending to move forward, she often comes to a halt -- or goes backward! What's the problem? Making the pedal go straight down to stop is easy -- toddlers are used to walking, stomping, and jumping, which all involve a downward movement. "It's much harder for them to push their foot forward at the top of the pedal," says Jensen. (Imagine the face of a clock: Going from 11 to 1 is the hard part; from 2 to 6 is a breeze.) Typically a child gets started by wiggling her foot wherever the pedal happens to be -- the luck of the draw determines whether she goes forward or backward. Try pre-positioning the pedal so that it's set in the right direction.

Catch It If You Can

Kids begin throwing to someone (as opposed to throwing from the high chair!) between 2 and 3. Little pitchers typically stand with a fixed body, with all the action in their arm. First throws fail because kids don't know when to release, so the ball drops to the ground.

Catching is even harder than throwing. When you see an object coming toward you, you need to assess how quickly it's moving and time your arm's reaction accordingly. "Kids can't form the decision about what to do with their arms in time to command their muscles," says Jensen. Instead, they wait for the ball to hit them, then make a motion to try to catch it. Of course, by then it's too late. Balls that are textured, make noise, or flash lights can be helpful for toddlers and preschoolers.

Originally published in American Baby magazine, May 2004.

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.

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