Fostering Physical Development in Infants

Infants cannot be taught to roll over, crawl or walk before their muscles, nerves and bones are developed enough for these movements. When an infant is ready, however, there are ways you can encourage them to develop these important gross motor skills in their own ways and in their own time.

In this tip sheet we will look at:

  • The different stages of gross motor development
  • Creating an environment that encourages gross motor development
  • Gross motor activity ideas for infants

Gross motor development happens in various stages. 

Gross motor development in infants generally follows the stages described below. It’s important to note, however, that not all infants will go through all of the stages. Furthermore, they may approach them in a slightly different order.Rolling over. This usually begins when an infant stretches a leg to one side while reaching for an interesting object.

Crawling. Infants may begin by rocking on their arms and legs, then crawling backwards. This is often followed by a stiff-legged crawl, then by the cross-lateral movement of arms and legs. Crawling is beneficial to all areas of development; however, some infants never crawl.

Sitting independently. The ability to sit unassisted tends to develop soon after crawling. Sitting gives the infant a larger view of the world and leaves their hands free for reaching and grabbing.

Pull to stand. The urge to stand becomes strong toward the end of the first year. Infants will pull themselves upright using furniture and people to steady themselves.

Cruising. Once an infant can stand, side steps soon follow. Infants will hold on to anything available as they  ‘cruise’ around the room.

Down and up. While standing and holding on to something, infants will squat to pick up objects from the floor and then stand up again.

Climbing. Infants will make attempts to pull themselves up onto furniture, up stairs or onto playground  equipment. Standing independently. Eventually infants will let go of support while standing and will stand unassisted for a moment or two.

First steps/toddling. The first unassisted steps tend to happen soon after an infant begins to stand independently. Squatting. Infants will go from standing unassisted to a squatting position and back again.

Running. Infants often learn to run before they learn to stop!

Create an environment that encourages gross motor development. 

Infants will progress through the stages described above in their own time and in the order that works for them; however, you can facilitate the process by being aware of the skills described above, then creating an environment that encourages physical development.

Let them play on the floor. 

Spending time on a clean, safe floor gives an infant a great deal of physical freedom to explore and to strengthen their muscles. Infants are often used to being carried and may not be comfortable spending time on the floor at first. You can help them to adjust to this new environment by sitting on the floor with the infant on your lap. When the infant is comfortable with this and can become interested in a toy, gradually place the toy a little farther away and slide the infant off your lap onto the floor, keeping an arm around them to maintain closeness. Gradually remove your arm, but remain in close contact. Eventually you will be able to sit farther away, yet still within arms-reach. This may take several days or weeks to accomplish and should only be attempted with an infant who has developed trust and attachment with you.

Give them time to practise new skills. 

To master a new gross motor skill, infants will need to practise it over and over again. Give them plenty of time and lots of encouragement.

Provide assistance. 

Hold the infant by the trunk or fingers for additional support as they learn to walk.8

Use materials that attract their attention. 

Place a toy in front of the infant for early crawlers to reach. For infants who are starting to pull themselves upright, place a toy on a low shelf that they can reach then move the toy along the shelf to encourage cruising.

Try these activities to encourage gross motor skills.

Dangling Beach Ball

Suspend a beach ball from the ceiling using a piece of stretchy yarn or elastic. Hang it about 15 cm (6”) above the floor for four- to nine-month olds and slightly higher for older infants. Place young infants close to the ball and observe as they bump, pat and attempt to grasp it. Older infants will crawl or walk toward the ball and attempt to hit it. Infants who are steady on their feet may try to kick the ball. Safety Note: Ensure the yarn is firmly attached to the ceiling.

Tunnels and Tents

Use moveable furniture like highchairs, large cardboard boxes, tables, chairs and a large sheet or blanket to create interesting spaces for infants to crawl in and out of. Place the infants on the floor and let them explore. Observe whether or not they notice the new arrangement. Do they crawl in and out of the new spaces? If they get stuck, instead of rescuing them, get down on the floor. Move in close and help them to figure out how to get out on their own. Safety Note: Stay close in case the infant gets stuck or frightened. Make sure that any heavy furniture is stable.

Ball Pool

Fill a plastic wading pool with balls of various sizes, textures and colours. Place the infants near the pool and allow them to explore freely. Observe as they climb in and out of the pool and throw the balls. Safety Note: If young infants are using the pool place large pillows around the outer edge to help them climb in and out.


Debé Carol. Mothercraft Infant Resource Manual. 2007


Share this...
Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Share on LinkedInPin on PinterestEmail this to someone