Inside: Locomotor skills are essential for physical activity and movement. Discover how mastering these skills can benefit children’s physical and cognitive development.

From the moment of birth, a newborn begins to move their limbs, move back and forth, up and down. Then the baby will eventually roll over, squirm and begin to crawl, pull themselves up, and voila, they will walk!

The eventual ability to do this is called their locomotor skills.

Eventually, they will learn to move from place to place in a variety of ways with the necessary amount of speed and precision.

child kicking a soccer ball
A sedentary lifestyle will lead to fewer locomotor skills.

Other than needing locomotor skills to get from one place to another we need them for good health, circulation and cardiovascular health, balance and coordination, healthy weight management, and independence.

1. Locomotor Skills

Locomotor skills are fundamental movements that involve the whole body moving from one place to another. These skills are essential for children’s physical development, as they provide the foundation for more complex movements such as running, jumping, and skipping.

Locomotor skills are also crucial for children’s participation in sports and other physical activities, as they enable them to move efficiently and effectively.

The development of locomotor skills begins in infancy, as babies learn to crawl, roll, and eventually walk. As children grow and develop, they refine these skills and learn new ones, such as hopping, galloping, and sliding.

By the age of five, most children have developed a range of basic locomotor skills that allow them to move confidently and independently.

While the development of locomotor skills is a natural process, it can be supported and enhanced through structured activities and play. Physical education classes, sports programs, and outdoor play all provide opportunities for children to practice and improve their locomotor skills.

By encouraging children to engage in these activities, parents and educators can help them develop the physical literacy they need to lead healthy and active lives.

children doing a parachute activity
Practicing locomotor skills–the possibilities are endless!

 We also need non-locomotor skills. This movement is teaching the body the foundation for support and posture control; one part of the body always stays on the ground.

While these skills are also movement-like locomotor activities, non-locomotor skills are more grounded.

2. Definition of Locomotor Skills

Locomotor skills refer to the basic movements that enable an individual to move from one place to another. These skills are essential for children’s physical development and are the building blocks for more complex movements.

Locomotor skills are a fundamental component of physical education and are often taught in early childhood settings.

There are several types of locomotor skills, including walking, running, jumping, hopping, skipping, and galloping. These skills involve the coordination of different body parts and the ability to balance and control movement.

Children who develop strong locomotor skills are better equipped to participate in physical activities and sports as they grow older.

Teaching locomotor skills to children can be done in a variety of ways. Physical education classes often incorporate games and activities that focus on developing these skills.

Teachers may also use visual aids, such as diagrams or videos, to help children understand the movements involved. It is important to provide children with plenty of opportunities to practice these skills in a safe and supportive environment.

Overall, locomotor skills are an important part of physical development and should be encouraged in children from a young age. By developing these skills, children can improve their coordination, balance, and overall physical fitness, setting them up for a lifetime of healthy habits.

Walking (on feet or knees)Twisting, turning
Army crawlBending, straightening
marchingShaking, swinging, swaying
Skating, skiingbalancing
Jogging, runningstretching
Galloping, skippingturning

3. Importance of Locomotor Skills Development

Locomotor skills are essential for children’s physical health and development.

3a. Physical Health Benefits

These skills involve the movement of the body, such as running, jumping, and hopping, and they help children build strength, endurance, and coordination. Developing these skills at an early age can lead to a lifetime of physical activity and healthy habits.

Research has shown that children who develop strong locomotor skills are more likely to engage in physical activity and less likely to be overweight or obese. In addition, these skills can help prevent injuries, as children who have good balance and coordination are less likely to fall or trip.

3b. Cognitive Benefits

Locomotor skills also have cognitive benefits for children. These skills require concentration, spatial awareness, and problem-solving abilities, all of which can improve cognitive development.

Children who develop these skills at an early age are more likely to perform better in school and have better academic outcomes.

Furthermore, locomotor skills can enhance creativity and imagination. Children who have the ability to move their bodies in different ways are more likely to explore and experiment with their environment, leading to a greater sense of curiosity and discovery.

3c. Social Benefits

Finally, locomotor skills can have social benefits for children. These skills are often learned through play and physical activity, which can help children develop social skills such as cooperation, communication, and teamwork.

Participating in gross motor activities can also positively affect a child’s interoception, which means that they may less likely to experience sensory overload, leading to a socially ostracizing incident.

Children who engage in physical activity with others are more likely to form positive relationships and have better social outcomes.

In addition, developing strong locomotor skills can boost children’s self-esteem and confidence. When children are able to move their bodies in different ways and achieve physical goals, they feel a sense of accomplishment and pride, which can translate to other areas of their lives.

4. Locomotor Skills Examples

How does a parent know if there is anything to be concerned with as far as locomotor skills? Here are a few things to look for. Of course, talk with your child’s pediatrician or school PT with any concerns.

WALKINGBegins approx 12-18mos. Arms moving in the opposite direction of feet, Heel to toe walking
RUNNINGArms in the opposite direction of feet. Elbows bent. Landing on heel or toe instead of flat-footed (balls of feet and toes), Non-support leg at a 90-degree angle
JUMPINGStretch arms forward and up, Land on balls of feet; heels touch the floor, Should not jump by bouncing on toes
HOPPINGPush with toes, one foot on the ground, By approx 5-6 years old should be able to hop on either leg
SKIPPINGWhile the knee is in the air, hop on the other foot stepping, then hopping

As with any other concern, a parent should mention these regarding locomotor skills to a practitioner. It is then that they may recommend a version of what we have discussed in this article or further testing.

There are diagnostic measures in which to judge if there is a disability and to what degree. It is then that a Physical or Occupational Therapist may be recommended as well. 

5. Factors Affecting Locomotor Skills Development

There are many factors that can affect a child’s locomotor development. Some are within our control, some are not.

Always talk with your IEP team and make sure you have expressed it as a parent concern during the IEP process if this needs to be addressed on the IEP.

5a. Age

Age is a significant factor that affects the development of locomotor skills. Infants and toddlers develop gross motor skills, such as crawling, rolling, and walking, while older children develop more refined skills, such as running, jumping, and hopping.

Children between the ages of 6 and 10 years old show significant improvements in their motor skills, which can be attributed to their increased physical activity and participation in sports.

5b. Gender

Gender is another factor that can affect the development of locomotor skills. Boys tend to develop gross motor skills at a faster rate than girls, and they tend to be more physically active.

However, girls tend to develop more refined motor skills, such as balance and coordination, at a faster rate than boys.

These differences can be attributed to biological factors, such as differences in muscle mass and bone density, as well as social and cultural factors, such as gender stereotypes and expectations.

It’s important to remember that traditionally, most societies have thought of males as more physical than women, and boys are more often encouraged to play sports while females are encouraged to do “quiet” activities like dolls, reading, and crafts.

Females can develop locomotor skills at the same rate as males. Historically, they have not been encouraged to do so.

5c. Environment

The environment in which a child grows up and develops can also have a significant impact on their locomotor skill development.

Children who grow up in urban environments may have fewer opportunities for outdoor play and physical activity, which can negatively impact their motor skill development.

On the other hand, children who grow up in rural environments may have more opportunities for outdoor play and physical activity, which can positively impact their motor skill development.

Additionally, access to quality physical education programs and sports teams can also play a role in the development of locomotor skills.

Overall, the development of locomotor skills is influenced by a variety of factors, including age, gender, and environment. By understanding these factors, parents, educators, and coaches can help children develop their motor skills and achieve their full potential.

6. Methods for Developing Locomotor Skills

Improving locomotor skills can be done in the child’s natural environment. It does not have to be a prescribed activity occurring at a certain time or place.

6a. Play-Based Activities

Play-based activities are a great way to develop locomotor skills in children. They are fun, and engaging, and can be easily adapted to suit different age groups and skill levels.

Some examples of play-based activities that can help develop locomotor skills include:

  • Tag games
  • Obstacle courses
  • Dance parties
  • Skipping games

These activities help children develop balance, coordination, and spatial awareness. They also promote social skills, teamwork, and creativity.

children playing outside naturally develops their locomotor skills
Practicing and developing locomotor skills doesn’t have to be boring!

6b. Structured Exercises

Structured exercises can also be used to develop locomotor skills in children. These exercises are typically more focused and require more concentration than play-based activities. Some examples of structured exercises that can help develop locomotor skills include:

HoppingChildren hop on one foot, then the other, to develop balance and coordination.
SkippingChildren learn to skip, which develops coordination and rhythm.
Jumping jacksChildren perform jumping jacks to develop coordination and cardiovascular fitness.

Structured exercises are a great way to help children focus on specific skills and improve their overall fitness levels.

children playing outside
Children today spend much less time outside than just a generation ago, which contributes to a lack of locomotor skills.

6c. Outdoor Activities

Outdoor activities can also be used to develop locomotor skills in children. Outdoor activities provide children with the opportunity to explore their environment, develop their senses, and engage in physical activity. Some examples of outdoor activities that can help develop locomotor skills include:

  • Hiking
  • Biking
  • Swimming
  • Running

Outdoor activities are a great way to promote physical activity and a healthy lifestyle. They also provide children with the opportunity to develop their social skills, teamwork, and problem-solving abilities.

7. Challenges in Locomotor Skills Development

As for a PT evaluation for your IEP, or talk with your IEP team if you feel your child needs more attention in this area.

7a. Disabilities

Children with disabilities often face challenges in developing their locomotor skills. For example, children with cerebral palsy may have difficulty with balance and coordination, while those with Down syndrome may have low muscle tone, which can affect their ability to walk and run.

These children may require additional support and specialized equipment to help them develop their skills.

And remember the bias that our society has. Historically, it has been thought that disabled kids cannot do sports and activities, and they have not been encouraged to do so. While genetic conditions can affect this, encouraging exercise and activity will bring improvements.

7b. Lack of Resources

Another challenge in developing locomotor skills is the lack of resources. In many communities, there may be limited access to safe and appropriate play spaces, equipment, and programs that promote physical activity.

This can make it difficult for children to engage in the types of activities that are necessary for developing their skills.

7c. Sedentary Lifestyle

A sedentary lifestyle is also a major challenge in developing locomotor skills. With the rise of technology and screen time, children are spending less time engaging in physical activity and more time sitting.

This can lead to weakened muscles and poor coordination, which can make it more difficult for children to develop their locomotor skills.

Overall, addressing these challenges requires a multi-faceted approach that involves parents, educators, healthcare providers, and policymakers.

By working together, we can help ensure that all children have the resources and support they need to develop their locomotor skills and lead healthy, active lives.

Once again I want to thank Linda for contributing to this article.

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Linda Gilmartin is a high school special education teacher, an adjunct college professor for future teachers, Administrator of the social media group Transitioning Teens/Adults with Special Needs Life After High School, and Author of Transitioning Special Needs Teenagers and Adults