Kids & Company Blog

Encouraging Gross Motor Play

Children are continually building their repertoire of gross motor skills that they developed in the first few years of life — such as jumping, running, kicking and throwing balls. As they develop, the complexity of these skills increases — with movements requiring a greater degree of balance, strength, and coordination. For example, children learn to jump on two feet before they learn to jump on one foot. Though some gross motor skills are innate and develop naturally, other times children learn these skills through exposure. Child care, kindergarten, extracurricular classes, and public environments (such as playgrounds) are great places for children to develop these skills, parents and caregivers can also help to provide opportunities to develop children’s gross motor skills — right from home! 

A great way to help a child’s physical development is through something they are already doing plenty of — PLAY (more specifically, “purposeful play”). Purposeful play includes incorporating specific movements into fun activities with the goal of developing a specific gross motor skill. Purposeful play can be unplanned and self-directed (such as playing on a playground structure or running through a field), or planned through more structured games and activities. You can integrate purposeful play into your child’s day by providing exposure to activities and environments that encourage this. Below are some activity ideas based on your child’s age:

Activities to promote Purposeful Play: 

  1. Games: Incorporate different types of games into your day! While indoors, you can try a game of hopscotch to work on double or single leg jumping. You can use tiles on the floor and have your child jump with two feet forward (for a 3 year old), on the spot 3–5 times (for a 4 year old), or forward on to different tiles (for a 5 year old). To work on body awareness and single-leg balance, you can try a game of freeze dance. Every time the music stops, your child has to stand on either foot for 3–5 seconds (for a 3 year old), 5–10 seconds (for a 4 year old), or 10+ seconds (for a 5 year old). When looking to do these skills outdoors, you can encourage jumping over obstacles (such as sticks) or balancing on one foot on different surfaces — such as gravel, sand, or on a grassy hill. 
  2. Obstacle courses: This is a great way to engage your child by getting them to help invent games that will be motivating for them! Obstacle courses can be set up to work on balance. Play “the floor is lava” by placing couch cushions on the floor as “rocks” and so they need to walk across them to avoid the floor, or say that the couch cushions are islands to avoid the “sharks” on the floor! The obstacles can also be tailored to match the age of your child and/or the skills they are working on. For 3 year olds, encourage jumping with two feet over small obstacles (eg. tissue boxes), and for 4–5 year olds, the obstacle to jump over can have a larger height (eg. square bucket), or they can hop with one foot over a tissue box instead of jumping. In addition, something as simple as walking up and down the stairs can be an activity by placing a puzzle board at the top of the stairs, and the pieces at the bottom. Then put down two different colours of painter’s tape on alternating steps, to encourage reciprocal stepping up the stairs as they go up and down to get the puzzle pieces. 
  3. Family “challenges”: Have the whole family join in the fun by creating challenges for everyone to take part in! Examples include: Who can froggy jump the farthest? Can you walk like a crab all the way across the living room? Who can stand on one foot the longest? Can you run around the park to find the biggest leaf on the ground? 

Environments to promote Gross Motor Play: 

Spaces that encourage gross motor skill development through play are often wide and open to allow for movement but also have features that children can jump, climb, step and hang off of. Inside, encourage playing in more open areas such as the living room or rec room. In these spaces, be creative with furniture or fixtures such as stairs, couches, chairs, cushions, and lines between different floor surfaces. Be mindful of hazards such as clutter, wires, or sharp edges of furniture when considering the indoor space, and make adjustments as you are able (such as moving the coffee table out of the way) to keep the activity safe. 

Outside, you can make use of the backyard, courtyard or driveway, or explore the neighbourhood and visit a variety of different play structures, parks, forest trails, fields, beaches and nature reserves. Some of the features to encourage active movement in these spaces may be more obvious (such as monkey bars), but other natural features can include steps, curbs, logs, and stepping stones. These spaces also offer various different surfaces that can challenge our balance and movement patterns differently than on flat ground such as grass, mulch, sand, mud and stones. 

Outdoor play is particularly beneficial to promote gross motor development. The space itself allows for more freedom for big movements like running and jumping, and allows for more trial-and-error of skills such as kicking a ball (without worry of hitting a wall or object that we don’t want to get broken!). Outdoor play also allows children to work on whole body movements and spatial awareness in environments that are less controlled than indoors (eg. changes in weather can make some surfaces more slippery or more grippy). Further,  children are exposed to performing gross motor skills on surfaces that we don’t find inside, thus adding an extra challenge to their strength and balance. 

If you have any questions or are in need of support connect with us on Instagram @kidsphysio or visit us at

This blog was written by our guest author Colleen Greasley, Physiotherapist from Kids Physio. Kids Physio provides pediatric physiotherapy services across the country; as babies, kids, and teens function differently from adults, and our spaces and team are equipped to provide the highest quality physiotherapy care, delivered in a FUN and engaging way. 

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