Children’s motor and play skills

Children’s motor development progresses at the individual’s own pace, but also according to shared basic principles. Babies first develop control of large muscle groups, or gross motor skills, and then control of smaller muscle groups, or fine motor skills. Babies will touch or grab a toy with their whole hand, for example. Later, babies will grab objects using their fingers. Babies also learn to control their head before their body and to control their torso before fine motor hand movements.

Babies’ individual development cannot be rushed but they can be encouraged and supported to find their own skills.

Babies’ motor development at 0–3 months

Various reflexes and senses play a major role in the actions of babies at this age. Babies get acquainted with their environment and learn things through their senses. As the weeks pass, babies start to grab at toys and flail at objects. It is good to hold babies often and gently stroke them, giving them a sense of closeness and safety.

At this stage, when babies are not able to control their body at all and are not aware of it, it is good to get them used to lying on their stomachs when they are awake. Lying on their stomachs strengthens their neck and back muscles and develops their muscle sense and sense of balance. Learning to hold up the head is also vital for later development.

At the beginning of the second month, babies can already lift their heads for a moment while on their stomachs. Babies lie with their arms and legs bent but will gradually start to straighten them. Their movements are uncontrolled kicks. Babies also start putting their fists in their mouth. In their third month, babies can usually hold up their head unaided and incline it towards sounds. Around that time, they also start leaning on their elbows. Babies’ vision gradually sharpens and they start following movements with their eyes. They start distinguishing shapes and colours.

Babies’ motor development at 3–6 months

At this age, babies start controlling their bodies better. Movements gradually become more conscious. Babies reach out, grab things and investigate them with their mouth, and let go. The eye–hand coordination starts working in this way. The neck and upper body become more wiry, and the hands automatically seek each other. When babies lie on their back, it is good to practise bringing a toy to the mouth and moving a toy from hand to hand.

Babies can already support their head when they are pulled up into sitting position by their arms. When lying on their back, babies will gradually turn first to lie on their side and then on their stomach. When lying on their stomachs, babies lean on their forearms.

Babies’ motor development at 6–9 months

During these months, babies’ backs and torsos grow stronger. Their balance improves and they start sitting up. When babies have their hands free while they sit, they can better control both their hands and fingers. As fine motor skills develop, babies are able to study toys in more detail and use both hands at the same time.

The eye–hand coordination also improves and babies may want to eat on their own. Some babies also start crawling and moving on their hands and knees at this stage, which is a big change, since they can now move unassisted to where they want to go. Babies get independent, start controlling their own bodies and can find interesting things to do on their own.

When lying on their stomachs, babies first raise themselves on straight arms while their legs stay against the floor. Lying prone activates babies into make crawling movements. They may first crawl backward and then forward. Finally, babies rise on hands and knees and start rocking themselves.

Near the end of the age period, babies may start moving on all fours. When standing supported by the arms, babies may already take small conscious steps. Hand control improves; babies can hold objects in each hand and finger the object with both hands. Babies also wave objects around and pound them and start actively loosening their grip. Finally, babies start gripping objects with thumb and forefinger, studying small objects and using just the forefinger.

Babies’ motor development at 9–12 months

Babies start moving more independently from one place to another. They are able to move from a sitting position onto their knees and from there to a standing position, and they might even take a few steps. Walking starts with support; babies lean on furniture for support or are walked by an adult. At the end of the age period, babies may stand without support and may take their first steps.

In fine motor skills, the co-operation of the thumb and forefinger gets smoother. Hand actions clearly become more exact. At the same time, babies start to become interested in completely new types of toys, such as shape sorters and puzzles. They might also be able to leaf through books.

As their fine and gross motor skills develop, babies’ sense of space and direction start to form, and they start to become more aware of their relationship with their surroundings. They gradually start to understand when an object is some distance away and that something is “up” and “down”.

Some tips for


Vainer Wegloop, M., Spliid, L.: Leikitä vauvaa – Liikuntaleikkejä 0–12 kuukauden ikäisille. (Play with your baby – Activity games for babies aged 0–12 months.) WSOY 2008.

Woolfson, R. C.: Vireä vauva – Tue lapsesi kehitystä (Bright Baby: Understand and Stimulate Your Child’s Development). WSOY 2006.

Young, C.: Ensimmäisten vuosien leikit ja oppiminen (Entertaining & Educating Babies & Toddlers). Vau’kirja 2008.

Mannerheim League for Child Welfare

City of Espoo occupational therapists 2014.