Incorporating gross motor activities for preschool children into their daily routines helps them develop and strengthen their muscle control, coördination, balance and flexibility.

Well-developed large and small motor skills are the building blocks for other core skills such as literacy. Without these skills, children have trouble running, walking, reading and writing, and their performance at school or in social settings may suffer.  

Dancing and Active Games Promote Gross Motor Skills Development

Traditional midsummer's dance
Credit: atjonz under royalty free license via SXC

What Are Gross Motor Skills

The large muscles of the body enable kids to do movements like:

  • catching
  • climbing
  • dancing
  • hopping
  • jogging
  • jumping
  • kicking
  • marching
  • running
  • skipping
  • swimming
  • throwing
  • twirling

As you look at the list above, it's probably pretty easy to brainstorm activities that would exercise these muscles. In fact, for the parents and caretakers of most preschoolers, it's probably harder to think of ways to get them to stop doing some of these activities than it is to come up with ways to encourage them in these movements.

Kids have a natural instinct for movement and mobility, and while there will be some scrapes and bumps along the way, they need the freedom to fall down and get back up as part of their childhood learning experiences.

However, it never hurts to have more tools in your parenting or teaching toolkit than you need, so here's a look at a variety of kid-pleasing gross motor activities for preschool children guaranteed to exercise those youngster's bodies in  a positive way.

Active Games for Gross Motor Development

It's hard to improve on such classics as "Simon Says," "Mother May I or "Follow the Leader" when you are looking for ways to develop a child's large motor muscles. All of these games work on a similar principle: someone is the leader and the others follow their directions, which is a bonus when you are working with preschoolers.

Educational note: For those concerned these childhood classics are games of elimation rather than inclusion, watch the video below to see how to make the game more inclusive for all players.

For instance, in "Simon Says" the leader says something like "Everyone take three giant steps forward" and all the players obey. However, if the leader doesn't say "Simon Says" but gives a command, anyone who follows the command is disqualified. "Mother May I" is similar but players ask "Mother May I" before they do the specified movement. If they do not ask permission, they are disqualified. In Follow the Leader, the leader demonstrates a movement which the players imitate.

Teaching children to follow directions in early childhood makes the transition to school much easier. However, it's important to let kids be the leader as well so you are training them to use authority as well as respect it.

Try these variations to these familiar childhood games:

Oral directions: Instead of using the traditional hop, jump or step directions for these games, these:

  • Bend over, clap your hands three times and touch your toes.
  • Walk three steps forward and then take one step backward.
  • Turn to the right and twirl around two times.

Obstacle courses: Lay out several hula hoops in a random pattern on the floor or outdoors on the lawn. Have the children hop into the hoops and then out as they make their way around the obstacle course. When they get back to the beginning, select one of them to be the leader and let them choose another movement for everyone else to do. For instance, they might tell the others to step into a hoop, dance for a few seconds and then step out and into the next hoop.

Relay teams: Pair the kids up in teams of two. Each team must make the same motions or be disqualified from the game. For example, if the leader gives the instruction "Hop forward three times," both children must hop forward three times. This teaches them about teamwork as well as builds gross motor skills.

Follow the Leader: Mark off a section of the floor with two parallel lines of masking tape. Help the kids form a single file line and then march through the section. Vary the activity by having them march the first time, jump the second time, take giant steps the next and so on. For older kids, have them add some arm movements as they walk like wiggling their fingers or moving their arms like they are swimming.

Updated Version of Simon Says - Inclusion Not Elimination

Gross Motor Activities Using Balls or Beanbags

Bean bags and Koosh balls are good choices for working with preschoolers because they are easy to hold and less likely to cause an injury if a kid is accidentally hit with one.  Here's some ideas for starters:

Body Parts: When the kids get bored with simply throwing these objects to one another, make the activity more interesting by asking them to use different parts of their body to move and to catch the object. For instance, they can throw a beanbag into the air,  punt it with their elbows instead of their hands, and then try to catch it on their feet.  

Basketball: Use any type of container (or even a hula hoop) as the basket. Start by having children stand close to the basket and pitch in an object. Gradually have them move farther from the basket.

Beach Blanket Ball Toss: Divide the kids into pairs and give each pair a beach towel. Place a ball into the towel and let them take turns trying to throw the ball into a hula hoop or other designated area. Alternatively, let them bounce the ball up and down on the towel. How many times can they bounce it without it falling out of the towel? (This is definitely an outdoor activity!)

Alphabet or Number Ball: The leader calls out a child's name and throws the ball to him or her. The person who catches the ball says the first letter of the alphabet (A) or the number 1, and then names other player to catch the ball and say the next letter or number in sequence. The play continues until someone misses the next letter or number in sequence or until the kids tired of the game.

Playing Ball Builds Gross Motor Skills

Koosh ball
Credit: rainbowj under royalty free license via SXC

Music Making Activities for Large Motor Development

There's just something about the right kind of music that makes almost anyone - child or adult - want to get and move. Use tried and tested kid-favorite songs like "Head Shoulders Knees and Toes," and "The Wheels on the Bus" so you don't even have to think about what actions or movements to use because the songs already include those.

Other good songs to use  while marching or parading around the room are "Boom Chicka Boom" or "Down by the Bay." If you have access to rhythm instruments, let each child choose an instrument to plays as they move around the room.

Boom Chicka Boom

Pretend Play Activities

Pretend play activities can exercise the mind just as much as the body. Say something like "Today, we are all frogs" and then encourage kids to jump around the room like frogs. When they tire of jumping, select a child and let him or her choose an animal and imitate its movements.

Here's some suggestions:

  • Swim like dolphins
  • Walk like ducks
  • Stretch like cats
  • Jump like frogs
  • Slither like snakes


Keep It Simple and Fun

Developing gross motor skills in early childhood sets the stage for meeting other developmental milestones like developing fine motor skills and pre-reading and pre-writing.  These gross motor activities for preschool children will get kids started on the right track.