The Difference Between Motor & Cognitive Development

By Erica Loop
Motor and cognitive skills can help a child in athletic pursuits.
Motor and cognitive skills can help a child in athletic pursuits.

If your little one is up walking around with ease, but is yet to figure out that he can get around the baby gate simply by lifting a latch, you're seeing the difference between his motor and cognitive development. Motor development includes physical abilities -- both small and large -- while cognitive skills include the more mental reasoning and critical thinking types.

Constant Connections

As your child develops his cognitive skills, his increasing ability to perceive information about his environment will aid in his motor use. Although physical and mental actions include two distinct domains of development, they -- like all of your child's growing abilities -- are intertwined. The stronger your child's cognitive skills become, the better he will get at purposefully using his motor skills. Keep this separate-but-equal developmental notion in mind when reviewing the differences between your child's motor and cognitive skill-building. Although the two areas are distinct, without growth in one domain -- such as cognitive -- development in the other isn't possible.

Whole Body Movements

Motor development includes two different types of physical growth: Gross and fine. Gross, or large, motor development includes movements of the bigger muscle groups that lead to overall strength, coordination and balance, according to the developmental experts at the University of Michigan Health System. This type of development allows an infant to sit up or crawl, a toddler to walk, a preschooler to run and jump and an older child to play sports such as soccer or basketball.

Fingers and Hands

Fine motor development may seem like a more subtle type of skill-building in comparison to the major body movements of gross motor domain. While your child is developing the ability to stand, walk or run, he is also starting to build eye-hand coordination and dexterity. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics at, by the age of 2, most children can build block towers, turn knobs, scribble with crayons, fold paper and put pegs into matching holes. As your child moves into the preschool years, he can can copy simple geometric shapes, dress himself, use basic eating utensils and even print some of the alphabet, notes the AAP. Your child will refine and build on these hand and finger skills as he moves into the school years, learning how to print all of the letter and later write in cursive, create more intricate art projects and complete complex tasks that involve a high degree of dexterity.

Mental Merits

If you don't see your child growing into a star athlete or masterful artist, do not dismay - he may excel in the more mental of tasks. Cognitive development differs from the motor realm in that it doesn't involve the physicality that gross or fine skills do. According to the University of Michigan Health System, cognitive development includes mental tasks such as thinking, learning, reasoning and problem-solving Additionally, cognitive development includes memory and recall abilities, such as remembering names and dates for a history quiz or recalling information learned the day before.

About the Author

Based in Pittsburgh, Erica Loop has been writing education, child development and parenting articles since 2009. Her articles have appeared in "Pittsburgh Parent Magazine" and the website PBS Parents. She has a Master of Science in applied developmental psychology from the University of Pittsburgh's School of Education.