Early childhood researchers, including Myrtle B. McGraw, Nicholai Bernstein and James and Eleanor Gibson, debate the factors related to infant motor development, but most behavioral scientists agree that environmental, cultural and social factors play an important role in learning both large and small physical movements. Parents help children develop and feel confident in using these important physical abilities by training babies and offering encouragement when children move in special ways.
Children develop motor skills for large motions including walking, grouped into the gross movement category, and smaller actions such as eye movement, classified as fine motor skills. Motor skills develop from birth as infants learn first to move head and arms and then combine movements to roll over in bed and learn to walk. Movement depends on a number of factors, in addition to physical strength and coordination, including balance control, brain development and the motivation to move, according to researchers Karen E. Adolph, Idell Weise and Ludovic Marin of New York University.
Environmental factors influencing motor skills development include the amount of space available to practice gross motor movements and the availability of objects for use. Children with hand-held tools, including eating utensils and toys, learn the required movement to use these items. Babies also learn to crawl in environments that encourage moving along the floor. Children in homes with a number of large animals or uneven flooring surfaces learn to creep along the furniture, rather than crawl along the floor. The American Optometric Association links the ability to crawl to the development of eye coordination.
Children learn motor skills by starting with stiff and uncoordinated actions that transform into fluid and smooth movements through practice and repetition, and society helps parents and caretakers set movement benchmarks. Adults encourage and motivate children to perfect movements to meet family ideals. Schools also influence movement by setting standards for teachers and daycare workers. These performance achievement guidelines affect childhood development, and federal and state core standards outline benchmarks for different ages and grade levels. Teachers and parents create movement expectations for children based on these standards and guidelines.
Anthropologists and sociologists beginning in the 1930s, including Margaret Mead and Gordon Macgregor, conducted some of the earliest studies of motor development in different cultures. These studies, according to the researchers from New York University, reveal that culture itself plays only a minor role in developing motor skills. Some cultures value special motor skills and parents and society encourage children to develop these by allowing children to practice the motor skills, but when researchers studied children from the same culture living in the United States, the accelerated development disappeared. Motivation and opportunities for practice are key for motor skill development.