18-Month Motor Milestones, Achieved in the Outdoors

Updated February 2022

This post includes the updated milestones reflecting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) & American Academy of Pediatrics‘ evidence-informed developmental milestone update in February 2022.

Are you wondering which skills a toddler may be ready to master? Sometimes, having a list of 18-month-old “milestones” can be helpful for families. That’s what today’s post is all about. It will review the physical (also known as “motor”) developmental milestones for 18-month-old children.

What is a developmental milestone?

Developmental milestones! They describe what many children are able to do by a certain age. They’re used by pediatricians in order to track a child’s growth and development. This way, professionals can help families find any needed support. Being aware of the milestones helps parents anticipate what a child may be ready to learn.

The milestone example I often give is a 3-year-old drawing a circle. (It’s something many kids are able to do by that age). However, if a parent isn’t aware, they may not think to give their child a crayon to start trying.

Over a series of a few posts, I’ll cover developmental milestones of different ages. We must remember that each child grows and develops at their own pace. I share here so that parents can be ready to support them. 

Is any special equipment needed to support physical development?

Many times, a parent may feel stress trying to have the right supplies at the right time. I know I’ve felt this with my own kids. For example, there might be pressure to make sure a child has blocks to stack at the age when pediatricians ask if they’re stacking blocks.

Today’s post will try to take that pressure off. With enough time and space, kids usually develop and yes, thrive. A few props may help, but I think going outside may be all that’s needed. In the following sections, we’ll cover a few of the main motor (physical) developmental milestones for an 18-month-old. Each section will cover how that milestone can be achieved if the child is simply taken outside. No special supplies needed.

(Note: This is not meant to diagnose or suggest any delays. If your child is not achieving these milestones or you’re concerned about delays, please see your pediatrician. The CDC has helpful checklists.)

We’ll focus on physical development today. The following are some of the major motor milestones for toddlers at about age 18 months.

Gross Motor (Large Muscle) Milestones for 18 month-olds

1. Walk alone. 

By age 15 months, most children have taken a few steps, however unsteady. By age 18 months, most are walking alone, and with more confidence. The milestone specifies they don’t need to hold on to anything as they walk. Some may even attempt running!

How to achieve this outside? Give toddlers time and space outdoors. A slightly uneven ground (like that of a grassy field or sand) is even better as it requires micro-adjustments that help strengthen muscles, coordination, and balance. 

What about shoes? For most typically-developing kids, shoes with a flexible sole help a lot. This allows for freedom of movement, allowing them to use the muscles in their feet. The main goal of shoes is to protect their feet, so depending on where your child is playing, different shoes may suit better. 

For example, when my child was a young toddler, they played at a very dry playground covered in sand. These soft-soled leather-bottom shoes were great (link below).

Note: This post contains affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases at no additional cost to you.

These shoes would not have been ideal somewhere wet. (Though they did get wet and it wasn’t really a big deal), and they did not offer much protection against anything too hard or sharp, like rocks or sticks. But for sand and a plastic/metal playground, they were just fine.

For a little more adventure, other shoes (affiliate link) have a more sturdy sole that is still reasonably flexible. 

soft-soled shoes (affiliate link)

The point is: toddlers just need the opportunity to try walking around outside. A backyard. A driveway. That’s it. Just a chance to walk.

2. Climbs on and off a chair without help.

Toddlers need the large arm and leg muscles in order to climb onto a chair or couch. Scrambling up a large rock or tree tests the same muscles.

Fine Motor (small muscle) Developmental Milestones for 18-month-olds

Fine motor skills involve the smaller muscles. We usually refer to the hands and fingers. And, let’s remember that everything is a process. Everything comes with practice. The following are a few of the main fine motor developmental milestones for an 18-month-old.

1. Scribble.

It doesn’t have to be fancy or meaningful. Putting a pen to paper is the start of great things. Of course, pen and paper specifically are not required. Chalk on a sidewalk works well. A small rock against a bigger rock makes marks too. And, haven’t many of us used a stick to draw in sand or dirt? Generally, the goal is using the small muscles in the hands as well as “leaving a mark.” Eventually, children need to write and draw. The very first steps are all about learning that writing is even possible. A little line or scribble is a big deal!

2. Drinks from a cup without a lid. Tries to use a spoon.

Maybe we think of dishes as an indoor activity. However, picnics are a delightful way for toddlers to explore more with cups and spoons. First, the pressure is off for a neat mess-free meal. By this age, many toddlers attempt to feed themselves with these “tools.” Parents may also notice a difference with their child sitting on a blanket on the ground as opposed to using a table and chair. Core muscles and posture adjust.

That being said, let’s not forget about a childhood favorite activity of pretending to cook outdoors. Mud pies, anyone? Granted, a child isn’t going to eat their creation, but pouring and mixing are also important cup and spoon tasks.

3. Feeds themselves with their fingers.

By age 18 months, most children can pick food up with their hands and put it into their mouths to eat. It may not be neat, but it can be done. They also just need some practice. This practice can start in infancy. There’s a reason babies try to put things in their mouths. Eventually it can lead to self-feeding.

Changes in 18-month milestones since February 2022

Below are some milestones that were previously listed for 18-month-old toddlers. In the updated (and clarified) lists, they’ve moved! I’m keeping them in this post. I think it’s still helpful for parents of 18-month-old children. The goal with these updated milestones was to make things more clear for parents and clinicians alike.

Now a 15-month milestone: Stack 2 blocks (or rocks).

Sometime between 15-17 months, many children start to stack objects. We often specify blocks, but the same skills come with stacking other small objects as well. Outdoors, stacking small rocks, shells, or pebbles achieves a similar goal.

Stacking small objects signifies many things:

  • The idea of planning & thinking ahead
  • Understanding of gravity and balance
  • Fine motor skills–the ability to control one’s hand enough to stack
  • Perseverance! Does anyone stack a block successfully the very first time? 

Now a 24-month milestone: Walk up steps.

Up until this point, many kids are still scrambling and crawling up the steps. Some time before they turn two, they may start to hold a hand or handrail and walk up the steps.

For a child to learn about steps, they just need to experiment with them a little. Indoor steps are fine. And, outdoors? A single curb counts as one step! I’ve found that playground structures have many perfect opportunities. Many nature walks and hikes have paths that include manmade stairs. Walking up steps just takes time and practice. As I mentioned in this post, consider teaching children how to go safely back down the steps, as up is much easier!

30-month-milestone: Takes some clothes off by themselves

At around age 12 months, many children will extend an arm as a caregiver dresses them. They move to help themselves get dressed. By 18 months, they may start to undo the careful work. (It’s worth noting that one of the precursors to learning to us a toilet is pushing down their own pants. This is a cultural phenomenon, of course, but applies to many kids in the United States). 

By age 2.5 years, they may be able to take off pants or an unzipped jacket.

I acknowledge that this milestone may not be ideal to actually practice while playing outside. I mention it so parents can keep it in mind when it’s time to come back in. They may want to wait few seconds as their child struggles to take off shoes or a coat. This struggle is practice. If a child doesn’t feel rushed, they may also not feel frustrated. I should mention that some instruction can take place as children learn. Some parents may choose to simply talk through the process (from infancy onward). “First we undo the Velcro. Then we loosen the tongue. Now the heel is loose enough . . .” etc.

No longer an official milestone: Pull a toy while walking.

Even though it’s not on a list now, it’s still worth noting. This implies a lot about a child’s development, and includes some fine motor skills as well. A child has to grip with their hands, maintain the grip, and then use larger muscles to drag an object while walking. There’s such power in this action.

Outdoors, this does not have to be an official toy with wheels and a tugging rope or handle. Have you seen toddlers delight in pulling a tree branch? We can see their triumph as something magnificent drags behind them. 

Summary: Toddlers can reach their developmental milestones outside, without special equipment.

This is what I would like more parents to hear: Rest easy. You probably don’t need that very nice-looking and well-advertised toy in order for your child to thrive. If young children go outside and just. . . play, they’ll probably be fine. Nature provides the tools for muscle development and coordination.

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Maya Mahmood, D.O., F.A.A.P. is a board-certified pediatrician and mom. She is passionate about parents having evidence-based information to help their families be healthier.

Photo by Jordan Christian on Unsplash

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