In Parenting

Children Development: Fine Motor Skills

People of all ages perform fine motor movements in a variety of activities, but throughout a child’s development, there are certain fine motor skill milestones pediatricians like to see children accomplish.

What are Fine Motor Skills?

According to the Encyclopedia of Children’s Health, fine motor skills “generally refer to the small movements of the hands, wrists, fingers, feet, toes, lips, and tongue.”  Motor skills are muscle movements, and fine motor skills are the smaller, more precise movements people make every day.

Examples of Fine Motor Skills

Below is a sampling of the fine motor skills activities that are commonly observed in various age groups from www.kidscando.org:

  • Birth to Three Months
    • ​Babies track movement with their eyes
    • Babies can bring their hand to their mouth, watching their hand as they move it
    • Babies swing their entire arm in an effort to reach an object
    • Babies make a fist with their thumb on the inside
  • Three to Six Months
    • Babies pick up objects with ​one hand and can transfer the object from one hand to another
    • Babies reach for an object, like a toy, with both arms outstretched
    • Babies look at and focus on objects a few feet away
  • Six to Nine Months
    • Dexterity improves, and babies grasp objects between their thumb and forefinger
    • Babies use two hands to pick up an object
    • Babies use their fingers to “rake” up smaller objects
  • Nine Months to One Year
    • ​Babies can now place small objects in a container
    • Babies can turn the pages in a book a few at a time
    • Babies begin to show a preference for one hand over another
    • Babies attempt to imitate new gestures
  • 12 to 18 Months
    • Babies begin to stack and can place two to three blocks on top of one another​
    • Babies can turn the pages in a book individually
    • Babies can hold an object in one hand and manipulate it with the other
  • 18 to 24 Months
    • When coloring, baby imitates vertical and circular scribbles
    • Baby cuts paper using scissors
    • Dexterity is further improved, with some babies able to string beads onto a piece of string
  • Three to Five Years
    • The toddler can draw or copy a complete circle
    • Toddlers begin to write their first name
    • Toddlers draw a person with at least three elements:  a nose, head, eyes, etc.
    • Toddlers draw recognizable pictures

You may notice that as the child’s age progresses, fine motor skill milestones are best observed in an increase in drawing and writing ability.  The fine motor skills examples above are just a small sampling of what pediatricians may look for to see if a child is developing properly.

What Happens if My Child Has Underdeveloped Fine Motor Skills?

According to www.otplan.com, the primary cause of issues with fine motor skills in children is a “lack or over abundance of muscle mass.”  In the case of an overabundance of muscle mass, the child may be clumsy and uncoordinated.  If there is a muscle mass deficiency, the child may lack the strength necessary to perform precise movements like holding a pencil correctly or grasping small objects.

A lack of fine motor skills can lead to problems with eating, writing legibly, using technology like a computer or cell phone, and participating in daily activities like tying shoes, buttoning a shirt or zipping up a pair of pants.  Not only is the child struggling with fine motor development unable to perform these everyday tasks, but a lack of fine motor skills can lead to a number of issues further down the road.  In a study regarding fine motor skill development, www.fingergym.info warns that children dealing with fine motor skills issues may exhibit the following behaviors:

  • The child may refuse to participate in an activity due to either the fear of failure or frustration with their inability to complete the task.
  • The child may avoid situations in which they need to use fine motor skills.  For example, when a class sits down to do a writing project, the child may pretend to be ill or say they need to leave the classroom.
  • The child may lash out in anger or show strong emotions, like crying or yelling, in response to being asked to do something they struggle with.
  • The child may develop self-esteem issues as they watch their peers excel in activities they are unable to do.

As a parent, teacher, or caregiver, it is difficult to watch a child wrestle with what should be relatively simple tasks. However, despite the timeline above, it is not unusual for fine motor skills to develop at different times and it does not mean your child is not smart enough to tie his shoes or write his name.  A lack of fine motor skills can, in most cases, be aided by training activities and occupational therapy, if necessary.

Methods for Strengthening Fine Motor Skills in Children

Teachers and caregivers should work together to identify problems with fine motor skills as early as possible. Once a child’s specific struggles are identified, a plan can be developed to address the weaknesses. An article from www.understood.org illustrates eight ways to help your child strengthen their hand and wrist muscles to increase fine motor skills.  In short, the eight activities include:

  • Playing with playdough, which strengthens the fingers through kneading and stretching the dough
  • Finger painting, which increases dexterity and hand-eye coordination
  • Squeezing sponges or stress balls, which strengthen the wrists
  • Cutting shapes with scissors
  • Coloring with broken crayons or golf pencils.  The shorter writing instrument makes it necessary for your child to hold the crayon the correct way.
  • Cutting out paper dolls
  • Playing string games, like Cat’s Cradle
  • Making macaroni necklaces or other activities where your child string beads onto a piece of string

Some other strategies for improving fine motor skills include transferring small objects, like pennies or beads, from one container to another using various methods (one hand, transferring from one hand to another) and learning how to play an instrument.

Additionally, most schools or pediatrician’s offices can refer parents to occupational therapists who can evaluate your child’s current level of dexterity, analyze how their fine motor skills can be improved, and instruct you on the best methods for spurring that improvement.  The occupational therapist may provide you with information you can take home and use, or you may visit the occupational therapist multiple times so he or she can implement the necessary therapy and gauge your child’s progress.

It is never easy for a parent to see their child struggling, and it is natural to want to do anything you can to help your child succeed.  However, it is important to remember that all children develop differently, and outside of drastic development delays, sometimes children just need time to bring their skills up to par.  Developing your child’s fine motor skills does not need to be a chore and should not force any undue stress on the child or the parent.  A joint effort between children, teachers, parents and, if necessary occupational and physical therapists, can ensure that your child is comfortable performing normal fine motor skills and is getting the assistance he needs so he can focus on learning and growing.

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