fine and gross motor skillsKnapp, Newell, and Sparrow have defined a motor skill as the intentional, or goal-oriented, movement of our bodies. As opposed to involuntary movements, such as the peristaltic contractions in your digestive system, motor skills involve voluntary movements, such as walking, running, waving our arms, or jumping up and down, as well as more refined movements, such as dancing, playing tennis, climbing rocks, and even performing surgery.  In order to become competent at them, all motor skills must first be learned and then voluntarily reproduced. The process by which we learn motor skills is more complicated than you might think. Familiarizing yourself with the sensory systems of the human body can help you get an idea of the complexities involved in learning what seem to be the simplest of skills.

Motor skills can be broken down into two categories: fine and gross. Fine and gross motor skills differ in complexity of movement and in the size of the muscles involved. Gross motor skills are those skills that involve our larger muscle groups, such as the arms, legs, or use of the entire body. Fine motor skills involve small, controlled movements of the wrists, hands, and fingers or ankles, feet and toes. Recent research has demonstrated a clear connection between our motor skill development and cognitive development.

Early Development of Motor Skills

The early physical development of a child has two major components: physical fitness and motor skill development.  Along with a child’s body, motor skills develop as a child matures. Motor skill development reflects a child’s ability to control and direct his or her voluntary muscular movement, something which leads to independence in the world. Early motor skills begin with simple reflex movements and later develop into lifting the head, rolling over, and sitting up straight. With time and practice we see those movements develop into crawling, walking, and running. A child’s ability to perform a motor skill is directly related to physical fitness. Physical fitness is calculated by attributes such as body composition, strength, flexibility, and endurance.

Learning Fine and Gross Motor Skills

In a baby, those few simple reflexes actually form the basis for the later development of more complex motor skills.  Think about how babies first move their arms and legs or how they naturally grasp your finger. Those initial movements are reflexive, meaning that the movements just happen naturally. Babies even have a natural stepping reflex, which if practiced regularly, will actually strengthen the baby’s legs, causing a tendency in a baby to walk a few weeks earlier than a baby who was not practiced.

The development of a child’s gross motor skills are important, not just for physical fitness, but also for the future development of fine motor skills. As we said already, gross motor skills are those movements which involve our large muscle groups.  A child must first learn to use larger muscles before using the smaller ones. For example, until a child has developed the use and control of her arms and hands, she cannot develop the use of the little fingers she will later need to button her buttons or write her letters.

We also use our large muscles to maintain balance and to coordinate all major muscle movements like running, jumping, kicking, and climbing trees – all of the things that kids like to do together. A child who has undeveloped gross motor skills will be less likely to run around and have fun with the other kids, something which is necessary for social development. You can help your child develop gross motor skills by doing something fun together, like take yoga class for Kids.

Fine motor skills are those skills which involve the use of the smaller muscles, such as those in the hands and fingers. These muscles do the work of grasping objects, fastening clips and buttons, and writing. The use of these muscles involve strength, fine motor control, and dexterity.  Fine motor control involves the intricate coordination of muscular, skeletal, and neurological functions, and often, doing so in conjunction with the eyes.  You can help your child develop fine motor skills by engaging them in activities that promote the use of them.  The earliest stages of fine motor skill development start with clapping hands and touching fingers. Later on, they learn to work buttons, zip zippers, and tie knots.  As they mature, you can teach them paste things on paper, work puzzles, and color.

Stages of Motor Learning

Motor learning is the relatively permanent change in the nervous system associated the practice and improvement of motor skills. If you have noticed how spasmodic and wobbly children are as they learn new skills, then you have probably also noticed that with time, those movements become smoother and more stable.  You may have also noticed this in yourself when you are learning how to dive, serve a tennis ball, or execute a martial arts kick.  You start out somewhat clumsy, but the more you practice, the better you get.  All of that is motor learning at work.

There three stages in which motor learning occurs:

1. The Cognitive Stage:  During this stage, one must develop an overall understanding of the skill – its overall goal and the environmental factors which affect the ability to execute the skill.  At this stage, a learner relies on observation and trial and error.  A child watches adults walking around, getting from one place to another, long before the child ever attempts walking. The child processes the purpose of walking just by observing others walk.

The same thing happens any time we learn a new skill. If you have ever learned ballroom dancing, the cognitive stage of the learning process is when you watch the instructors execute the moves and then awkwardly try it out for yourself. During practice, you have to really think about which foot goes where.

2. Associative Stage: After much trial and error, the learner begins to show improvement. The movement becomes more refined.  As your nervous system starts to get the feel for the movement, it becomes more fluid and you have to think less and less about it. This is called “getting the feel for it.”  You start to experience a sense of rightness in the movement and along with that, you get a kind of charge out of it. That’s a positive feedback loop in your body, kind of like the reward system a scientist uses for rats when the push the right lever.

3. Autonomous Stage: This is the stage of the relatively permanent imprinting of the neural pattern required to execute the movement. At this point, the skill is virtually automatic. In learning the tango, it’s that moment when your leg just wraps itself around your partner’s. Or it’s finally perfecting your moonwalk so that you effortlessly slide and float across the floor like Michael Jackson.

So imagine, as kids are developing motor skills, they getting these little charges of reward every time they execute a new move, like buttoning a button or tying a shoelace. It feels good for them to get it right, so they do it more – and the more they do it, the better they get at it.

Influences on Development of Motor Skills

There are several factors which influence the development of any motor skill. Understanding how these factors interplay during the learning process can help you set the stage for successful learning. The successful learning of a skill depends upon the intensity of interest in learning it. The neurological term which refers to the physiological and psychological state of excitement in the nervous system about learning a new skill is arousal.  Arousal is crucial for instigating the psychological attitude and all of the behaviors required for learning a new skill.  Stress also plays a role in learning a skill. We know that too much stress has a direct effect on our learning capacity. Optimum performance in motor capacity is a balance of moderate stress and arousal. Keep this in mind when you or your child are learning something new.

Fine and Gross Motor Skills and the Cognitive Connection

The famous developmental psychologist, Jean Piaget, suggested that sensory and motor experiences are the foundation for all intellectual functioning.  Piaget said that intelligence is “first displayed when reflex movements become more refined, such as when an infant will reach for a preferred toy, and will suck on a nipple and not a pacifier when hungry.”

Through Magnetic Resonance Imaging, recent research has demonstrated a clear connection between motor and cognitive centers in the brain, two centers that were once believed to be totally separate.  The relationship between motor and cognitive skills is especially complex in infants. This is because infants are learning both fine and gross motor skills, and at the same time, cognitively processing a continuous flood of new information coming in from the strange new world around them.

Other investigators, like Jana M. Iverson, even suggest a relationship between motor development and language development.

During the first eighteen months of life, infants acquire and refine a whole set of new motor skills that significantly change the ways in which the body moves in and interacts with the environment… motor acquisitions provide infants with an opportunity to practice skills relevant to language acquisition before they are needed for that purpose; and that the emergence of new motor skills changes infants’ experience with objects and people in ways that are relevant for both general communicative development and the acquisition of language.

For an infant, practically every minute of their waking lives is spent learning and developing motor skills. To further enhance this learning process, learn how to give your baby a massage.  According to studies posted on the Institute for Biotechnology Information, “Numerous studies support its use in preterm infants, who have exhibited decreased stress levels, increased weight gain, and improved motor function when compared with non-massaged controls.”


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