Fine Motor Skills: How to Prepare for the School Years

finemotorskillsDevelopment of fine motor skills is as ongoing part of early childhood. Generally speaking, these skills apply primarily to the hands, fingers, wrists, toes, lips and tongue. When referring to the hands, we often call this set of skills ‘dexterity,’ but fine motor difficulties may effect speech as well as eye movement and hand-eye coordination. Encouraging the development of fine motor skills readies children for both sport and school. Most experts agree that early intervention is the best way to improve outcomes.

Your child’s fine motor skills are controlled primarily by the nervous system and the motor cortex; therefore, they can be impacted by events such as stroke, injury, illness, or dyspraxia/apraxia and developmental disabilities. Low muscle tone can delay the development of larger muscle groups which can subsequently delay fine motor skills. Hypermobility can also affect the dexterity of the fingers and toes. If your child has been consistently tardy in achieving physical milestones, you may want to take him or her for a professional assessment with a physical or occupational therapist.

Checklist For Age Appropriate Physical Milestones:

  • Six months: Follows objects with eyes, not head. Bangs blocks on table etc.
  • Nine months: Claps hands together. Points with index finger.
  • Twelve months: Stacks two blocks. Uses pincer grip to pick up objects
  • Fifteen months: Feeds self with spoon (albeit messily!)
  • Eighteen months: Can remove shoes if the laces are untied.
  • Two years: Draws in a circular scribble. Washes hands. Beginning to self-dress.
  • Two and a half years: Places pegs in pegboard. Builds a block tower 8 pieces high. Cuts paper with scissors.
  • Three years: Puts shoes on. Brushes hair. Completes simple puzzles.
  • Four years: Draws using static tripod grasp. Cuts shapes. Shows hand preference.
  • Five years: Writes own name. Uses dynamic tripod grasp.
  • Six years: Dresses/undresses without help. Ties shoes.

The Princer Grasp

If you want to help develop your child’s fine motor skills at home, there are a number of techniques and toys that aid fine motor development. From Lego to Play-Doh, anything that requires children to use a pincer grasp (thumb and forefinger) will benefit their handwriting and coordination later at school age. (If your child’s handwriting is falling behind, consider this course on Handwriting.)  Take your cues from a typical preschool curriculum which involves: coloring, cutting, easel painting, beading, lacing boards, buttons, etc. You don’t need to purchase expensive toys. You can use a lot of household items to develop fine motor skills: clothes pegs, nuts and bolts, spray bottles, water guns, and shoelaces (lacing through holes—not tying.)

Additional pincer grasp exercises include:

  • Squeeze a stress ball.
  • Clip laundry pegs to the rim of a bucket or cup
  • Pick up items with children’s chopsticks, tweezers or tongs
  • Manipulate silly putty or Theraputty
  • Dress or undress a doll (some are easier than others)
  • Wrap up small toys with yarn (mummy style)
  • Tear paper for paper mache, collage or craft
  • Make balls out of play dough then squash each one pinching first with the index finger, then middle finger, then ring finger, etc.
  • Use stamps and ink pads
  • Draw with sidewalk chalk
  • Peel off stickers
  • Play with wind up toys

Make your commute time physical therapy time, by placing these items in the car (maybe not the silly putty.) Make sure when you are working with your child, that you keep a positive attitude and avoid criticism. If you’re trying to isolate the pincer grasp and your child is using additional fingers to help out, give him a small piece of ‘treasure’ (a small eraser or button) to hold with the other three fingers. If your child loses interest, move on to a different task. My son has realized his drawing is a little behind, so he shuns that activity. Instead, we place a sheet of paper on top of a folded towel, and draw an outline. Then, my son uses a toothpick to poke holes along the outline. When he’s done, we hold it up to the window to let the light shine through.

Just remember, anything you can do to help your child develop their muscles will help their confidence when they reach school age. Let your child help you with baking by pouring ingredients into the bowl and mixing both of which encourage hand grip and motor coordination. (The mess is a small price to pay for physical development.) Make her squeeze the sponge when you wash the car, or give her a sponge in the bath. Doing craft is another great way to develop their control. From squeezing the glue bottle to placing the sequins and beans, crafting allows them to use their planning and design skills along with their pincer grip. Most importantly, talk to a professional, sooner rather than later, if you’re concerned about your child’s development. If you’re concerned about your school-age child’s fine motor performance affecting his academics, consider this course on school/parent relationships.

If your child is older than six, and you’ve just noticed some motor difficulties, take heart. New research shows that manual dexterity continues to improve and develop through adolescence. From Science Daily:

These findings show that it’s not only possible but critical to continue or begin physical therapy in adolescence. We find we likely do not have a narrow window of opportunity in early childhood to improve manipulation skills, as previously believed, but rather developmental plasticity lasts much longer and provides opportunity throughout adolescence” he said. “This complements similarly exciting findings showing brain plasticity in adulthood and old age. (Francisco Valero-Cuevas)

Practice Wherever You Are

As with most daily parenting routines, a little preparation can pay big dividends when it comes to improving fine motor skills. By offering developmental opportunities during the commute, the doctor’s waiting room, or other dead time, you can make substantial headway on fine motor improvement. It never hurts to try to write a few letters in a workbook, so you and your child can look back on the progress you’ve made. Make sure you inform anyone who’s looking after your child regularly about what you’re trying to achieve, but do it privately. Children can be very self-conscious about how they measure up to their peers. Be sensitive to that. If you need some reminders about your child’s psychological development at a particular age, there’s a class for that.

If your child is facing some fine motor challenges, it can be very demanding and time consuming for parents as well. It’s not always easy to come to grips with the idea that your child is somehow different from the rest. At the end of the day, these challenges provide an opportunity for us, as parents, to model patience, determination and resilience. Stay the course. Progress will come. Give yourself the time to find support whether in positive thinking, or meditation, or an online community, if you need help. We all need help sometimes. That’s why we’re here.