Most adults can pick up a pencil without a second thought. They can do such actions with relative ease because their bodies mastered motor skills during early childhood. What they most likely have forgotten is that — like most things in life — they had to learn these skills.
Erin Ulis, an occupational therapist with Akron Public Schools, describes the body’s learning to do such tasks during the first few years of life as “motor planning.” For children younger than age 5, their body is organizing itself and learning how to move using two types of skills: gross motor skills and fine motor skills.
Parents should watch their child’s development and mastery in these skills closely. Delays in one area likely predict other issues, says Ulis.
“When we have a child come in and they have a pretty significant delay in gross motor skills, where the parents tell us that they didn’t start walking until the age of 2, then you know that you’re going to see a delay in everything else,” Ulis says.
Rozlyn Grant, the director of curriculum and instruction for the Early Learning Program at The Centers for Families and Children in Cleveland, notes that both motor skill sets generally develop at about the same time, but that a child’s fine motor skill development tends to be more subtle — and overlooked.
As an example, she observes that while parents may notice their child holding their own bottle or moving objects from hand to hand, they don’t celebrate those actions to the same degree as when their child begins to crawl or take their first step.
A child’s progress in developing fine motor skills may impact their later development in other areas such as intelligence, problem solving and cognitive skills. If a child is unable to do everyday tasks, it can negatively impact their self-confidence, their ability to be independent and their academic performance. For preschool and kindergarten age children, useful actions to develop the muscles used in fine motor skills include grasping, holding, pressing and squeezing.
Maria K. Podolan, an occupational therapist-clinical specialist with University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital, suggests that parents use small items such as bite-size food to develop their child’s pincer grasp, which requires the coordination of the index finger and thumb to hold an item. Podolan adds that a child will need help and guidance initially, but should require less assistance as their skills develop.
Time may be the biggest investment that parents will have to make to help their children hone fine motor skills. Many items that adults can use to practice these skills with their children may already be in their homes or nearby convenience stores. Here are some tips you can do with your child:
- Not Just for Playtime — Lego blocks, Play-Doh, crayons, colored pencils, paint brushes, cotton swabs, sidewalk chalk and washable paint are all useful items to encourage your child’s creativity while helping them to master grasping objects and manipulating tools. Scissors are a good tool for children to develop fine motor skills but should be used under adult supervision. Play-Doh can be substituted for paper if adults harbor concerns regarding their child’s use of scissors.
- Not Just for Mealtime — Small edible items such as breakfast cereals can help a child develop their pincer grasp. Brightly colored cereals with holes reduce a child’s choking risk and also can be used to teach sorting skills and how to lace objects on a string. Another useful foodstuff is uncooked corn meal. By placing a piece of paper with a letter under corn meal on a cookie sheet, Grant worked with her sons to trace the letters in their names.
- Lace ’em Up — Teaching children to lace shoestrings through holes in cardboard, stringing beads, and twisting pipe cleaners into shapes are other useful endeavors. These activities require children to use their thumbs, index fingers and middle fingers, all of which they will use to hold crayons, pencils and pens someday.
- Give Them a Squeeze — Items such as turkey basters, eyedroppers, spray bottles, clothes pins and tweezers help a child develop hand strength through clamping, gripping and squeezing motions. Activities involving water are another opportunity to strengthen hand muscles. Pouring water, using cups and squeezing tub toys, sponges and washcloths can be practiced in the bathtub or during water table playtime.
- Find the “Off” Switch — Ulis encourages parents to limit the amount of playtime that they allow their children to have on handheld game consoles and similar devices. She says that many occupational therapists are seeing children entering schools with incredibly strong thumbs but underdeveloped finger and hand muscles.
- The “Write” Stuff — Podolan observes that children can begin scribbling spontaneously around the ages of 13-18 months. She suggests that adults engage their children in coloring activities that target the scribbling of pre-writing strokes such as vertical, horizontal and circular lines. Grant adds that children approaching the age of 3 years old may begin writing-specific activities, such as connect-the-dot games and tracing letters on paper with a highlighter.
By the time they are nearly 5, children who are not developing their fine motor skills will show signs of difficulty controlling coordinated body movements with their fingers and hands. Fine motor skills can become impaired due to illness, injuries and developmental disabilities. Ulis notes that educators and pediatricians frequently screen a child’s fine motor skills during kindergarten enrollment and regular wellness checks.
One of the most frequently used tools to gauge a child’s motor skill development is the Peabody Developmental Motor Scales, an age-equivalent assessment composed of six subtests that measure interrelated abilities. Podolan says that a parent should consult their family’s pediatrician and possibly request a referral for occupational therapy if they feel that their child is not meeting fine motor milestones. If a parent is noticing changes in behavior or skill regression, they may want to consult with their pediatrician before their next wellness check.