Do your child’s family drawings look like a gathering of amoeba with eyes? Is their cutting project decapitating heads or limbs, or has the intended triangle become a boulder? How does their writing compare with their classmates and are they proud to have their work hanging in the school hallway?
Joking aside… and yes, the above was intended for laughs… the road toward printing, cutting, and drawing mastery can take a number of left turns, some of them comical in hindsight.
While children’s efforts are sincere, their initial enthusiasm may start to wane as they struggle increasingly to achieve grade-level competence in the areas of printing, scissor use, and drawing. These are examples of potential or real motor skills difficulty and speak to the importance of motor skills in early childhood development.
Children, in their earliest developmental years, are eagerly learning how their eyes, hands, and bodies work. For most children, skill acquisition follows a predictable course and a timely schedule. Most preschool or early childhood programs include major blocks of time on the playground, on climbing apparatus, in gyms, or at other floortime centers. The time spent in these locations and on these activities are intended to build social, motor, and perceptual skills… foundations for health, development, and a positive self-image.
But for some children, the learning curve is longer, harder, and riddled with challenges. If unsatisfactory participation, limitations on access, and a lack of success are emblematic of your child’s experience, it may be time for an intervention. Pediatric occupational therapy is a science-driven health profession trained to help build the foundation for later skill development, especially for children struggling to acquire these skills. Pediatric Occupational Therapists (OTs), valuing the importance of fine and gross motor skills in early childhood development, identify tools and strategies parents or teachers could use to help children develop fine and gross motor skills early in life. Working proactively, cooperatively and through direct intervention, the developmental team includes OTs, Physical Therapists, Speech and Language Pathologists, Teachers, counselors, and other specialists. Together, they work to ensure the child’s successful participation in all facets of his or her life - home, school, and the community.
Let’s start by focusing on fine motor skills.
What Are Fine Motor Skills?
Fine motor skills generally refer to small muscle activities made by the hands, wrists, fingers, feet, toes, and tongue.
Fine Motor Skills Vs. Gross Motor Skills
Fine motor skills activities involve things like writing, drawing, using scissors or mealtime utensils, manipulating tools, or typing on a keyboard. Think also of tabletop activities, construction toys, science projects, artistic creations, musical instruments, and self-care fastenings like buttons, zippers, snaps, and more. The core goals are manipulation, bilateral coordination, eye-hand coordination, precision pinch and release, and skilled dexterity. Each hand needs to develop these skills separately as well as to use both hands together. Each finger must acquire the ability to move in isolation as needed for playing the piano, versus as a whole as if the fingers were bound to each other in a mitten. Eventually, one hand becomes the primary or dominant hand while the other becomes a functional and ready assist.
All those fine motor skills will emerge in a predictable sequence if no neurological, cognitive, or sensory issues exist… and if opportunities abound! Yes, sometimes the lack of exposure or experience can negatively impact a child’s skills and development.
On the other hand, gross motor skills include walking, running, jumping, sitting, standing, hopping, climbing, and bike riding. Gross motor skills are about strength, balance, flexibility, coordination, and endurance. The general rule of thumb is ‘stability before mobility.’ That means it is important to emphasize core strength at the trunk, hips, and shoulders, so other skills have a reliable foundation on which to grow.
Your child’s gross motor skills will allow them to acquire postural stabilization. And then, as the saying goes, the next step is mobilization - limb(i.e. arms) and digit (i.e. finger).. Those smaller, more refined movements required while playing with toys, writing or drawing, cutting with scissors, dressing, eating, and otherwise manipulating objects, highlights the importance of fine motor skills.
Once a child is positioned securely in a chair, at a table, or on the floor, the What Now question is relevant. So what does your child want to do? What motivates them?
Play? Aha! The work of childhood.
Write? The occupation of a school kid.
Be independent in self-care? The goal of all dependents.
Competence at play, writing, and self-care activities? The mission of a pediatric occupational therapist.
Examples Of Fine Motor Skills In Childhood
The list is endless:
- Writing & drawing
- Cutting: Scissors and small (safe!) tool use
- Assembling puzzles, constructing train tracks, stringing beads
- Dressing dolls and playing house
- Engaging smartphone/tablet buttons
- Tying shoelaces
- Dressing, including managing fastenings, and independence in hygiene
- Opening lunch boxes and eating with spoons, forks, or knives
- Brushing teeth or braiding hair
- Engaging in crafts, musical instruments, technology, etc
Why Fine Motor Skills Are Important In Early Childhood
The development of motor skills in early childhood is critical. Competence promotes self-esteem. It helps instill a sense of confidence in children early on in life, which helps improve their relationships and overall quality of life. Mastery accelerates the rate at which they can realize their own independence. Interests and skills develop exponentially when met with success. Who knows which of our children will become concert pianists, acclaimed florists, research scientists, licensed electricians, or future dentists and surgeons? Alas… we are admittedly jumping ahead A LOT, but the point is a good one. Many life choices down the road start with developing fine motor skills when young.
Besides… a side benefit is that a child’s independence makes parents’ lives easier!! That’s actually a more immediate possibility!
Consider all the ways fine motor skills influence your child’s emotional development. Improved hand-eye coordination can lead to an increased ability to express themselves artistically as well as an elevated sense of independence and self-confidence. All of these can significantly impact your child’s well-being and outlook on the world. For the shy or reserved child, skills on paper/canvas, or with musical instruments allow them to shine in ways unique to them. And if words or extroverted social engagement are not comfortable, their fine motor talents are just as effective in expressing inner feelings, insights, and ability.
Not to mention the social and academic impact early motor skill development can have! The child who can reconstruct an elaborate lego design will be admired by their classmates. The kid who can create precise lettering and illustrations will be sought after for a project by the group members. The one who can keyboard accurately and quickly will be solicited by the school newspaper club. The one who can braid intricate bracelets may have a waiting list of friends hoping for one, too.
All these skills suggest heightened attention to detail. And heightened attention is a foundation skill in problem-solving, memory, and learning. This creates a compelling case for why parents want to avail lots of fine motor opportunities for their children. Of course,the biggest attraction for the children themselves will be if they perceive those activities as ones in which they think they would be successful, and most of all… FUN!
Fine Motor Skills’ Impact On Toddlers’ Writing
Fine motor skills development in early childhood can help your children excel in their earliest academic experiences. Success breeds success. Success also breeds leaders. With fine motor competence and skill, your children will have the self-confidence to engage in play with peers. If they have additional skills, they may also become peer mentors. Kids ‘teaching’ kids! That is powerful. It’s a win-win for both sides. Research shows that kids learn best when working collaboratively with classmates, especially if put in the role of ‘teacher.’ Being the ‘teacher’ reinforces their own knowledge and skills. Acquiring competence in any area has the additional benefit of being noticed by the real teacher… the classroom teacher. When teachers discover a child with unique skills, they are often given more opportunities to grow, learn, and teach. Yep… it’s come full circle. Success breeds leaders! But again… we jumped ahead. Let’s start with Age and Fine Motor Skills Milestones
What are reasonable age-level expectations?
1-3 Years Old
- Ability to draw a line
- Ability to eat with minimal mess
- Able to use a spoon with minimum spilling
- Can scribble with pencils/crayons
3-6 Years Old
- Can draw circle/square
- Can catch a bounced ball
- Can use scissors
- Can get dressed without assistance
- Can write
- Able to write uppercase and lowercase letters and words
- Can draw stick figures
Common Fine Motor Skill Problems Children Face
Parents. Yes. Parents can be the problem. Sometimes, they want too much, and they want it too quickly.
Let’s add some perspective.
What’s on your child’s mind? Perhaps it is which colored jelly bean is their favorite, what to name their stuffed animals, hatching a plan to finally get those cookies on top of that impossibly tall table, or something else that could provide immediate gratification. These are the pressing questions in the world of a toddler or young child.
But to parents, the questions are about the big picture. The long-term picture. The life of their child. Their main concerns are ensuring a child’s smooth and healthy development. Ideally, the way to achieve those goals would be to provide varied opportunities for exploration and fun. Let your child’s choices guide yours. Observe which activities they gravitate toward. Then provide more. Be judicious in scheduling more structured learning experiences. That is not to say you shouldn’t do so. Many kids may love the opportunity to be enrolled in preschool. If they enjoy sports, look intosigning them up for soccer or gymnastics. Are they musical? Schedule piano lessons. Inquisitive? Seek out construction toys or interactive games. Need social outlets? Coordinate play dates.
But whatever you do, do NOT inundate them with your preferences, hopes and dreams, or with endless workbooks. Faced with so much new information and stimuli, learning and the retention of this new information, becomes a chore and a burden. Instead of embarking on a mission of lifelong learning, they are turning kids off to learning altogether.
Because kids want to have fun.
The challenge is helping children learn in a way that engages them on their level, the fun and developmentally appropriate level, while achieving the greater goal of teaching them things like writing and other critical fine motor skills.
The challenge is allowing children to engage in an activity of their own choosing and giving them permission to establish preferences. Investment in learning must be self-initiated.
The challenge is sitting on your hands so kids problem-solve at their own pace.
The challenge is understanding that sometimes you help more when you help less. In other words, expose your kids to options. But then sit back and let them be kids. Let them discover, experiment, succeed and even fail.
And if failure is more prevalent and successes are few, THEN.. step in. Or seek outside resources.
That’s where Real OT Solutions can help.
How Your Child Can Develop Fine Motor Skills At Home
It’s important to let your child develop their fine motor skills in a safe, learning-conducive environment. This means supplying them with paper, crayons, safety scissors, and everything else they need to develop fine motor skills.
Never forget the “fun” element. Your child wants to have fun while they learn. They NEED to have fun while learning. They also need playtime and NEED to have fun while playing. Playing IS learning.
When they are ready, and especially if they express or demonstrate interest, know that Real OT Solutions has a proven fun program to build childrens’ motor skills at home. Created by Dr. Beverly H. Moskowitz, the Size Matters Handwriting Program, is backed by science and will help your children become competent, legible printers. Go to realOTsolutions.com to find lots of other materials to develop their fine motor skills in early childhood. With good information, good materials, and good intentions, your children can hit development milestones on time, increase their independence, and develop a solid base for growth!