The Finer Things: The Development of Fine Motor Skills in Children
by Jill Loftus, OTR
Sometimes as parents and caregivers, we focus so much on our children’s gross motor, speech and social emotional development, we sometimes forget about the finer things – their FINE MOTOR SKILLS. From very early on, the way that babies reach, grasp and manipulate objects sets the foundation for more mature skills, like handwriting skills. Below are the stages of fine motor development and some activities that can help foster those tiny fingers and hands to take on those BIG activities in their daily routine.
1. Newborn (0-4 months)
Between 0 and 4 months, your baby will move their arms and hands together to bat at objects or visual stimuli. Your child will also develop the ability to move their eyes and head in a coordinated manner from side to side. This skill is required for your baby to further develop their fine motor abilities. For example, a baby of this age may turn their head from left to right in response to the sound of their mother’s voice. Starting tummy time as early as possible is important during this developmental period. It can be started as early as one week! Between 2-3 months your child will begin to reach for objects and hold them in the middle of his/her body. Their grasp is reflexive at this age, so they will not be able to purposefully release the objects they are holding. Using rattles, cause and effect toys and play mats are just some ways to engage your newborn.
2. Infant (4-12 months)
During this period, your baby will gain more control over their arms and progress from reaching with both hands to reaching with one hand. Voluntary movement emerges and the baby will become capable of grasping and holding objects. Around 4 months they will only be able to squeeze objects and hold them in a closed fist. By about 6 months your baby will begin to pick up small items like raisins and by 12 months they will pinch and hold small objects between their thumb and index finger as adults do. In addition, your child will transfer objects from one hand to the other and be able to release objects from their grasp voluntarily. Your baby’s visual skills continue developing during this stage. Initially they will learn to coordinate their head and eyes to move up and down together. Soon afterwards they will watch their reach and eventually be able find an object visually, and then purposefully reach for it. Activities can include stacking rings and blocks, turn pages of a book, large knob puzzles and rolling a ball.
3. Toddler (1-3 years)
Your child’s sitting balance and trunk control will improve to the point that they no longer need to use their arms for support. They will be able to sit unsupported while using their hands for play. At this age, hand and arm use is characterized by the whole arm moving together and both arms being used equally. However, as the child approaches 2 years of age, the emergence of a hand preference may be demonstrated by one hand initiating activity more often than the other. Their hand preference is beginning to emerge at this age but not yet established. As a result, the child will frequently alternate hands for leading activities. Hand use will also change dramatically. The child will begin to move fingers independently of other fingers. This may be evident in the ability to poke bubbles or point at objects. When coloring with crayons, your child will use whole arm movements to color and will hold the crayon in a closed fist with their thumb pointing up. Usually by 2 years of age your child’s coloring should progress from circular scribble to imitating, copying or drawing horizontal or vertical lines. Using small stubby crayons can help promote your child’s grasp. Other activities include completing simple puzzles and stringing beads on a string.
During this stage of development, your child’s balance and trunk stability should allow them to maintain their posture when they reach away from their body or shift their weight to one side. During hand use, less shoulder movement will be observed and more movement will occur at the elbow. During activities such as opening a jar, one hand will clearly be leading the activity (the hand turning the lid) and the other hand will be assisting (the hand holding the jar). How about scissors? At 2 years, the child will use both hands to open and close scissors. By 3 years, they should be able to snip paper with the scissors in one hand and eventually cut a piece of paper into 2 pieces. You can introduce activities like using tweezers to pick up small objects like beads or small erasers to develop the small muscles of the hand.
4. Preschooler (3-5 years)
Your child will have a strong preference for a lead/dominant hand, but switching continues. When drawing, the lead hand will be holding the crayon while the assist hand is stabilizing the paper. The child will attempt to color within the lines but with limited success. You can use a product called Wikki Sticks, bendable wax sticks to create an outline of the picture and provided a guide for your child to color inside the lines. Using play dough to roll long pieces to shape letters and numbers is another way to promote prewriting skills. By 4 years of age, your child should be holding the crayon with three fingers.
The crayon will be pinched between their thumb and index finger and resting on their middle finger. This is called a tripod pencil grasp and is the manner in which most adults hold a pen or pencil. It is also called a mature or efficient pencil grasp. During cutting, your child should use a “thumb’s up” grasp to smoothly open/close the scissors in a forward direction and cut along a straight line and cut a circle and square. They should also be able to draw a person with 3-6 body parts. This may also be a great time to introduce an effective prewriting and handwriting program called Handwriting Without Tears, www.hwtears.com.
During this stage hand use is characterized by refined wrist and finger movement and decreased elbow and shoulder movement. During drawing, a combination of finger and wrist movement should be observed. Hand dominance is typically established around 5-6 years, so a hand preference should be apparent and consistent. During coloring, the child will become capable of staying within the lines as well as drawing crosses, diagonal lines and squares using a tripod pencil grasp.
5. School Age (5+ years)
Both hands should work together. The roles of the right and left hands should be easily identified as dominant and non-dominant, or lead and assist. They should be able to write their first name using capital letters and start to write all capital letters entering kindergarden. By the end of kindergarden, lower case letters should become more natural. Entering first grade, writing 3-4 letter words and working on developing short sentences will also start to develop. Small precise finger movement should be observed during coloring. When using scissors, the child should be able to hold them in a mature fashion and cut out complex shapes. Remember to keep an eye on your child’s posture in the chair, making sure they are sitting upright, knees are bent and feet are flat on the floor. In addition, homework does not need to be completed at the table. Switch it up! Hang worksheets on the wall or easel, use a 3” ring binder/slant board and lie on your belly, sit at the table on a large therapy ball.
Embracing Technology – The Use of Apps to Foster Fine Motor Development
This is a list of just some of the apps that are great for helping to support your child’s fine motor development. Here are a few ways to maximize the experience – Use a stylus AND get a cover that can be angled to promote wrist extension. Wrist extension is when the wrist is working against gravity. Work at the table or on the floor while on your belly!
Links to Fine Motor Apps:
• Letter Tracer/Little Writer – https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/little-writer-tracing-app/id515890480?mt=8
• Paper Toss – https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/paper-toss/id317917431?mt=8
• Bugs and Buttons – https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/bugs-and-buttons/id446031868?mt=8
• Draw Animals – http://www.drawnimal.com