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Fine motor skills refer to a child's ability to perform small, detailed tasks like tying shoes, buttoning buttons, zipping and unzipping zippers, using scissors, and moving small or fragile items. In order to master these skills, children develop the delicate muscles in their hands, wrists, and arms so they can carefully manipulate the world around them. All kids begin to learn these skills as they grow, but some struggle to keep pace with their peers. Therapy through play can help.

The Importance of Fine Motor Skills

Any task an adult completes with their hands comes from their early fine motor skill development. Early in life, they learned how to dress themselves, feed themselves, and use tools and instruments. These abilities led to academic skills like writing with pens and pencils, drawing, graphing, typing, and handling electronics. Without strong fine motor skills, all of these abilities are impossible.

  • Kids with poor fine motor skills often develop low self-esteem.
  • A lack of fine motor skills almost always hurts academic performance.
  • Fine motor skills are the basis of personal independence.

Fine Motor Skills Basics

In order to advance, there are a few core building blocks every child must master. They are simple in the eyes of adults, of course, but they serve as milestones signaling a child's development.

  • Body Awareness: Understanding signals sent to the brain about position and motion
  • Bilateral Integration: Using two hands to perform different roles in a single task, like pushing a button through a hole
  • Crossing Midline: Using the right hand to reach for things on the left and vice versa
  • Hand-Eye Coordination: Recognizing and judging distance between hands and objects by sight
  • Hand and Finger Strength: Developing muscles physically strong enough to perform tasks
  • Hand Division: Using the first two fingers and thumb to grasp while the remaining fingers provide support
  • Hand Dominance: Performing the same task consistently with a particular hand
  • Object Manipulation: Using tools like utensils and combs to perform everyday jobs with control

Signs a Child Struggles With Fine Motor Skills

Although there are general developmental guidelines, each child develops at their own pace. A few quirks or a failure to check every box on a fine motor skills checklist isn't necessarily a sign that the child has special needs. Here are a few symptoms that a struggling child may exhibit:

  • Difficulty writing and drawing with tools like pencils and crayons
  • Wearing out quickly when engaged in play demanding fine motor skills, like using a mouse and keyboard at a computer
  • Avoiding activities at the playground that require hand-eye coordination, like construction areas in a sand pit
  • Difficulty performing self-care tasks appropriate for their age, like brushing their teeth or dressing
  • Having a very hard time cutting with scissors neatly

Techniques and Activities to Help Improve Fine Motor Skills

Children learn best through play, so spending time on fun activities that can also hone a child's fine motor skills is actually a great way to boost their performance. Many games can be played at home with simple toys and home goods.

  • Threading and lacing games improve hand-eye coordination, hand dominance, and object manipulation.
  • Peg toys and tongs build hand and finger strength while boosting object manipulation, hand dominance, and hand division.
  • Storing toys and materials helps children improve bilateral integration while screwing jar lids open and closed and builds strength at the same time.

The Benefits of Therapy for Fine Motor Skills

The social stigma surrounding therapy only hurts children, and a child doesn't necessarily have to qualify as having special needs in order to work with an expert who can help. Here are a few of the many benefits occupational therapists provide, many through play:

  • Occupational therapists have access to special knowledge and techniques parents and teachers do not.
  • Working with a therapist decreases parental stress and frustration.
  • A brief series of sessions with an occupational therapist can save a child from debilitating stress and frustration in school and life.
  • Time in therapy gives children skills that boost their confidence.
  • Therapy gives many children the boost they need to keep up in school.

Long-Term Risks of Fine Motor Skill Problems

It is very difficult to overstate the importance of fine motor skills in a young child's development. Not only will these difficulties add stress to their key years in school and social activities, but the effects can haunt them for the rest of their lives. These may include:

  • Academic struggles due to physical and mental fatigue
  • Slowed writing skills and poor handwriting
  • Diminished ability to complete self-care chores like combing hair and bathing
  • Poor computer skills
  • Difficulty typing
  • Anxiety over keeping up with their peers
  • Poor grades due to inability to write quickly during tests
  • Low self-esteem and increasing social problems
  • Behavior disorders
  • Frustration

Additional Fine Motor Skill Resources

Edited by: Ben Thompson