Childhood development of fine motor skills

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Dexterity is helpful in working with knitting needles

Fine motor skills are the coordination of small muscle movements which occur e.g., in the fingers, usually in coordination with the eyes. In application to motor skills of hands (and fingers) the term dexterity is commonly used.

According to a study done in the UK it was observed that females between the age of 4 and 7 years old show finer motor skills compared to males of the same age. This was discovered by putting 100+ females and 100+ males through observation and having them complete a variety of fine motor skills and then grading them on each skill. They then proceeded to take the total of the grades given for the skills observed and found that females tended to have finer motor skills than males. This could potentially be due to stereotypes since young girls are generally known to color or play with small dolls which both would require fine motor skills, but this has yet to be proven.

The abilities which involve the use of hands develop over time, starting with primitive gestures such as grabbing at objects to more precise activities that involve precise eye–hand coordination. Fine motor skills are skills that involve a refined use of the small muscles controlling the hand, fingers, and thumb. The development of these skills allows one to be able to complete tasks such as writing, drawing, and buttoning.

During the infant and toddler years, children develop basic grasping and manipulation skills, which are refined during the preschool years. The preschooler becomes quite adept in self-help, construction, holding grips, and bimanual control tasks requiring the use of both hands.

— Essa, E., Young, R. & Lehne, L., Introduction to early childhood education, 2nd Ed. (1998)

When the child enters middle childhood they make great progress in their artistic abilities. They begin to express themselves through drawing, sculpting, and clay modeling.

Self-care skills[edit]

As children refine their motor skills, they are able to help themselves by completing daily activities independently. For example, children between the ages of 2 and 3 are able to put on and take off simplistic articles of clothing.[1] They are able to manipulate clothing with zippers, use spoons, string together beads with large holes, and open doors with doorknobs. When children are between the ages of 3 and 4, they are able to manipulate clothing with larger buttons, use scissors to cut paper, and are able to copy simple lined shapes using a pencil. At 4 to 5 years of age, children are able to dress and undress themselves without assistance.[1] They are also able to manipulate a fork, and have gained the dexterity to cut around shapes with a pair of scissors. And by age 6, a child is able to cut softer foods with a knife and is able to tie their own shoes. Because all children develop at their own rate, the ages given are not an exact timeline.

Writing skills[edit]

It is critical to understand the development of children's fine motor skills to understand the reasoning behind why they complete certain tasks in a certain way. For example, it is important to understand the development of fine motor skills when a paper is handed in by a child in grade one and the writing is large, malformed, with little evidence of control of the pencil. If the teacher were to know the stages that children go through to develop these skills, then they may be more considerate and provide the child with appropriate adaptations to help them improve their writing skills.

Also, as children refine their motor skills, they are able to communicate by written expression. Starting off with scribbling and moving on to printing and writing.

Scribbling has been described as a types of ‘motor babbling’ and as the child matures, the forms that arise from scribbling gradually become transformed into printing and writing.

— Craig, G., Kermis, M. & Digdon, N., Children today, 2nd Ed. (2001)

Sometimes children need some assistance when developing their fine motor skills. This requires one to find strategies to assist children with their development. Occupational therapists are experts in the field of fine motor and handwriting development. More exposure to physical activity is known to be the most efficient method for developing any skill. Girls at the age of four tend to use their fine motor skills more effectively than boys at the same age. Similarly, boys tend to have better control of gross motor skills.[2]

There are three stages in holding a writing implement in early childhood. The first stage involves all four fingers and thumb wrapped around pencil in a fist. The seconds stage is the palm-down hand position. The third and final stage is presented around age 7 and there is upright position, trunk and hand stability, hand is positioned in line with the forearm, and the forward lean of the trunk.

Parental involvement can influence the stage of writing within their child. Parents who are more involved in their child's learning process, will see significant improvements in their child's accuracy and clarity. Those children who are exposed to the support of their parents will develop more proficient fine motor skills.[3]

Children’s drawings[edit]

Children’s drawings also develop as a child ages and refines their fine motor skills. This has been widely studied, especially by Rhoda Kellogg (1898–1987), following children from 2 years to 8 years of age. Her research has found that the artistic gestures of children evolve from basic scribbles to consistent symbols. The first symbols that are formed by children are the circle, the upright cross, the diagonal cross, the rectangle, and other common forms. When the child is 3 years old, they begin to form face shapes and by age 4, humans. At 4 to 5 years old, the child draws a human form with arms and legs, and eventually the child adds a trunk and clothes.[1] Children then evolve to include other pictorials in their art, such as houses, animals and boats, by the age of 5.

Manipulative materials[edit]

Toys that require a child to manipulate it with their fingers and hands can be categorized as a manipulative. Manipulatives involve coordinating the eye to what the hands are needed to do. They stimulate fine motor development because they require controlled use of hand and finger muscles. Some manipulative toys, such as puzzles, are self-correcting, fitting together in only one specific way. These types of toys only fit together one way and allow children to work until they achieve success.[4] Play dough is a manipulative that can help strengthen a child's fine motor skills. Dough can be rolled into balls, tooth picks can be used to create designs in the dough, and plastic knives can be used to cut the dough (with supervision).


"Any of the manipulative activities requiring utensils develop eye-hand coordination. Constructing with Legos, blocks, or popsicle sticks builds eye-hand coordination. Balancing objects such as blocks requires precise hand motions.Other precision motor activities include playing the piano, playing with a cash register, pushing buttons, typing, working puzzles, stringing beads, weaving, and sewing. Even large muscle activities such as climbing a ladder, playing Simon Says, and jumping rope help build eye-hand coordination (Lamme, 1979, p. 21)." [6.]

Modified writing materials[edit]

Other ways to assist children with their fine motor development are to use modified tools to assist them. For young children, using crayons is often difficult at first due to their small size, so it is important to provide children with a tool that they are able to manipulate. There have been crayons created that are a tetrahedral shape, so that the children are able to grab the crayon in any position. The use of these crayons allows for a child to create a more precise picture because of the control they have and this also helps the child to pursue such personal expression, since they are not being frustrated by not being able to use the tools. Children, when they are learning to print, also experience some frustrations. A way to assist a child who is having difficulties with this is to provide them with a Primer pencil (which is thicker around) or to modify a pencil by adding to its circumference (either by a formed grip or by adding tape). For a child who is having difficulties with their fine motor skills, offering tools such as larger pencils and modified pencils will help the child develop a better grasp of this tool and eventually moving to smaller, regular size pencils. This will help with their self-esteem, providing them with a sense of accomplishment in writing tasks.


Another way to assist a child who is having difficulties developing their fine motor skills is to provide the child with proper positioning of their hands and body to accomplish tasks.

Positioning is very important for engagement in fine motor tasks. A child's seat should allow [them] to sit comfortably with [their] feet placed firmly on the floor. [Their] hips, knees, and ankles should be at 90 degree angles, with [their] torso slightly forward. [Their] desk height should be approximately 2 inches above [their] elbows when [their] arms are at rest at [their] side. If the child's chair is too tall, leaving [their] feet dangling, create a makeshift footrest out of old telephone books bound together with masking or another strong tape to provide added stability. Keep in mind that trunk stability is necessary for good mobility of the arms, hands, and fingers.

— Linda Kennedy

As motor skills develop, children's hand grip positioning changes as well. Their grip starts off with a palmar supinate grasp. This grasp involves wrapping the entire hand around the implement used in the shape of a fist with the palm facing upwards. Children then progress to a digital pronate grasp in which they hold the implement with their palm facing downward. The pronate grasp involves using the middle finger and thumb. Children at this stage are able to use their thumb for tactile prehension. This stage can be mastered by the age of 2–4 years old.[5] They then progress to a static tri-posture grasp and then to a dynamic tripod grasp as their fingers and thumb start to play more of a function. Over time, their hands will begin to move closer to the tip of the implement used, allowing for more precise control over movement technique. The refinement in position in which they hold the writing utensil goes from holding it from the top to the bottom (closer to the tip).[6]

Possible predictor for better cognitive skills[edit]

Children who show a better grasp of fine motor skills are shown to have a better outcomes in certain topics in academics. In a study, children who had a better grasp of motor skills were able to score higher on the topics of mathematics and phonological awareness. Although there isn't enough conclusive evidence on how much motor skills affect the academic performance of children, there is a possible correlation between the ability to perform advanced motor skills as a child and an increase in ability for cognitive skills such as problem solving.

Illness and fine motor skills in later life[edit]

People who have suffered from a stroke or have suffered a neck injury (maybe as a result of a car accident) may have impaired fine motor skills, making it difficult for them to write or to use a computer mouse. An affected individual might find that a physiotherapist or an occupational therapist can provide a rehabilitation program or recommend environmental adaptations to improve the use of their fine motor skills.


  1. ^ a b c Craig, G., Kermis, M. & Digdon, N. (2001) Children today, 2nd Ed. Prentice Hall: Toronto
  2. ^ "EBSCO Publishing Service Selection Page".
  3. ^ Bindman, Samantha W.; Skibbe, Lori E.; Hindman, Annemarie H.; Aram, Dorit; Morrison, Frederick J. (2014). "Parental writing support and preschoolers' early literacy, language, and fine motor skills". Early Childhood Research Quarterly. 29 (4): 614–624. doi:10.1016/j.ecresq.2014.07.002. PMC 4183063. PMID 25284957.
  4. ^ Essa, E., Young, R. & Lehne, L. (1998) Introduction to early childhood education, 2nd Ed. Nelson: Toronto
  5. ^ Cameron, Claire E.; Brock, Laura L.; Murrah, William M.; Bell, Lindsay H.; Worzalla, Samantha L.; Grissmer, David; Morrison, Frederick J. (July 2012). "Fine motor skills and executive function both contribute to kindergarten achievement" (PDF). Child Development. 83 (4): 1229–1244. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8624.2012.01768.x. ISSN 0009-3920. PMC 3399936. PMID 22537276.
  6. ^ Lamme, Linda Leonard (1979). "Handwriting: In an Early Childhood Curriculum". Young Children. 35 (1): 20–27. JSTOR 42642746.

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