The importance of fine motor development

Increasingly, school aged children are entering the education system with poor fine motor skills. Skills such as colouring in, cutting and writing which are essential in meeting the demands of the foundation phase classroom. Why is this happening? Many believe it is because of the way that play is changing. Sedentary play is starting to dominate the free time of our children with increased screen time. Furthermore, it is not uncommon for parents to be unaware of the need to allow children to practice these skills; rather assuming that they will be taught at preschool. The truth is that early childhood play, and the opportunities it offers babies and toddlers, is vital in the development of fine motor skills necessary for the classroom, and life, later on.

Here is some background on the development of fine motor skills.
Babies are born with a closed fist and slowly start to open and close their hands intentionally to grasp objects at around 4 months of age. (Very importantly, this is more likely to happen if they are interested in exploring the toy that is presented to them.) Slowly this grasp develops and becomes more refined as they start to pick up smaller objects and explore toys that require more manipulation.

Grasping an object progresses from the use of the palm to the finger tips, as the baby grows, and eventually to the thumb, index and middle fingers alone (tripod grasp) and the index and thumb alone (pincer grasp). This is important because it is the tripod and pincer grasps that are necessary for a child to hold their pencil correctly. In order to encourage the development of these grasps caregivers can present toys and objects to babies that would require using these grasps. For example, picking up small stones and posting them into a bag, eating a plate of peas with your fingers or helping turn the pages of a book while reading.

Another skill that assists in promoting a mature pencil grasp, and thus improving handwriting and colouring in skills, is the ability of the hand to manipulate an object while it is still in the hand. Think of how you would eat a handful of sweets, one at a time, using only one hand. Or consider how you brush your teeth; while brushing your teeth your hand moves and turns your toothbrush so that you reach every tooth. This in-hand manipulation is naturally promoted in tasks such as those mentioned for the tripod and pincer grasp above but can be further encouraged by handling more than one object at a time. In hand manipulation is also important for cutting. Cutting is an essential skill of the Grade R and 1 curriculum. A child needs to be able to use their right and left hand together in order to cut adequately.

This coordination of the two sides of the body (bilateral coordination) is developed early on through crawling, clapping and walking. Any task which requires the use of the two sides of the body together will promote this skill. For example: cleaning up using a dustpan and brush, washing a mirror with two hands, grating cheese, star jumps, skipping, drying dishes and cutting fruit.

The development of fine motor skills is a bit more complex than pincer/tripod grasp, in-hand manipulation and bilateral coordination alone. These are a few of the foundational skills that are learned and practiced throughout childhood in preparation for school.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember is to allow children to play! To play actively and freely with toys and objects that will encourage these fine motor skills. When the time is right, let them draw and cut in a playful way; let them draw on the pavement with chalk and let them cut some flowers off a bush using a pair of scissors. Get creative and allow doing to take center stage above just sitting and watching.

Written by: Tiffany Heaney