Fine Motor Skills

What are fine motor skills?

Fine motor skills, or the use of the small muscles in the hands, are necessary for handwriting.  Sadly, these skills are not optimally developed in today's techno kids.  So the question is: what exactly are fine motor skills and, more importantly, what can we do to improve them?

Fine motor skills are those skills that use the small muscles and movements in the hands to achieve functional tasks from grasping, releasing, turning, pulling, threading, posting, and cutting to handwriting.  And since handwriting is our focus, we are interested in how these skills act as the foundation for handwriting.

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We know that early pre-handwriting skills are linked to superior performance in maths and reading in Grade 2.  We also know that these early handwriting skills require the fine motor foundations to be mastered.  We cannot build a house on shaky foundations.  Our house is the handwriting house, and one of the critical foundations to build this house are fine motor skills.  Children cannot manipulate a pencil with the refined sequences of movement required for letter formation if these foundations are not in place.  Unfortunately there has been a significant decline in fine motor skills in pre-schoolers with the advent of early exposure to technology, which finds our children swiping and pointing with less opportunity for good old-fashioned manipulative play.

Technology and fine motor skills

We even use fine motor skills when using a phone or tablet!  But how can it be that they require fine motor skills, and yet we blame them for the decline in these same skills?  The nature of the swiping and pointing actions used on phones and tablets does not develop all aspects of the supporting fine motor muscles our children need to hold a pencil.  To be able to hold and manipulate a pencil for handwriting, we need to develop the forearm muscles; wrist muscles; the pincer grasp of the thumb and forefingers, which hold the pencil while the middle finger supports it; the ability to manipulate objects within our hands; as well as the ability to move one part of our hand, while keeping the other part still to provide a point of stability from which to work.

This complex range of fine motor movements is simply not offered by the flat plane of the phone or tablet.  Just like we need a balance in the food groups, we need a balance in the development of the fine motor skills that are ultimately going to support the handwriting process.  That is why we need to expose our children to a wide range of manipulative play opportunities that will develop all aspects of their small muscle motor development.

Why are these small motor muscle skills important?

They are also critical for children to develop independence in self-care skills like dressing, tooth brushing and shoe laces.  These same skills are also needed for one of the essential occupations of childhood: play.  A lack of mastery of fine motor skills will certainly affect a child's ability to engage in solitary to social play and that in-between.

And then, there are the fine motor skills that will support the schooling process. Research has shown that much of the school day is spent in fine motor activities.

  1. In Grade 00, 37% of the day is spent in fine motor activities, of which 10% are pencil and paper tasks¹.
  2. Our Grade R's spend half the day in fine motor activities with 42% on pencil and paper activities¹.
  3. By Grade 2, 30-60% of the day is spent engaged in fine motor activities, 85% of which are pencil and paper tasks².

Does your child have poor fine motor skills?

From time to time, parents are faced by a concerned teacher who expresses distress about a lack of development of fine motor skills and highlights concerns about pencil grip.  Younger children frequently avoid drawing, while older children have untidy handwriting.  The teacher may even indicate that your child may need to see an occupational therapist if there is no improvement over the coming months.  As parents, we want to spring into action and help.  However, there seems to be a gap in the resources we can find to assist our children.  When working on developing fine motor skills for pre-handwriting and handwriting, we need to focus very specifically on the muscles and movement patterns that are going to support these.  The Happy Handwriter has developed a number of carefully selected and developed graded resources to address exactly these concerns.

What activities develop fine motor skills in children?

When a child misses out on the typical fine motor developmental milestones, they need targeted activities to build in these muscle groups and patterns.   Presenting a child with delayed skills with non-specific and generalised fine motor activities is insufficient to breach this gap.  Activities that target specific muscle groups and movement patterns, and that allow for multiple repetition that will develop these muscles and movement patterns, are critical to addressing these delays.

The specific and targeted activities such as those in the Fine Motor Fun work, because, as its name suggests, it is full of fun activities that will engage our children.  I always say: "children learn when they are having fun."  These activities have been chosen for their inherent ability to target the muscle groups and movement patterns for pencil grip, pencil control and handwriting.  Tried and tested with countless numbers of children over 30 years, these activities fulfil the requirements of being both the children's and the therapist's favourites.  Favourites with the children because they are fun to play over and over again (and repetition is critical in muscle development), and my favourites because they target exactly the muscles and movements that are required to develop the forearm and wrist position, pencil grasp, and the movement patterns required for speed and quality of handwriting.

Fine motor development activities

In addition to starting with Learn to Cut, and the Fine Motor Fun to address the muscles and movement patterns required for handwriting, you may add a number of carefully graded manipulative activities all of which target and develop exactly the muscles and movement patterns required for developing pencil control.

Cutting is one of the most critical pre-handwriting skills we have to develop gaps in fine motor development.  The cutting motion develops the critical fine motor muscles and movement patterns for handwriting.  I believe our children should cut from here to the moon and back!  Learn to Cut is a carefully designed graded introduction to cutting.  The activities build in the cutting movement, the correct scissor grasp, along with the cutting motion.  All this takes place in a graded and systematic manner, leading to mastery of this vital skill.   Targeting scissor skill activities is a must for any parent, teacher or therapist wishing to develop manipulative skills in their children.

It has become evident that fine motor skills are severely underdeveloped in this day and age.  However, all is not lost.  The Happy Handwriter has developed many different resources designed to improve fine motor skills in young children, all of which will be able to assist them with the development of these crucial skills.

I have been using Happy Handwriter's products in my therapy sessions for four years, with consistently great results.  It targets all the different components needed for handwriting and fine motor skills, which makes it a comprehensive programme to use, and the results are reflected in children's schoolbooks as well as on standardised tests.

Most importantly, the children love the activities and games!  Even children who have developed a dislike for writing by the time they start OT, participate enthusiastically in games like flick ball, the octoglider, gator grabbers, pancake flips, fruit trees, clay syringes, handy scoopers, texture boards and wikki stix.  Many of the activities are also suitable for older children.  It is the first thing I recommend to parents who want to stimulate fine motor skills at home, and it is also the first thing I tell new therapists to buy - no paediatric practice is complete without it!

Lise Reyneke, Occupational Therapist, Malmesbury

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