What are Fine Motor Skills? Fine Motor Skills Checklist

What are fine motor skills?  They are the small co-ordinated movements of the hands and fingers that make us as human beings special.  In some instances they are also called hand skills.  The co-ordinated small muscle movements enable the hands to perform refined manipulative tasks that foster independence, and enable us to become independent, functional beings.

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From baby hands to writing hands.

Watching fine motor skills develop is one of the miraculous events of early childhood.  Our babies are born with not much more than a grasp reflex.  This reflex is activated when you place your finger into a baby’s hand and the hand automatically closes around it and holds on.  The release is not active, nor is it conscious – it is involuntary.  Your baby may hold something in their hands, only to randomly drop it at some point.  Compare this to the finely tuned sequence of fine motor movements that come together to tie a shoelace.

Over the first year of life, fine motor development control develops from random swipes of the arm with movements from the shoulder.  Controlled movement then slowly moves down towards the hands.

Crawling helps develop the small muscles in the hands.

This progression of the development of control from the shoulder down to the hands is one of the reasons why crawling is so beneficial.  The input received through the hands while crawling, promotes the development of the small muscles of the hands, which contribute to their amazing refined skill.  It is not only the forward crawling that is important.  Each time your baby moves over their hands from the 4-point crawling position into sitting, they are activating the small muscles of the hand.

Fine motor skills development.

I have early yet vivid memories of my mother saying while we were out shopping: “look with your eyes and not with your hands.”  While a most valuable social skill was not to pick up and fiddle with whatever took my fancy, I do believe that we “look” with our hands.  Our ability to manipulate objects in a refined manner works together with our touch receptors.  This provides us with information about the objects we hold.  And it is this refined manipulation that fine motor skills are made of.

We develop fine motor skills through exposure, opportunity and repetition.  In just the same way we want to give our children a balanced diet on a regular basis, they need a regular balanced fine motor diet.  We know that too much sugar, too much fast food and too many fizzy drinks are not good for our children.  We try to regulate their intake of these sugary delights that our children would love to consume all day.

Smartphones steal from fine motor skills development.

Smartphones and tablets are the fizzy drinks, fast food and sugar that are bad for our fine motor and hand skills.  In the same way that the occasional cupcake and splurge at a birthday party are not going to cause our children to suffer irreparable damage or precipitate childhood obesity, limited exposure to technology is not going to severely impact fine motor skills development.  But its consumption does need to be monitored and managed – just as we carefully manage our children’s sugar intake.

Too much time spent with technology steals from the time and opportunity for exposure, repetition and mastery.  The amazing manipulative abilities of the hands are not challenged nor developed through time on smart phones and tablets.  Swiping and pointing simply does not develop the tiny in-hand muscles that we need for fine motor skills.  Too much time on these devices does not allow for enough time for the repetition required to develop the fine motor manipulatory skills our children need by the time they enter Grade 1.  To counteract the time stolen by technology, we need to include specific and intentional fine motor skills activities.

Grip strength is declining.

A 2016 study of 20 plus aged adults, showed a significant deterioration in grip strength when compared to a similar group in 1983.  By choosing specific activities such as the play dough press, we can swim against the tide of weak underdeveloped hands of the techno age.  Here at The Happy Handwriter we start from the foundations and work up.  We promote the development of the foundational fine motor skills.  No piece that I write on fine motor skills would be complete without a mention of the critical importance of cutting – one of the essential foundational fine motor skills we have.   We need to set our children up with the fine motor base needed to go on to develop the pre-handwriting lines and strokes and go on to master one of the complex and critical hand skills: handwriting.

What are fine motor skills needed for Grade 1?

The range of normal development is broad in younger children, and fine motor skills are no exception.  This is why I am always loath to add ages to stages.  So, I have offered my fine motor skills checklist highlighting those we would like our children to master by Grade 1, without ages.  This is a range of the fine motor skills they need by the time they get there.  Our challenge is to offer sufficient opportunity for their hand skills to develop the fine motor manipulation needed by the time our children reach Grade 1.


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Patty Bunce, an experienced occupational therapist, also weighs in on the importance of fine motor skills development.

©Bunty McDougall
Occupational Therapist

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