Early childhood development includes acquiring fine and gross motor skills. While both these skills involve movement, they do have differences:
- Fine motor skills involve movement of the smaller muscle groups in your child’s hands, fingers, and wrists.
- Gross motor skills involve movement of the larger muscle groups, like the arms and legs. It’s these larger muscle groups that allow babies to sit up, turn over, crawl, and walk.
Both types of motor skills enable children to become more independent. Fine motor skills are especially crucial, however, because the ability to use the smaller muscles in the hands allows children to perform self-care tasks without assistance. This includes:
- brushing their teeth
- getting dressed
Babies and toddlers develop fine and gross motor skills at their own pace. Some children develop some skills earlier than others, and that’s perfectly normal. Children usually begin to acquire these skills as early as 1 or 2 months old and continue to learn additional skills through preschool and early elementary school.
The most important fine motor skills children need to develop include the following:
- The palmar arches allow the palms to curl inward. Strengthening these helps coordinate the movement of fingers, which is needed for writing, unbuttoning clothes, and gripping.
- Wrist stability develops by early school years. Itallows children to move their fingers with strength and control.
- Skilled side of the hand is the use of the thumb, index finger, and other fingers together for precision grasping.
- Intrinsic hand muscle development is the ability to perform small movements with the hand, where the tip of the thumb, index finger, and middle finger touch.
- Bilateral hand skills permit the coordination of both hands at the same time.
- Scissor skills develop by age 4 and teaches hand strength and hand-eye coordination.
Here’s a brief timeline of fine motor milestones for babies and toddlers:
0 to 3 months
- places their hands in their mouth
- hands become more relaxed
3 to 6 months
- holds hands together
- moves a toy from one hand to the other
- holds and shakes a toy using both hands
6 to 9 months
- begins to grasp things by “raking” with the hand
- squeezes an item with their hands
- touches fingers together
- grasps a toy with both hands
- uses their index finger to touch things
- claps hands
9 to 12 months
- feeds themselves finger foods
- grabs small objects with thumb and index finger
- bangs things together
- holds a toy with one hand
12 month to 2 years
- builds block tower
- scribbles on paper
- eats with a spoon
- turns one page of a book at a time
- holds crayon with fingertips and thumb (pincer grasp)
2 to 3 years
- turns a doorknob
- washes hands
- uses a spoon and fork correctly
- zips and unzips clothes
- places lids and removes lids from canisters
- strings beads on yarn
3 to 4 years
- unbuttons and buttons clothes
- uses scissors to cut paper
- traces shapes on paper
Fine motor skills develop naturally as your child gains the ability to control and coordinate their body. Keep in mind that some children might develop fine motor skills earlier and have better coordination than others.
One baby may learn to shake a rattle at 3 months, whereas a baby of the same age might not shake a rattle until a month later. This is totally normal.
Don’t be alarmed if your child isn’t developing as fast as a child of similar age. Remember, your child’s body is still growing. In a few weeks or months, they may build enough muscle strength in their hands to acquire new fine motor skills.
Incorporating fun activities into your child’s daily routine can help improve their fine motor skills. The ability to learn and practice fine motor skills at an early age can benefit them academically, socially, and personally.
Here are some activities you and your child can do together:
- Allow your child to assist with meal preparation, like stirring, mixing, or pouring ingredients.
- Put together a puzzle as a family.
- Play board games that involve rolling dice.
- Finger paint together.
- Let your child set the dinner table.
- Teach your child how to pour their own drinks.
- Have your child roll and flatten clay with their hands, and then use a cookie cutter to make cutouts.
- Show your child how to use a hole puncher.
- Practice placing rubber bands around a can.
- Place objects in a container and have your child remove them with tweezers.
Although fine motor skills develop at different rates, see your child’s pediatrician if they struggle with these skills or gross motor skills. Delays could be a sign of developmental coordination disorder. It affects about 5 to 6 percent of school-aged children.
Signs of a problem with fine motor skills include:
- dropping items
- unable to tie shoes
- difficulty holding a spoon or toothbrush
- trouble writing, coloring, or using scissors
Some fine motor skills delays aren’t detected until a child is older. Identifying a delay early can ensure your child receives the help they need to build their skills and help them grow.
Your child’s pediatrician may diagnose a coordination disorder if your child has:
- fine motor skills below what’s expected for their age
- poor fine motor skills that make it difficult to complete everyday tasks at school and home
- developmental delays of motor skills that started at an early age
Your child may need to work one-on-one with an occupational therapist to learn techniques to improve coordination in their smaller muscle groups.
Fine motor skills are essential to living and learning. If your child has difficulty with day-to-day activities or you feel your child struggles with these skills, discuss the possibility of a developmental delay with their doctor.
With an early diagnosis, home activities, and the assistance of an occupational therapist, you can help your child thrive and reach developmental milestones.