What are Fine Motor Skills?

By: Kelly Nesbitt, Occupational Therapist

If you’re a parent, you know how busy your child’s hands are 24/7. Kids are constantly using their hands to pinch, squish, pull, draw, and manipulate toys and objects in their environment; all thanks to fine motor skills that they have developed over months of play and exploration. But what are fine motor skills exactly, and why do they matter?

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Fine motor skills typically refer to the ability of the hands (through development of the small muscles of the hand and experiential learning) to manipulate objects in order to accomplish specific tasks. Without fine motor skills, your child would have trouble zipping up their coat, buttoning their jeans, tying their shoes, pinching finger foods during dinner, writing with a pencil, scribbling with crayons, opening containers to get a snack, pushing LEGO® together, or turning pages in their favorite bedtime story.

How do fine motor skills typically develop? While every child develops fine motor skills at different rates, children typically develop fine motor skills in this general developmental sequence:

Babies: Learning to reach, grab, and pinch!

  • 1-2 months old:
    • Bat arms inaccurately toward a toy placed by them and will occasionally struggle to grasp onto toys in an intentional manner.
    • Babies at this stage (from birth to approximately 4-6 months old) have a reflexive grasp, meaning that if an object is placed in their palm, they will automatically grasp around the object.
  • 3-4 months:
    • Grasp onto objects in the palm of their hands without their thumb helping them hold onto the object.
  • 5 months:
    • Reach and grasp onto objects placed by them with greater accuracy.
    • Begin to use the thumb more in grasping with their palm of their hand around 4-5 months. This is called a “palmar grasp
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    Photo by Lauren Vitiello

    6-8 months:

    • Reach accurately to items they want.
    • Start using their first 3 fingers (thumb, index, and middle fingers) to hold items in the palm of their hands. OT’s refer to this type of grasp as a “radial palmar grasp
  • 9 months:
    • Start to primarily use their fingers to hold onto objects. For example, they may hold a block between their thumb, index and middle fingers around their knuckles and not with the very tips of their fingers. OT’s refer to this kind of grasp as a “radial digital grasp
  • 10-11 months:
    • Develop an “inferior pincer grasp” in which they can use the pads of their thumb and index fingers to “pinch” onto objects
    • Become interested in dropping objects into containers for play
    • Starts scribbling on paper while coloring

Toddlers: Learning to manipulate, grasp, and cut with scissors

  • 12 months:
    • Develop a “superior” or “fine pincer grasp” in which they can use the very tips of their thumb and index finger to pinch onto smaller objects. Think about how you would pick up a tiny bead with your thumb and index finger; that’s the superior pincer grasp!
    • Move small items in one hand from their fingertips to the palms of their hand. This is referred to as “finger-to-palm translation.” A good example of finger to palm translation is the action of picking up multiple coins, one-at-a-time, with the fingers and moving them into the palm of your hands.
    • Color using their whole hand to grip onto markers and crayons with their palms facing up, known as a “palmar-supinate grasp.
  • 15-18 months:
    • Kids are able to stack 2 cubes on top of each other
    • Kids are able to put large puzzle pieces into a puzzle
  • 2 years:
    • Develop the ability to move small objects from their palm to their fingers, also known as “palm-to-finger translation.”
    • Start motion of twisting caps on bottles with their fingers tips, called “simple rotation.”
    • When drawing, copies an adult in making horizontal, vertical, and circular marks
    • Unbutton buttons
  • 2-3 years
    • Color using a “digital-pronate grasp” where the palm faces down and whole fist is wrapped around the marker or crayon, with one or two fingers “pointing” on the utensil.
    • Start to use scissors to make small little cuts into paper.
  • Marita Blanken_3_MG_9081A3-4 years
    • At 3, kids can copy a pre-drawn vertical and horizontal line and circle
    • Thread medium sized beads onto string
    • Color/write using a “static tripod grasp”, which means that kids use their thumb, index, and middle finger to hold onto a pencil with the tips of their fingers and use their wrist to move the utensil.
    • Uses scissors to cut straight lines and simple shapes like squares and triangles. At this point, cutting out circles is pretty tricky.
    • Around 4 ½ years, kids may begin using a “dynamic tripod grasp” which involves the thumb, index, and middle finger to hold a utensil with the tips of their fingers and use the motion of their fingers to draw
    • Around 4-5 years old, a child is able to write some letters and numbers and may be able to write their own name
    • Can copy a cross when drawing

Kindergarten

  • 5-6 years
    • Further development of the dynamic tripod grasp occurs from 4 ½ -6 years old
    • Cuts out complex shapes with scissors and is able to more neatly cut out circles
    • Able to copy a triangle
    • Copy most uppercase and lower case letters
    • Print their name
    • Tie shoes

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Of course, this is not an exhaustive list of the fine motor skills that kids display at different ages. But, this list will definitely give you an idea of what skills you should see in your little one in time.

 

If you have any questions about your child’s fine motor development or any concerns get connected with an occupational therapist. The Occupational Therapy team at Easter Seals DuPage & Fox Valley offer a depth of knowledge and range of certifications to assist children with autism or physical challenges at any level of involvement. Because each child’s needs are different, we create an individualized treatment plan based on parent concerns and the most current treatment approaches. Click here to learn more. 

References

[1] Case-Smith and O’Brien (2015). Occupational Therapy for Children and Adolescents (7th ed.). Saint Louis, MO: Elsevier

[2] Rita P. Fleming-Castaldy (2014). National Occupational Therapy Certification Exam Review & Study Guide. Scranton, PA: TherapyEd.

[3] Lurie Children’s Hospital (2018) Fine Motor Development Milestones. Retrieved from: https://www.luriechildrens.org/en-us/care-services/specialties-services/occupational-therapy/developmental-milestones/Pages/fine-motor-skills.aspx

 

 

 

 

[1] Case-Smith and O’Brien (2015). Occupational Therapy for Children and Adolescents (7th ed.). Saint Louis, MO: Elsevier

2 Rita P. Fleming-Castaldy (2014). National Occupational Therapy Certification Exam Review & Study Guide. Scranton, PA: TherapyEd.

3 Lurie Children’s Hospital (2018) Fine Motor Development Milestones. Retrieved from: https://www.luriechildrens.org/en-us/care-services/specialties-services/occupational-therapy/developmental-milestones/Pages/fine-motor-skills.aspx

 

 

 

 

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