Early childhood educators know that one of the most critical outcomes of their work with young learners is kindergarten readiness. While many skills factor into kindergarten readiness, the ability to physically write is high on the list. In order to write, children must be able to properly hold writing utensils and successfully maneuver them on paper, using fine motor skills that are the product of years of practice, through play, creative activities, and encouragement from the adults in their lives.
In this article, we describe fine motor skill developmental stages, and suggest specific activities that will encourage young children as they attain the building blocks that will prepare them for the all-important skill of writing.
Defining Fine Motor Skills
First 5 California defines fine motor skills as concentrated, small, and precise movements in the hand, thumb, finger, and wrist. These skills are used in activities such as drawing, writing, and holding a spoon. Children also utilize these skills when they reach for and grasp objects with their hands.
Fine motor skills are not to be confused with gross motor skills, which involve using larger muscle groups in arms and legs. Gross motor skills allow children to do larger movements like crawling, walking, and jumping.
Fine motor skill developmental milestones care a useful guide for curriculum planning. By looking at where children are, and what milestones they are expected to achieve in the near future, you can create an environment that offers approachable and fun activities for fine motor skill development.
When reviewing milestones and considering children in your care, it is important to remember that each child is different and developmental milestones are always approximate. It is normal and expected that some children progress more quickly while others achieve milestones at a slower rate.
Birth – 18 Months
The Children’s Hospital of Richmond shares the important milestones that children typically reach during their first two years of life. In the first six months, infants are able to hold a small object in their hands and will reach for and hold toys. By 10 months, infants can transfer objects from one hand to the other and start to pick up small foods such as cereal using the pincer grasp (picking items up using just the thumb and forefinger). After their first birthday and into the first year, children will begin to have more concentrated hand and finger movements that allow them to turn the pages of cardboard books, point with an index finger, and put objects in a container.
18 Months – 2 Years
The Children’s Therapy & Family Resource Centre shares that during toddlerhood, children will be able to build larger towers, with 4-6 blocks, and feed themselves using forks or spoons. Children will also be able to hold crayons and will start to scribble, and paint with a paintbrush. Toddlers are also able to take on more autonomy by turning and opening knobs, by pulling up large zippers to zip up their own backpacks or coats.
2 Years – 3 Years
Between 2 and 3 years of age, children will be able to hold and manipulate paper in new ways. Children will be able to fold a piece of paper in half and turn single pages in a book, according to The Children’s Therapy & Family Resource Centre. Children will also be able to draw a cross, a circle, and a straight line, and will begin to use one hand more than the other for most activities as they discover which hand is dominant. Children will also begin to hold crayons more precisely, with their thumb and fingers and can snip edges of paper with scissors.
3 Years – 5 Years
Occupational Therapy Center, Kid Sense shares that in preschool, children should begin to develop more precision in fingers and hands that allow them to trace along dotted lines, properly hold pencils, and use their non-dominant hand to stabilize paper while their dominant hand writes. Children should also be able to take on more independence in their self-care routines by brushing teeth and hair, and dressing almost completely independently (including putting on shoes and socks but excluding tying shoelaces). As children approach kindergarten, they should be able to copy numbers and write their own name independently.
Supporting Fine Motor Skill Development through Art and Play
Children of all ages can be encouraged to draw and paint, in order to help them build motor skills in fingers and hands. Younger learners might be more successful with finger paints and chunky pieces of chalk, while older children can begin trying to work with pencils and pens. Even by scribbling and making simple marks on paper, young children are developing muscles in their fingers that will help them to successfully write later on.
Following are just a few play-based activities that support fine motor skill development, organized by age and development stage.
Put interesting objects (such as blocks, soft books, plush toys, or shakers) near infants so that they are encouraged to reach for and grasp items that they would like to explore. Caregivers can also read books with infants that include lift the flap, or touch and feel sensory experiences that allow them to feel and explore with their fingers and hands.
The Children’s Hospital of Richmond recommends “tummy time” for very young children so they learn to push up. This will help to develop strength in arms and hands that will lead to an ability to perform more precise fine motor movements.
First 5 California recommends encouraging toddlers to use spoons and forks when eating and allowing children to try to dress themselves. Though toddlers will require help in these tasks, allowing them to take ownership over their own self-care skills will excite and empower them to continue to take on new challenges.
Toddlers also benefit from using materials that can be poured, scooped, and squeezed, such as sand or playdough. Materials that stack, such as cups or blocks can also encourage children to use fingers and hands to grasp and manipulate objects.
Preschool & Pre-K
The Inspired Treehouse suggests puzzles and threading activities to help children strengthen muscles in fingers and hands. Puzzles requires children to pick up the pieces, and maneuver them into several different places until they find the right spot, and threading activities, such as putting beads on a string or pipe cleaner involves focused, concentrated use of fingers. Introducing scissor skills is another a great way to get children using fine motor skills (click here to find simple, easy-to-set-up scissor activities).
As children get stronger in their foundational writing skills, they should be encouraged to regularly practice writing their names, simple words, and even, with support, beginning to write sentences. Offering these opportunities to challenge themselves will help children to progress and gain more confidence in their writing skills.