What are fine motor skills?

Another word for fine motor skills is dexterity, which in general involves the coordination of small muscles. In particular, movements requiring the regulation of hands and fingers with the eyes (i.e. hand-eye coordination). In children, these complex motor skills are critical to their development as they mature, as refinement of these movements enables them to attend important activities such as feeding, writing, using a button or tying something. Thus, it is important that children’s hands become strong and dexterous as they grow, and this is best achieved by allowing children to interact with and experience a range of objects (materials, playthings, foods).

The progression of adequate fine motor skills is also crucial as children with significant deficits in this area can also display:

  • Avoidance of tasks involving fine motor skills, and may display behavioural issues or exhibit challenging behaviours
  • Increased frustration
  • Decreased self-confidence or self-esteem (e.g. older children might compare themselves to peers of similar age)
  • Difficulties in academic performance

 

How to recognise if your child has fine motor skills deficits

It is important to remember that children often develop and reach important milestones at differing paces, so it might be difficult to identify if there are any delays in a child. Below are some typical signs that may indicate that your child has fine motor skills problems:

  • Struggles with or has slow, messy writing, colouring in or drawing skills
  • Easily becomes tired when participating in fine motor tasks (e.g. writing, using a computer)
  • Struggles with or appears to be delayed developmentally in self-care activities (e.g. feeding, dressing, toileting)
  • Unrefined pencil grasp which is awkward/inappropriate for age
  • Poor manipulation skills when performing precise tasks such as threading, buttoning or tying
  • Struggles with using scissors

How OT helps develop fine motor skills

Occupational therapists can help children improve their fine motor skills by:

  • Identifying which hand (right or left) is the dominant one for the child, and emphasizing its use in precise activities
  • Developing use of both hands (bilateral integration) through practice and repetition
  • Improving strength of hands and fingers (e.g. by using clay/Play Doh or pegs)
  • Using finger isolation tasks that refines the use of one or two fingers at a time (e.g. activities involving poking actions, such as finger painting)
  • Using Lego type materials to build push/pull movements
  • Using lacing and threading equipment of various sizes to enhance precise manipulation skills
  • Using sensory processing and integration methods to heighten the development of motor learning and neural plasticity. These can include exercises and activities involving weight-bearing, stretching, resistive crawling, large arm and shoulder motions, and tasks in the prone position.

While a large part of therapy will directly involve the child, it is important to note that parents and carers of the child also play a significant role in the advancement of fine motor skills, and hence OTs will usually involve them in therapy also. Typically, OTs will give parents/carers tasks or exercises they might engage the child in while they’re at home, or suggest ways to better integrate fine motor skills tasks in their daily routine.