Fine Motor Skills: Learn about Dexterity

Do you remember how you were able to write/type something yesterday? Are you left-handed or right-handed? Did you tie your shoelaces or hold a spoon to eat your cereal today? That’s all thanks to your fine motor skills, but what are those motor skills? How do they develop and how do they compare to gross motor skills? How do they work in conjunction with the brain? How do conditions such as dyslexia, autism, ADHD, and other disorders function with fine motor skills? How can these skills be improved and refined?

Fine Motor Skills
Fine Motor Skills

What are the fine motor skills?

Fine motor skills, also known as our dexterity, is the coordination between the small muscles, often those in our hands, wrists, and fingers, and the eyes. The intricate levels of dexterity that we have as humans can be shown in tasks that are controlled by our nervous system. The fine motor abilities help one’s growth in intelligence (or so they say) and can develop and improve through our lives- although they really begin around age 1 and develop the most in our toddler years.

There are many motor skills, but the broadest categories fall under using a utensil (such as a spoon or pen), cutting with scissors, constructing things using items such as LEGOs, getting dressed on their own and tying shoelaces, eating on one’s own, and keeping a healthy hygiene such as brushing the teeth and hair. Visual perception (seeing something and accurately interpreting it) isn’t a fine motor skill per say, but it works directly in conjunction with all fine motor movements.

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Fine motor skills vs. gross motor skills

There are two categories of motor skills- fine motor skills and gross motor skills. Fine motor skills are skills used to make smaller movements in our feet, toes, wrists, and hands. These skills are essential to be able to pick things up between the finger and thumb as well as writing carefully and blinking. Gross motor skills are skills used for our coordination and movement in our torsos, arms, legs, and other big body parts. These skills are essential for our ability to walk, run, jump, slide, swim, throw, catch, and kick.

Kids who are younger and less developed work more on their gross motor skills while kids who are older and less developed work more on their fine motor skills. Neither motor skill is better than the other- both fine and gross motor skills need to work together in order to provide us with coordination.

Development of fine motor skills

Fine motor skills
Fine motor skills- kids will start playing with LEGOS and building thing around one-year-old. 

Compared to gross motor skills, the fine motor skills are more challenging to do and don’t develop as soon as gross motor skills do. The two motor skills tend to develop together because there are a multitude of activities that involve using both the fine and gross motor skills. The fine motor skills don’t begin to develop until about one-year-old. Although during the first year of life, a child begins to learn how to control their hand movements. Around age one, a child learns to hold an object between their thumb and index finger. A little further on, bit by bit, a child begins to develop a preference for their right hand or left hand. In the pre-school years, around ages 3-5, a child can begin tying their shoes and using silverware (relatively well).

Here is a list of some common fine motor abilities developed throughout childhood.

  • 0-3 months old. A baby should be able to begin putting their hands into fists, hold some objects in their hands, follow someone’s movement with their eyes, watch the movement of their hands, bring hands to their mouth, and have random and wild arm movements.
  • 3-6 months old. A baby can now begin to hold their hands together, notice things happening a few feet away from them, reach for toys using both of their arms, as well as transfer some objects between their hands.
  • 6-9 months old. A baby should now be able to start playing with their own hands, holding their own bottle, poking at objects and pointing, grasping and holding on to things, looking for one thing while holding another (looking for a bottle while holding cereal), squeezing objects with their fists.
  • 9-12 months old. A yearling can now start to feed themselves (using finger foods), holding two small objects in one hand, using the index and thumb to grab onto things (known as the pincer grasp).
  • 12-18 months old. Now the child will begin to build towers with their toys, start their bilateral coordination skills by clapping the hands together or banging objects together, wave, put objects into a container, and scribble on paper using crayons or pens.
  • 18 months old – 2 years old. Children will begin to put rings on pegs, turn pages in a book, open wrapped (loosely) packages or containers, and more towards two years old they will start cutting things with scissors such as paper.
  • 2 years old. Children will now start playing with and manipulating playdough (clay), stacking tall towers with building blocks, scribbling lots, turn doorknobs, string together large beads, use utensils such as spoons and forks well, and zip/unzip large zippers.
  • 3 years old. Toddlers will now start to button and unbutton large buttons, sort objects, cut “clean lines” with scissors, and can copy/trace the prewriting lines of circular, horizontal, and vertical shapes.
  • 4 years old. Children will start to get dressed/undressed without help, use their dominant hand, color within the lines more and more, touch the tip of each finger to their thumb, and they should be able to copy “cross shapes” such as “x” and “/”.
  • 5 years old. Children should now start to grab their pencil and pen correctly, open a lock with a key, print their name, copy and trace triangular and diamond shapes, lace their own shoes, as well as draw a person with several body parts.
  • 6 years old. The child can now build small structures with their building blocks, use a knife to cut food, use all the letters of the alphabet including uppercase and lowercase, and cut with scissors without deviating from the line.
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The brain and the fine motor skills

The parts of the brain that control all motor movement, fine and gross, are the cerebellum, cerebral cortex, and the basal ganglia.

  • The cerebellum’s job is to monitor and keep track of the muscles while moving.
  • The cerebral cortex is responsible for controlling the movements of the muscles.
  • The basal ganglia is in charge of voluntary movement and muscle position.

When someone has a brain injury, their motor abilities are greatly affected which, in turn, greatly affects muscle movements. A brain injury can affect either one or both hands. For instance, the muscles may become jerky, difficult to coordinate, stiff, difficult to move, or paralyzed. A brain injury, also known as a traumatic brain injury (TBI), can also affect the sensation that people use in order to execute movements. Everyone can have long-term issues with their fine motor abilities when they have a brain injury when they are recovering from a brain injury, or possibly after the brain injury (permanently).

Dyslexia and fine motor skills

Numerous studies have found that dyslexia has a connection with an impairment in the motor skills department. For example, this study took 80 students between 2nd and 4th grade (7-12 years old). 20 had child dyslexia, 20 had learning disabilities, 20 had learning difficulties, and 20 were considered to be good readers. Each child was given an assessment of the sensorial and perceptive functions as well as the fine motor functions using the Dysgraphia Scale. Researchers found that the presence of sensorial and perceptive, and motor alterations can be a common characteristic for children with dyslexia and learning disabilities.

Autism and fine motor skills

In order to learn a new skill, the brain’s ability to form strong connections between different parts of the brain is essential. These connections include those involved in controlling our movements and our ability to use sensory information to help predict what is going to happen next. Children make these brain connections when they are young. Children with autism make their brain connections in a different way.

One study found that the development of fine motor skills is directly associated with the expressive language outcomes in infants at low-risk and high-risk for autism. Autistic children can be up to one-year behind on their fine motor skill development and two years behind on their gross motor skill development compared to non-autistic children.

ADHD and fine motor skills

ADHD is a highly studied condition with a strong connection with motor skills. One study discovered that people with ADHD have poorer fine motor performance. The study took 43 children with ADHD between 7-14 years old and compared them to 42 “typically developing” children between the same ages. Each child had to perform tasks to show their fine motor coordination. All ADHD kids performed worse on each tasks given than their counterparts. Another study took 12 children with ADHD-DCD (the DCD stands for Developmental Coordination Disorder) and 12 non-ADHD-DCD kids and had each perform using the Movement Assessment Battery for Children. This type of dexterity subtest showed that students with ADHD-DCD performed poorer on the dexterity tests, had less legible handwriting, and drew quicker, but with less accuracy than control.

Other disorders and motor skills

Dyspraxia, a brain-based condition that makes it hard to plan and coordinate movement, is the nemesis of all motor skills. Dyspraxia is also known as motor learning difficulty, apraxia of speech, motor planning difficulty, and developmental coordination disorder. It affects gross motor skills such as walking, running, and jumping. It affects fine motor skills, too, such as writing clearly and the tongue/mouth movements used in pronouncing words clearly and correctly.

One study found a connection between Tourette Syndrome and fine motor abilities. 23 children between ages 7 and 15 were studied. ⅓ had a hand motor impairment, decreased handwriting speed, and a decreased psychomotor speed. ½ of the children had issues in planning and remembering exercises. They found that many children with Tourette‘s also have issues with using their motor skills.

Fine motor skills
Fine motor skills- handwriting and drawing are two of the great fine motor skills

How to improve and refine your fine motor skills

  • Dyspraxia is a condition whose symptoms are extreme clumsiness and/or significant impairment in one’s motor coordination. Dyspraxia is diagnosed by comparing a child’s motor coordination with that that is expected based on their intelligence level and age. For example, poor handwriting, dropping things, and motor milestones such as walking.
  • Improve hand-eye coordination by using scissors to cut, drawing, sorting coins into piles, and opening/closing jars.
  • Strengthen hand muscles by balling up a paper, playing with rubber bands, and playing with clothespins.
  • Play video games and computer games. Video games have been proven to help improve fine motor abilities in kids and adults.
  • Put together puzzles. Puzzles are amazing for the brain and motor skills. Taking small puzzle pieces and placing them together correctly helps strengthen both hand-eye coordination and hand muscles. This can also be done by playing the piano!

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