Hands at Play
Developing Fine Motor Skills for Life
Young children are naturally curious. They learn about the world by interacting with their peers and by exploring materials with their hands. During their early years, children develop hand skills (fine motor skills) that they will need to be successful for the rest of their lives. They also learn to use their hands for important self-care skills, such as feeding and dressing themselves.
A quality classroom offers children many opportunities to explore and develop fine motor skills.
Some people believe that writing should be the focus of fine motor activities in preschool and pre-K programs. However, young children need to use fine motor skills in a wide variety of ways. At circle or group time, a preschooler may use her hands to clap along with the music, do fingerplays, or point to identify a picture. During centers, she may use her hands to put on dress-up clothes, wash a doll, turn the pages of a book, stack blocks, draw her family, cut with scissors, or pick up toys. At snack time, she may use her hands to eat dry cereal, pour milk, and drink from a cup. In short, a quality preschool classroom offers a young child many opportunities to explore and develop her fine motor skills in personally meaningful ways.
Preschoolers need daily experience with developmentally appropriate fine motor activities to build the confidence and skills they will need later in life (Bredekamp & Copple 2009). Teachers should provide ample opportunities for children to participate in drawing, cutting, gluing, stringing, and manipulating objects with their hands. In elementary school, children will further refine their fine motor skills as they participate in handwriting, computer keyboarding, science experiments, and more complex art projects.
Between infancy and age seven, young children develop more fine motor skills than at any point in their lives. The preschool years are an especially critical time for motor development. It is vital that preschoolers spend time in well-designed learning environments that offer ample opportunities for exploration and play. In the preschool classroom, children interact with teachers, peers, objects, and materials. Many of these interactions can have a strong impact on a young child’s ability to develop his fine motor skills.
Foundations of Fine Motor Skills
Some schools and/or families may push for children to begin formal handwriting (letter formation) before the children are developmentally ready to participate in this activity. Three- and four-year-old children should spend more time playing with manipulatives than practicing writing skills. If families or educational programs push young children to write before their hands are physically ready, it may have a negative impact on the children’s interest in expressive writing. In addition, preschoolers who have yet to develop the precursors for higher-level fine motor skills are at risk for developing poor pencil grasp, illegible handwriting, and slow handwriting (Bredekamp & Copple 2009; Exner 2005; Henderson & Pehoski 2006).
Preschoolers should be adept at several basic fine motor skills before they attempt more challenging fine motor activities like pre-writing and using scissors. Here is a list of these important precursors:
Developmental Readiness: Building, stacking, and putting things together all fascinate young children. Preschoolers begin to understand shapes and sizes and begin to differentiate between the “part” and the “whole.” Activities that give children the opportunity to build and construct using blocks and other similar objects help them to become developmentally ready to participate in activities such as drawing, cutting, and stringing beads.
Good Posture/Balance: Fine motor activities are easier to complete when a child sits with her feet firmly on the floor and with her back straight. A child should be able to give her full attention to her fine motor task rather than worrying about falling off her chair. The child should be able to use her arms to manipulate objects rather than using her arms to hold herself steady at the table.
Shoulder Strength: A child’s shoulder strength provides her with a stable base of support for her hand function. Young children who do not regularly participate in large motor activities such as climbing, crawling, pushing, and pulling may not develop good upper-body strength. When these children attempt fine motor activities, their arms and hands may be shaky and uncoordinated because they are unable to hold their shoulders steady and in alignment.
Grasp: A child should be able to hold a writing tool (for example, a crayon, marker, or pencil) before pre-writing skills can develop. The grasp ought to be strong enough that the child can hold the writing tool, but flexible enough to allow the child to move the tool across a paper surface. The strength and quality of a child’s grasp will develop over time. While most three-year-olds hold a crayon with all of their fingers, the majority of five-year-olds use their thumb, index, and middle fingers to hold the crayon. Most typically developing children will have a mature grasp of a writing tool by the time they reach first grade.
Forearm and Wrist Control: To effectively participate in fine motor activities, a child should be able to swivel her forearm so that her palm is up and then down. A child’s ability to hold her wrist firm while moving her fingers is particularly important for activities such as cutting and lacing or stringing. These precursors improve dramatically between the ages of three and five years.
Bilateral Hand Use: Using two hands together to complete an activity is essential for successful participation in fine motor activities. By age three, a child should learn to stabilize an object with one hand and move her other hand. For example, a child should be able to hold down a piece of paper with one hand and draw on that paper with her other hand. By age five, a child should begin developing reciprocal hand use where, she can cut with one hand and turn the paper with the other hand to create large, simple shapes.
Eye-Hand Coordination: The child needs to develop strong interaction between her visual and hand skills. The child needs to be able to use her vision to coordinate the movement of her shoulders, elbows, wrists, and fingers as she learns to use a new tool or participates in a new fine motor activity.
Development of Fine Motor Skills
Preschoolers develop fine motor skills through play with appropriate materials and objects. Preschoolers also learn through repetition and experimentation. A learning environment with a wide variety of open-ended materials such as paper, drawing utensils, glue, clay, and small blocks provides a young child with a variety of opportunities to explore her own interests. Preschoolers who have the chance to construct their own knowledge and who can work at their own levels will be more engaged in learning and more capable of developing their fine motor skills.
By four years of age, many children will spend more time creating shapes and drawings of their own and less time imitating and tracing. During this stage, engaging in activities that use blank paper and various writing tools will allow a child to practice his new pre-writing skills. Teachers may transcribe young children’s dictated ideas onto paper. Labeling a child’s drawing or writing his story on paper is a great way to demonstrate letter formation.
By five years of age, some children are ready to begin writing. Most children will start by writing their first names. Some children will be interested in writing letters that are not in their names and may begin to participate in inventive spelling. Young children should have opportunities to express themselves on paper. Journaling or book-making may be effective activities for early writers. The best way to promote a child’s handwriting skills is to provide a literacy-rich environment that includes a variety of opportunities for the young child to observe, attempt, and master pre-writing activities first and then follow with letter writing activities.
When a young child participates in an activity that helps develop her fine motor skills, the product of that activity is not as important as the process. A preschooler must be free to express herself through her exploration of new materials, such as when she creates artwork. For instance, giving a four-year-old child a blank piece of paper, a choice of several different paintbrushes, and a set of watercolor paints will provide more interesting ways for the child to practice her fine motor skills than offering the child a coloring book and crayons. Each child creates differently. When a class of preschoolers finishes a fine motor activity, their products should not all look alike. Variety in finished products shows that teachers are encouraging the children to participate in fine motor activities as unique individuals; this describes developmentally appropriate practice.
Handwriting is an important life skill that the majority of young children begin learning during the preschool years. However, it is important not to push children to participate in writing activities that are physically, cognitively, and perceptually too challenging for them. If a child feels unsuccessful, he may lose interest in expressing ideas in writing or develop poor handwriting habits that will follow him throughout his life.
Children learn fine motor skills best by participating in play and daily life activities.
Children learn fine motor skills best by participating in play and daily life activities that allow them to work at their level. The whole preschool environment—teachers, peers, and learning spaces—has a considerable impact on a young child’s fine motor development. With knowledge of the developmental steps that children typically follow, teachers can help ensure that each preschooler will advance in their development of strong fine motor skills.
Bredekamp, S. & Copple, C., Eds. 2009. Developmentally appropriate practices in Early Childhood Programs. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.
Exner, C.E. 2005. Development of Hand Skills. In J. Case-Smith (Eds.), Occupational Therapy for children. (Pp. 304-355). St. Louis, MO: Elsevier.
Henderson, A. & Pehoski, C., Eds. 2006. Hand function in the child: foundations for remediation. St. Louis, MO: Mosby.
Dr. Christy Isbell is a professor of occupational therapy at Milligan College and practices as a pediatric occupational therapist in schools, child care centers, homes and clinics. She has authored books and articles and presents nationally and internationally on early childhood topics.
This article is an adaptation from her books, Mighty Fine Motor Fun: Fine motor activities for young children (2010) written for teachers and Everyday Play: Fun games to develop the fine motor skills your child needs for school (2010) written for parents and caregivers. See these books for activities to encourage fine motor development in young children.