How do I help my daughter develop fine motor skills?

Q. I recently read an article about the importance of fine motor skills and how many children entering kindergarten are lacking these skills. Why are these skills so important? What can I do to help my preschooler develop strong fine motor abilities over the next couple of years?

A. It is true that fine motor skills are important for young children to develop to prepare for school. There was a recent article circulating online which featured an elementary school in Denver that reported only two out of 20 of its kindergarteners had enough strength and coordination to use scissors and only half were able to grip a pencil correctly. The article went on to look at the possible reasons as to why children are entering kindergarten without the proper fine motor skills needed for coloring, cutting and writing. Motor skills do matter!

Fine motor skills involve the use of the small muscles in the fingers, hands and arms in order to preform tasks such as writing, cutting, buttoning, fastening and tying. Fine motor skills are important for many life skills as well as the self-help skills needed to complete daily tasks. These skills are also helpful with the development of literacy and numeracy skills for children.

A child’s fine motor abilities allow him to participate in a variety of activities such as arts and crafts, games, block play, musical instruments, and computers. Children who have difficulty with their fine motor skills can experience frustration and may avoid participating in certain tasks due to the fear of failure.

As with all areas of child development, there are certain fine motor milestones to look for that are typical for certain age ranges. Fine motor milestones include:

Toddlers: 16 months to 3 years of age:

  • Uses spoon and fork to feed himself
  • Stacks blocks
  • Makes drawing marks with a crayon or marker using a fist grip

Preschoolers: 3 to 5 years of age:

  • Uses scissors
  • Manipulates buttons
  • Copies shapes and letters
  • Establishes hand dominance

School Age: 5 to 7 years of age:

  • Cuts on the lines
  • Colors inside the lines
  • Gets dressed by himself
  • Prints letters, numbers and words 

If you become concerned that your child is not meeting certain fine motor milestones, then you should talk with your pediatrician about your concerns. A referral to a licensed occupational therapist may be recommended to further assess your daughter’s fine motor abilities and determine if she could benefit from therapy to increase these skills.

There are many ways you can encourage the development of her fine motor skills now to prepare her for kindergarten and beyond. Some activities you can do at home include:

  • Play with pompoms – Grab some of those small, soft pompoms from a craft store and a muffin tin. Have your daughter pick them up and put them in the muffin tin. She can even sort them by color.
  • Glue small objects to paper – Put dots of glue on construction paper and ask your daughter to stick small objects such as buttons, beans or beads on the dots. Be sure to watch her closely during this activity to make sure the small objects are going on the paper and not into her mouth!
  • Use tweezers – Put some small items into a bowl and have your child pick them out with tweezers.
  • Beading Using beads and a pipe cleaner, encourage your daughter to string beads to make a bracelet or necklace. Again, be sure the beads are going on the pipe cleaner rather than into her mouth.
  • Pull out the Playdough – Squeezing and stretching playdough can help develop the hand strength needed for fine motor skills. Consider hiding small objects in the playdough for your daughter to find and pick out.
  • Finger-painting – Painting with the fingers can help with dexterity as well as hand-eye coordination to support fine motor skills. Don’t be afraid to let your daughter get messy as she creates what will surely be a masterpiece!
  • Color with broken crayons – Using small, broken crayons will encourage your daughter to hold the crayon using the correct grip.

There are many ways you can encourage fine motor development on a daily basis with your daughter. By supporting these skills, you will help her to develop good hand strength and control in order to effectively manipulate pencils, scissors, buttons, and more. Fine motor skills are so important for school readiness and self-help skills. Keep encouraging your daughter to explore with her hands during playtime. You are doing a great job of seeking ways to support her future needs.

Allison Crumpler is a speech-language pathologist and the director of clinical compliance for Raleigh Therapy Services, Inc., a multidisciplinary pediatric therapy practice in North Raleigh. (919-791-3582)

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