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Most adults can pick up a pencil without a second thought. They can do such actions with relative ease because their bodies have mastered motor skills during infancy. What they probably forgot is that, like most things in life, they had to learn these skills.
Akron Public Schools Occupational Therapist Erin Ulis describes teaching the body to perform such tasks in the early years of life as “motor planning.” For children under 5, their body organizes itself and learns to move using two types of skills: gross motor skills and fine motor skills.
Parents should closely monitor their child’s development and mastery of these skills. Delays in one area likely predict other problems, Ulis says.
“When you bring in a child and they have a pretty big delay in their gross motor skills, where the parents tell us they didn’t start walking until they were 2 years old, then you know you going to see a delay in everything else, ”says Ulis.
Rozlyn Grant, director of curriculum and instruction for the Cleveland Centers for Families and Children’s Early Learning Program, notes that both sets of motor skills typically develop around the same time. , but that a child’s fine motor development tends to be more subtle – and neglected.
As an example, she observes that while parents may notice their child holding their own bottle or moving objects from hand to hand, they do not celebrate these actions to the same degree as when their child begins to crawl or take their first steps.
A child’s progress in developing their fine motor skills can impact their later development in other areas such as intelligence, problem solving and cognitive skills. If a child is unable to perform daily tasks, it can have a negative impact on their self-confidence, their ability to be independent and their academic performance. For preschoolers and kindergarteners, actions helpful for developing the muscles used in fine motor skills include grasping, holding, pressing, and squeezing.
Maria K. Podolan, occupational therapist-clinical specialist at University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital, suggests that parents use small objects such as bites to develop their child’s pincer grip, which requires coordination of the index finger and thumb to hold an object. Podolan adds that a child will need help and guidance initially, but should need less help as their skills develop.
Time may be the biggest investment parents will have to make to help their children develop their fine motor skills. Many items that adults can use to practice these skills with their children may already be in their homes or nearby convenience stores. Here are some tips you can do with your child:
- Not just for recreation — Lego blocks, Play-Doh, crayons, crayons, paintbrushes, cotton swabs, sidewalk chalk and washable paint are all useful items to encourage your child’s creativity while helping them master the grip of objects and the manipulation of tools. Scissors are a good tool for children to develop their fine motor skills, but should be used under adult supervision. Play-Doh can replace paper if adults have concerns about their child’s use of scissors.
- Not just for meals — Small edible items such as breakfast cereals can help a child develop a pinch grip. Brightly colored cereal with holes reduces a child’s choking hazard and can also be used to teach sorting skills and how to tie objects on a string. Another useful foodstuff is raw cornmeal. Placing a piece of paper with a letter under the cornmeal on a cookie sheet, Grant worked with her sons to trace the letters of their names.
- Lace them — Teaching children to tie shoelaces through holes in cardboard, string beads, and twist pipe cleaners into shapes are other helpful endeavors. These activities require children to use their thumbs, index fingers, and middle fingers, all of which they will one day use to hold pencils, crayons, and pens.
- Give them a squeeze — Items such as turkey basters, droppers, spray bottles, clothespins, and tweezers help a child develop hand strength through squeezing, grasping, and squeezing motions. Water activities are another opportunity to strengthen hand muscles. Pouring water, using cups, and squeezing tub toys, sponges, and washcloths can be practiced in the tub or during water table play.
- Find the “Off” switch – Ulis encourages parents to limit the play time they allow their children to have on handheld game consoles and similar devices. She says many occupational therapists see children entering schools with incredibly strong thumbs but underdeveloped finger and hand muscles.
- The “writing” tricks – Podolan observes that children can start doodling spontaneously around 13 to 18 months of age. She suggests that adults engage their children in coloring activities that target scribbling pre-writing strokes such as vertical, horizontal and circular lines. Grant adds that children approaching age 3 can begin writing-specific activities, such as connection games and tracing letters on paper with a highlighter.
Around the age of 5, children who are not developing their fine motor skills will show signs of difficulty controlling coordinated body movements with their fingers and hands. Fine motor skills can be impaired due to illnesses, injuries, and developmental disabilities. Ulis notes that educators and pediatricians frequently examine a child’s fine motor skills during kindergarten enrollment and regular wellness checkups.
One of the most frequently used tools to assess a child’s motor skill development is the Peabody Developmental Motor Scales, an age-specific assessment made up of six subtests that measure interrelated abilities. Podolan says a parent should see their family’s pediatrician and possibly seek an occupational therapy referral if they feel their child is not achieving fine motor milestones. If a parent notices behavioral changes or regression in skills, they may want to see their pediatrician before their next checkup.