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Fine motor

Fine motor refers to the group of skills involved in the ability to manipulate smaller objects with the hands and fingers, for example, grasping, holding and pinching.

Fine motor skills are distinct from gross motor skills which involve the development of larger muscle groups needed for movements such as kicking, running and jumping.

These skills are necessary for many aspects of self-care as children, for example: putting on shoes, feeding themselves, cleaning their own teeth. Fine motor skills are also critical for the development of emergent writing.

The importance of fine motor development

Fine motor development is an important component of children’s wellbeing.

From birth to eight years, children continually acquire, refine and consolidate their motor functions and skills and integrate their skills across domains. VEYLDF (2016)

Fine motor development has important implications for children’s engagement in fine arts, drawing and emergent writing experiences.

Writing is a complex process that requires the development of language, visual information, grapheme knowledge, word knowledge and concepts of print, to name a few. The motor control to produce text through drawing, mark-making and symbolic representations of letters is vital in the communication of the message.

Fine motor development is essential in developing the ability to mark-make and write effectively, so that a message can be communicated.

Development of fine motor skills

The development of muscles from the whole arm through to the finger tips provides children with the strength required to manipulate mark-making equipment.

The developed strength and control of the hand and fingers supports the beginnings of a pincer grip, useful for gripping pencils and pens.

Fine motor can be developed through experiences involving materials that support building strength in the arms, hands and fingers as well as opportunities to mark-make, draw and write.

Whole arm

This refers to the development of gross motor skills including strength of the shoulder, upper arm and forearm.

Whole hand

The development of hand muscles is essential for grasping actions and coordination of finger movements.

Whole hand development can be seen in very young children, for example, grasping objects, transferring objects from hands to mouth and between hands clapping and banging objects together.

Children may use whole hand grasp to begin making marks.

Pincher grip

Pincher involves pressing the thumb and index finger together. Examples of pincher movements include picking up and placing down smaller objects such as small blocks, picking up beads to thread, using index finger and thumb to pick up food.

Pincer grip

Pincer involves the thumb, middle finger and index finger coordinating to control objects. This supports a tripod grip for drawing and writing

Examples of use of pincer grip may include using tongs to transfer food or other small items, squeezing pegs, picking up small items with thumb, middle and index finger.

Theory to practice

Researchers acknowledge that fine motor development is essential for children’s emergent and later writing skills.

Writing progress depends largely on the development of fine motor skills involving small muscle movements in the hand. - Huffman and Fortenberry (2011, p. 100)

One approach to understanding fine motor skills is the “dynamic systems theory of motor development”:

When motor skills work as a system, separate abilities blend together, each cooperating with others to produce more effective ways of exploring and controlling the environment.
- Berk (2013, p. 148)

Children’s fine motor skills can be seen as a set of capacities that form a system of perceptual-motor skills that include both fine and gross motor abilities. The muscle development necessary for fine motor skills for writing begins with building strength in the whole arm to developing the more detailed strength and control of the hands and dexterity in the finger tips (Huffman & Fortenberry, 2011).

Despite the increasing prevalence and use of digital technology, researchers still consider handwriting as the most immediate form of graphic communication, and therefore an important skill that should be continually developed and supported (Dinehart, 2015).

Evidence base

There is evidence to suggest a close relationship between fine motor development and other aspects of language, literacy, and cognitive development (Wang, 2014; Cadoret, 2018; Oberer, Gashaj, Roebers, 2017). This provides justification for fine motor being an important learning focus for emergent literacy.

The importance of handwriting proficiency has been linked to later academic achievement (for example Suggate, Pufke & Stoeger, 2018; review in Dinehart, 2015). Handwriting proficiency, though, requires the development of fine motor dexterity throughout early childhood (Cameron et al., 2016; van der Fels et al., 2015).

Also, in a recent study of environmental predictors of gross and fine motor development, True et al. (2017 p. 751) found that:

Preschools may be able to promote motor competence by allowing children more time in open spaces, structured activity experiences, and by expanding existing outdoor playground space whenever possible.

Getting started

Whole arm development

Whole arm can be developed by:

  • painting and drawing on paper at large easels that requires whole arm movement
  • using rakes, shovels, spades in the digging patch
  • using shovels and spades to dig and brooms to sweep the sand back into the sandpit
  • pushing wheel barrows to develop upper arm strength and coordination
  • bouncing and throwing balls to encourage control
  • playing on climbing frames and obstacle courses that allow children to pull themselves up and build upper body strength
  • encouraging children to use large arm movements, such as stretching, pushing, pulling and persisting with tasks that develop arm muscles

Whole hand development

Whole hand strength is developed through:

  • filling cups, jugs and a range of different sized containers with water and pouring water during water play
  • using spades, filling buckets to scoop sand and dig with hands in the sandpit
  • rolling playdough with hands, using cookie cutters and rolling pins
  • squeezing trigger on spray bottles to water plants

Pincer and pincher grip

Pincer and pincher grip is developed through:

  • building with smaller wooden building blocks or connecting blocks, strengthening fingers and practice control
  • threading with beads (larger objects moving to smaller sized objects as dexterity increases)
  • picking up objects with tongs and tweezers
  • making smaller objects using pinching with playdough and using smaller rolling movements with fingers

For example, eggs in a nest demonstrate making a nest out of playdough and encourage children to roll small balls of playdough to add eggs to the nest.

Outcome 3: wellbeing

Children take increasing responsibility for their own health and physical wellbeing:

  • manipulate equipment and manage tools with increasing competence and skill
  • combine gross and fine motor movement and balance to achieve increasingly complex patterns of activity, including dance, creative movement and drama
  • engage in increasingly complex sensory-motor skills and movement patterns.

Outcome 5: communication

Children express ideas and make meaning using a range of media:

  • begin to use images and approximations of letters and words to convey meaning.

Children begin to understand how symbols and patterns work:

  • develop an understanding that symbols are a powerful means of communication and that ideas, thoughts and concepts can be represented through them.

Experience plans and videos

  • Berk, L. E. (2013). Child Development (9th Edition). Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Education.

    Cadoret, G., Bigras, N., Duval, S., Lemay, L., Tremblay, T., & Lemire, J. (2018). The mediating role of cognitive ability on the relationship between motor proficiency and early academic achievement in children. Human Movement Science, 57(November 2017), 149–157.

    Cameron, C. E., Cottone, E. A., Murrah, W. M., & Grissmer, D. W. (2016). How are motor skills linked to children’s school performance and academic achievement? Child Development Perspectives, 10(2), 93–98.

    Dinehart, L. H. (2015). Handwriting in early childhood education: Current research and future implications. Journal of Early Childhood Literacy, 15(1), 97–118.

    Feder, K., & Majnemer, A. (2007). Handwriting development, competency and intervention, Developmental Medicine & Child Neurology, 49, 312-317.

    Huffman, J. M., & Fortenberry, C. (2011). Helping preschoolers prepare for writing: Developing fine motor skills, Young Children, 66(5), 100-103.

    Kushki, A., Chau, T., & Anagnostou, E. (2011). Handwriting difficulties in children with autism spectrum disorders: A scoping review, Journal of Autism Developmental Disorders, 41, 1706-1716.

    Oberer, N., Gashaj, V., & Roebers, C. M. (2017). Motor skills in kindergarten: Internal structure, cognitive correlates and relationships to background variables. Human Movement Science, 52, 170–180.

    Scharf, R., Scharf, G., & Stroustrup, A. (2016). Developmental Milestones, Pediatrics in Review, 37(1), 25-38.

    Suggate, S., Pufke, E., & Stoeger, H. (2018). Do fine motor skills contribute to early reading development? Journal of Research in Reading, 41(1), 1–19.

    van der Fels, I. M. J., te Wierike, S. C. M., Hartman, E., Elferink-Gemser, M. T., Smith, J., & Visscher, C. (2015). The relationship between motor skills and cognitive skills in 4-16 year old typically developing children: A systematic review. Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, 18(6), 697–703.

    Victorian State Government Department of Education and Training (2016), Victorian Early Years Learning and Development Framework (VEYLDF). Retrieved 3 March 2018.

    Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority (2016) Illustrative Maps from the VEYLDF to the Victorian Curriculum F–10. Retrieved 3 March 2018.

    Volman, M., van Schendel, B., & Jongmans, M. (2006).Handwriting difficulties in primary school children: A Search for underlying mechanisms, The American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 60(4), 451-460.

    Wang, M. V., Lekhal, R., Aarø, L. E., & Schjølberg, S. (2014). Co-occurring development of early childhood communication and motor skills: Results from a population-based longitudinal study. Child: Care, Health and Development, 40(1), 77–84.

Early communicators (birth - 18 months)

Early language users (12 - 36 months)

Language and emergent literacy learners (30 - 60 months)

Learning foci and teaching practices

Reviewed 14 April 2023

Literacy teaching toolkit for early childhood

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