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Aim

The aim of this article is to help you understand what motor skills are; the difference between gross motor skills and fine motor skills; and how your child gains these skills. By the time you’re finished reading this article, we’d also like you to walk away with ideas to help your child develop and refine their motor skills.

Outline

Introduction
What’s the difference between fine and gross motor skills?
How do motor skills develop?
How can I help my child develop their motor skills?
Why should I pay attention to motor skills?
What if a child isn’t hitting milestones related to motor skills?

Introduction

Nothing can describe the thrill of new parents when their child stands, takes a few wobbly steps and begins to walk for the very first time. It’s a remarkable moment that is also considered a developmental milestone – a key skill that a child is expected to have attained by a given age.

Walking also happens to be a motor skill. Motor skills are the ability to plan and carry out a movement – like kicking a football or riding a bicycle – with certainty. These skills fall into two categories: (1) gross and (2) fine motor skills.

What’s the difference between fine and gross motor skills?

A young child learning to finger-paint.

There are two kinds of motor skills: gross motor and fine motor skills.

Gross motor skills need larger muscle groups in order to carry out movements that generally involve the entire body, like walking. These skills are involved in moving large body parts, like the arms, the legs and the trunk. In addition, gross motor skills can be further divided into two more categories: locomotor skills and object control skills. Locomotor skills are used in activities like running or swimming; whereas object control skills are used in catching or throwing.

The development of gross motor skills are often related to other skills:

  • balance
  • coordination
  • body awareness
  • physical strength
  • reaction time

Fine motor skills, on the other hand, involve smaller muscle groups to carry out more precise movements. For example, using a pen or playing the guitar require more advanced fine motor skills. These skills typically involve the wrists, hands, fingers, feet and toes.

What do motor skills have to do with child development?

Child learning to swim.

Unlike other animals – like dolphins, who are born knowing how to swim! – humans must learn and hone their motor skills over time. Like recalling the ABCs and finger-painting inside the lines, children must learn to use their arms and legs in order to move.

To develop gross motor skills, children must first learn postural control, or how to control their posture. When newborn infants are held, their neck requires support because they have not yet learned how to balance their heads. In a short time, babies learn to hold their own heads up. Eventually, they are able to sit – first whilst supported, and later, on their own. Next, children learn to stand while holding onto another object, and then on their own. After the first year of life, children may begin taking tentative steps of their very own.

Fine motor skills are usually acquired a little later in a child’s development. Most basic fine motor skills are learned between ages 6 to 12; and will continue developing with age, practice and the consequent increased control over smaller muscles.

Learning fine motor skills begins in infancy when babies learn to use their fingers to touch and therefore sense the world around them. An infant will soon learn basic hand-eye coordination as they begin to reach – and eventually grasp – objects. By toddlerhood, a child can manipulate objects with intent. They can identify objects; and at this stage, children usually start preferring the use of one hand over another – a preference known as hand dominance. In preschool and elementary or primary school, a child will continue to develop these motor skills: they’ll begin to write with crayons, use scissors and eventually learn to write.

How do motor skills develop?

A baby boy learning to walk on the beach.

Fascinatingly, a child develops motor skills according to three basic principles. First, motor skills develop from head to foot. Control over the head, for instance, begins earlier than control over the arm or hand. Second, motor skills develop in body parts that are closer to the body’s midline rather than farther away – so a child develops upper arm control before forearm control. Finally, large muscle movements (gross motor skills, effectively) develop before finer motor control. This is why you’ll see a child walking far before they’ll pluck guitar strings – although in a few, rare cases, this is sometimes circumvented!

How can I help my child develop their motor skills?

A young girl learning to draw.

There are several ways to help your child develop their motor skills. To start, it is helpful to pay attention to key developmental milestones that relate to movement (note: please check back here for our developmental milestone charts). While milestones are a good starting point, it is important to remember that children grow in their own time and within a normal range. If you have a concern regarding your child’s growth and development, make sure that you speak to your child’s pediatrician.

In addition, take the time to help your child practice their gross and fine motor development. Learning motor skills involves a significant amount of repetition to lay down the foundations for movement in your child’s brain and muscles. If your child is of walking age, make sure that you’re taking the time to help them balance themselves and encourage them to move toward you. Consider enrolling in local classes that offer exercise for babies and toddlers, like ballet or trampolining. As your child grows older, encourage your child to participate in a sport of their choice to help them to continue to develop these skills.

Where fine motor skills are concerned, activities like coloring or tracing are beneficial in teaching babies and toddlers how to properly grip a pencil. Note that the type of grip a child exhibits will change over time – from the very basic pincer grip to the “dynamic tripod grasp” that most adults will use when they write. As a child grows older, there are several activities that can further a child’s fine motor skills, including learning a new instrument or learning how to properly sketch or paint.

Why should I pay attention to motor skills?

A young girl playing hopscotch.

Gross motor skills enable your child to perform everyday activities:

  • walking and running
  • playground skills, like climbing
  • dressing and other self-care skills
  • sitting upright in class or carrying a backpack

Aside from carrying out basic functions – like walking or writing – it is valuable to encourage your child to refine their motor skills throughout their lives. Learning to move early in life can instill an interest in exercise, which is integral to maintaining health. Being attuned to the body’s movements can also improve your child’s posture and sense of balance – thereby helping them avoid injury later in life.

What if a child isn’t hitting milestones related to motor skills?

Ensure that you are aware of the normal age range in which specific motor skills should develop. For example, a child who is taking slightly longer to take their first steps may still be within the healthy and expected range. If you do notice that your child appears to be regularly missing these milestones, or seems to be struggling with motor activities, it is possible that they may have a developmental delay. A child who is finding the development of motor skills challenge may:

  • avoid or generally be disinterested in play involving movement
  • rush performance of physical tasks due to early fatigue
  • encourage others to perform physical tasks without engaging themselves

Make sure to discuss your concerns with your pediatrician. You may also be able to speak with your school about related services, like physical therapy or occupational therapy.