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Development of Motor Skills

Motor skills enable us to carry out complex movements.

The term “motor skills” refers to the ability to plan and execute a movement using our bodies. We acquire these skills with practice and gradually, over time.

It is critical to monitor and nurture motor development.

Good motor skills are considered important for a child’s physical, social and psychological development.

Motor function may be assessed through testing.

Neurodevelopmental assessments might be able to determine whether a child is showing a motor deficit.

Defining Motor Skills

A motor skill is the ability to make a complex, voluntary and guided movement that consists of one or more body parts to achieve a goal.

Motor skills can be broken down into three categories:

  • Stability, or keeping balanced
  • Locomotion, or changing position from a fixed point
  • Object control, or applying force to an object or receiving it (e.g. throwing and catching a ball)

For example, throwing an object like a baseball can be considered a motor skill. To do so, you must plan the action and then move your arm in a given direction to carry it out. This movement may seem like second nature, but in reality, throwing a ball requires a complex series of movements completed in sequence to accomplish!

What are fine motor skills?

Fine motor function is the ability to reach for objects, to lift, carry and manipulate them. Usually, these actions are performed by the upper extremities, or the shoulder, arm, wrists, hands and fingers; and might involve reaching for and manipulating an object – like using a pencil.

Examples of fine motor skills are:

  • Walking
  • Running
  • Crawling

Find out more about the differences between fine motor function and gross motor function here.

What are gross motor skills?

Gross motor function is the ability to maintain body position and to move around by changing body position or location. Since babies have so little control over their posture, developing gross motor skills – like fine motor skills – improve over time.

Examples of fine motor skills are:

  • Fingerpicking a guitar
  • Using a pencil to write a letter
  • Blinking your eyes

Understanding Motor Skill Development

Toddler and preschool age is an especially important period for the development of motor skills, so early childhood is the ideal time to practice fundamental movement skills to lay the groundwork for more complex movement activities – like sports, when children grow older.

Motor skills develop in different parts of the body according to three basic rules:

  1. Parts at the top of the body will develop earlier than the bottom, so the head will develop earlier than the hand.
  2. Parts closer to the middle of the body will develop earlier than the parts that are farther away, so the arm will develop sooner than the fingers.
  3. Larger muscle movements will develop before finer muscle movements.

Motor skills are sometimes broken down into six components, which are:

  • agility, the ability to change and control the direction of the body while moving rapidly
  • balance, the ability to control or stabilize the body when a person is standing still or moving
  • coordination, the ability to use the senses together with body parts during movement
  • power, the ability to apply force using muscular strength
  • reaction time, the ability to reach or respond quickly to what you hear, see or feel around you
  • speed, the ability to move your body or parts of your body swiftly

Motor skill milestones are also useful markers that can help parents and caregivers determine whether a child is typically-developing or may be facing challenges. See here for more information on age-specific motor milestones.

Improving Motor Skills

Strong motor skills are considered exceptionally important for a child’s physical, social and psychological development. They may be the foundation for an active lifestyle into adulthood, since studies have shown a relationship between good motor skills and levels of physical activity – so there could be health benefits to encouraging your child to improve their motor skills.

Good motor skills may positively influence:

  • cardiorespiratory fitness
  • maintaining a healthy body weight
  • participation in sports

Supporting Your Child

If you’re concerned about your child’s development, consult your pediatrician.

Discover our resources on child development for specific milestones that indicate typical growth across all developmental domains, including motor skills. In addition, check out our article on activities that encourage motor skill development in children. If you suspect that your child is experiencing difficulties or challenges attaining their developmental milestones, it might be worth visiting your GP or community pediatrician for more information.