What exactly are fine motor skills? As opposed to gross motor skills, which involve large muscles and movements like rolling over, sitting up, or running, fine motor skills use small muscle groups to do precise actions like using a pen, zipping up a jacket, or threading a necklace. While many important gross motor skills are learned during infancy and toddlerhood, fine motor skills hit a particularly steep learning curve during the ages of 3 to 5. Just think about about all the things a preschool-age child is learning to do: use Velcro on shoes, pour milk into a cup, scribble and write. Each of these involves very specific fine motor skills. Why does fine motor development peak during the preschool years? Physically, preschoolers are developing strength, coordination, dexterity and visual skills. Cognitively, they’re more able to sit still, focus on a task, wait, and problem-solve. Preschool is a critical time for the development of fine motor skills, which are essential for daily functioning, social development, and self-esteem; basically, for growing up.
“When combined with increasing hand-eye coordination, fine motor skills also open new doors to exploration, learning, and creative expression. In fact, research shows that emphasis on purely intellectual activities—memorization of letters and numbers, for instance—is far less useful at this stage than pursuits that encourage fine motor abilities and hand-eye coordination. These skills—rather than counting or reciting the alphabet—lay the foundation for academic learning in later years.”
At Albany Preschool, our teachers are very intentional about encouraging fine motor development by incorporating fun, developmentally appropriate activities into play. Basically, our kids are working hard on their skills, but all they know is that they’re having fun and learning to do new things:
Music/movement: clapping hands, using instruments, singing counting songs with fingers
Cooking and eating: setting the table, preparing food (mixing, sorting, shaking), pouring water into cups
Gardening: sorting and planting seeds, spraying plants, harvesting flowers and vegetables
Games: building towers and racetracks, working with Legos, completing puzzles, picking up small objects with tweezers
Art: making collages, drawing and painting, cutting with scissors, hole-punching, sticking objects into playdough, threading beads/cheerios/pasta, sorting small loose objects, learning to write
Self-care: getting dressed (using buttons and zippers, putting on shoes), using the toilet, washing hands
Let’s focus for a minute on a very important fine motor skill: writing. It’s kind of a big deal in preschool. At the APS art table, sometimes I watch in awe as a three-and-a-half year old deftly scrawls her name on her artwork. My own child, the same age, is just mastering her first initial (with a little creative interpretation). Many children still ask for help writing their names; others sign with a flourish.
Learning to write is quite a challenging hurdle in development. Writing requires a level of muscle strength, dexterity and focus, and can be very frustrating if a child is not ready. Many preschoolers can write their names, at least in part, but the development of proper pencil grasp, much less the ability to form letters, can be just be emerging in a younger child. Presenting such a child with tracing worksheets and asking him to write on lines before he even has a pencil grasp creates an exercise in frustration and futility.
Instead, focus on building muscle strength and dexterity by doing fun activities daily. Squeezing, cutting, and handling small objects are all winners. APS always has a play dough table with freshly homemade play dough in enticing colors and a rotating array of interesting tools and molds. The “literacy” table is stocked with paper, markers, colorful tape and lots of scissors. Enjoying and mastering skills that seem unrelated to writing may be the best way to prepare for the task of writing.
So put away those writing worksheets. Let’s sit down with some friends and a pile of paper, markers and scissors, and we can color and cut our way to a masterpiece. When you’re ready, maybe you’ll want to write your own name on it.
For more on this subject:
Vanessa Levin, Pre-K Pages. How to Teach Handwriting Skills in Preschool.
Karen Cox, PreKinders. Fine Motor Ideas.
Anna Ransom, The Imagination Tree. 40 Fine Motor Skills Activities.
National Association for the Education of Young Children. Help your Child Build Fine Motor Skills.
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