Fine and Gross Motor Skills in Children

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Motor skills are skills that enable the movements and tasks we do every day. Fine motor skills are those that require a high degree of control and precision in the small muscles of the hand (such as using a fork). Gross motor skills use the large muscles in the body to allow for balance, coordination, reaction time, and physical strength so that we can do bigger movements, such as walking and jumping.

Motor skills enable the movements children need for everyday tasks, from feeding themselves to moving from place to place. Typically, children develop certain motor skills at specific ages, but not every child will reach milestones at precisely the same time. A child with motor impairments has trouble moving in a controlled, coordinated, and efficient way. If your child seems to be delayed in developing fine or gross motor skills, they will likely undergo an assessment and may require physical or occupational therapy to catch up.

Fine Motor Skills

Fine motor skill activities involve manual dexterity and often require coordinating movements of the hands and fingers with the eyes, which is known as hand-eye coordination.

Components of fine motor skills include being able to grip and manipulate objects, use both hands for a task, and use just the thumb and one finger to pick something up rather than the whole hand.

The following are just a few examples of fine motor skills that typically occur at different phases of child development.

Birth to 3 Months

  • Uses arms to swing or "bat" at objects
  • Watches hands move and brings them to the mouth

3 to 6 Months

  • Begins to transfer objects from one hand to another
  • Holds own hands together
  • Reaches for toys using both arms

6 to 9 Months

  • Begins to grasp & hold onto objects, such as a bottle
  • Squeezes objects
  • Uses a raking grasp to move objects with fingers

9 to 12 Months

  • Begins to show a preference for one hand over the other
  • Puts small objects in a cup or container
  • Turns pages in a book a few pages at a time
  • Develops pincer grasp (using index finger and thumb to grasp objects)
  • Feeds themselves finger foods

12 to 18 Months

  • Builds a tower two blocks high
  • Scoops objects with a spoon or small shovel
  • Claps hands
  • Scribbles with crayons on paper
  • Waves goodbye

18 Months to 2 Years

  • Begins holding a crayon with fingertips and thumb
  • Builds a tower three to four blocks high
  • Opens loosely wrapped packages or containers
  • Turns pages in a book one page at a time
  • Puts rings on pegs

Age 2

  • Stacks a block tower nine blocks high
  • Turns doorknobs
  • Washes hands independently
  • Zips and unzips large zippers
  • Manipulates clay or play dough

Age 3

  • Folds a piece of paper in half
  • Draws a circle after being shown an example
  • Fastens and unfastens large buttons

Age 4

  • Gets dressed and undressed without help
  • Touches the tip of each finger to the thumb
  • Uses a fork correctly

Age 5

  • Cuts out a circle
  • Copies a triangle shape
  • Grasps a pencil correctly
  • Ties shoelaces

Age 6

  • Builds a small structure with blocks
  • Puts a 16 to 20 piece puzzle together
  • Cuts well with scissors
  • Uses a knife to cut food

You can encourage your baby to improve their fine motor skills by laying them under a play gym, using wrist or ankle rattles, or moving a colorful toy around so they can visually track it. For toddlers, activities that might improve fine motor skills include encouraging them to pick up objects with tongs, building with blocks, and doing craft projects. You can also encourage toddlers and preschoolers to play with play-dough, sponges, pasta, or water toys.

Gross Motor Skills

Gross motor skills are movements that involve large muscle groups and are generally more broad and energetic than fine motor movements. These movements include walking, kicking, jumping, and climbing stairs. Some milestones for gross motor skills also involve eye-hand coordination, such as throwing or catching a ball.

The following are some examples of gross motor skills that typically occur at different phases of childhood development.

3 to 6 Months

  • Raises arms and legs when placed on the stomach
  • Rolls over
  • Supports own head when in a sitting position

6 Months to 12 Months

  • Crawls
  • Pulls self from a sitting to a standing position
  • Sits without support

Age 1

  • Climbs onto low furniture
  • Climbs stairs with assistance
  • Pulls or pushes toys with wheels
  • Walks with one hand held

Age 2

  • Jumps using both feet simultaneously
  • Runs very stiffly on toes
  • Walks upstairs without a banister

Age 3

  • Rides tricycle using pedals, unassisted by an adult
  • Runs without falling
  • Throws a ball to an adult standing 5 feet away

Age 4

  • Catches a ball with arms and body
  • Runs smoothly with changes in speed
  • Walks upstairs by alternating feet

Age 5

  • Catches a ball with two hands
  • Hops on one foot
  • Performs jumping jacks and toe touches
  • Walks up and down the stairs while carrying objects

Age 6

  • Kicks rolling ball
  • Jumps over objects 10 inches high
  • Rides a bicycle with training wheels
  • Throws with accurate placement

Encourage your baby to work on their gross motor skills by doing lots of tummy time. Once they master that, encourage them to reach for (and later crawl towards) toys placed in front of them. To encourage your baby to walk, help them stand and take steps by holding their arms. With toddlers and preschoolers, encourage them to build forts, dance to songs like "Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes," play pretend, and pull their toys in wagons.

Motor Skill Delays

Children with neurological conditions or developmental delays may have difficulty with fine motor skills. Difficulties with fine motor skills often aren't diagnosed until preschool when it becomes more obvious that children are struggling with different school activities, such as learning to copy shapes or letters.

Some children will be diagnosed with dysgraphia, a learning difference that affects writing skills, while others might be diagnosed with developmental coordination disorder (DCD or dyspraxia), a condition that is still not widely understood. Kids with fine motor skill difficulties might need occupational therapy, modifications, or assistive technology.

It may be easier to notice if your child isn't reaching gross motor skill milestones than fine motor milestones because gross motor skills are among the most anticipated; you're probably eagerly anticipating your baby rolling over, crawling, pulling themselves up along furniture, and taking their first steps. As a child grows, you note when they are running and playing and how well they do in physical games and sports.

Children with neurological problems, developmental delays, or disabilities will usually be diagnosed by their pediatrician if they consistently miss major milestones. Gross motor skill delays may also be a sign of dyspraxia. If children's gross motor delays affect movements, they may receive physical therapy to help with gross motor skills or they may need modifications or assistive technology to keep up with mobility or athletics.

A Word From Verywell

While each child is different, don't hesitate to discuss any concerns about your child's motor skills with your pediatrician. If your child is referred to occupational therapy or physical therapy, you will be involved in the therapy and will be given instructions on how to work with your child at home to build their motor skills.

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Article Sources
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