Fine motor skills refer to the skills we have in making small movements and adjustments using the small muscles in our hands, wrists, fingers, face, feet, and toes.
These skills require strength in our smaller muscles, fine motor control, hand-eye coordination, and dexterity. All of these are crucial for a range of everyday but nevertheless complex activities like cutting, carrying, holding, feeding ourselves, drawing, writing, typing, and so on.
The acquisition and refinement of these skills are a critical part of a child’s development, but are also used throughout adulthood. While learning the skills, we exercise significant cognitive load and elaborative encoding, but once learned, we can perform many fine motor tasks almost instinctively.
Fine Motor Skills Definition
Fine motor skills can be succinctly defined as the coordination of small muscles, in movements—usually involving the synchronization of hands and fingers—with the eyes.
Some scholarly definitions include:
“Fine motor skills involve movements of the small muscles, especially those of the eyes, speech musculature, hands, fingers, feet, and toes.” (Collins & O’Brien, 2003)
This definition underscores the complex orchestration of muscular, neurological, and perceptual systems at work during fine motor tasks.
Other definitions will often define it in contrast to gross motor skills, as with this definition from Biddle and colleagues:
“Fine motor skills involve the small muscles of the hands and fingers, while gross motor skills involve large muscles of the arms, legs, and torso.” (Biddle et al., 2013)
Key features of fine motor skills include the use of smaller muscle groups (as opposed to large, whole-body movements), precision in execution, and often a necessary component of visual-motor integration.
Fine motor skills are essential for performing everyday tasks and also underpin the development of self-help skills in children.
Fine Motor Skills Examples
- Pencil Grasp: When holding a pencil, the thumb, index, and middle fingers coordinate to apply the right amount of pressure. This allows us to control the pencil for drawing or writing. It’s a skill typically developed in early childhood (ages 3-7), and are gradually refined to enable more precise and intricate pencil control.
- Using Chopsticks: Handling chopsticks requires a lot of dexterity and, in the Western world, is sometimes not developed until adulthood. However, in many Asian cultures, children develop the ability to handle chopsticks at a very young age due to early exposure.
- Buttoning a Shirt: Buttoning shirts requires the dexterity to hold the button between the thumb and index finger, while also using the other hand to stabilize the fabric and slip the buttonhole over the button itself. This skill involves not only skilled hand-eye coordination, but also a range of muscle memory, and tactile sensitivity to ‘feel your way’.
- Using Scissors: Handling scissors necessitates a complex set of hand movements and visual guidance. The thumb, index, and middle fingers work in concert to open and close the scissors, while the eyes guide the cutting path. We generally provide young children with ‘safety scissors’ to practice cutting before moving onto scissors that are more heavy duty but dangerous without fine motor skills.
- Threading Beads: This activity is commonly used in preschools and kindergartens to explicitly encourage the development of fine motor and hand-eye coordination skills. Threading a string through the hole of a bead requires a pincer grasp as well as the complex ability to gauge depth and distance.
- Tying Shoelaces: Children often use snap-shut or slip-on shoes until they have the dexterity to tie shoelaces. In preschools, they’re often given help in developing this fine motor skill by practicing tying knots in string before proceeding to their own laces.
- Turning a Key: Inserting a key into a lock and turning it requires precision, hand-eye coordination, and the ability to apply the right amount of force.
- Playing a Musical Instrument: Fingeroperated musical instruments such as pianos and guitars require refined control over hands and fingers. There’s also an element of size here – where children with small hands won’t be able to use the instruments as intended yet.
- Sewing: Needlework necessitates careful coordination and control, involving precise movement of the fingers to thread a needle and make stitches. As people improve their dexterity in sewing, they can move to more complex patterns and styles.
- Using a Computer Mouse: Young children often find it hard at first to navigate computers with a mouse, often opting to use touchscreens until they have the dexterity to operate the mouse.
- Pouring Liquid from a Jug: We often pour water for children until they develop both the physical strength (tied to gross motor skills) and the fine motor skill of carefully tipping the jug so water comes out at the right speed to successfully transfer water to a cup without spilling.
- Peeling a Sticker: Successfully peeling a sticker off a sheet calls for a precise pinching motion and the ability to regulate force to avoid tearing. This is a skill often developed early on, when we give children stickers as token rewards for good behavior.
- Applying Makeup: Applying eyeliner or mascara necessitates very precise hand-eye coordination and a steady hand. This is complicated by the fact that we can’t directly see ourselves when applying makeup, having to view through a mirror where our movements are reversed in front of our own etes.
- Folding Paper: Folding paper (as in origami) demands precision and accuracy in both the fingers and the eyes. A child might start off with paper planes before moving onto more complex constructions like origami cranes.
- Brushing Teeth: This involves holding a toothbrush correctly and making precise brushing motions. Children are encouraged to brush gently at first because imprecise and rough movements may cause bleeding of the gums.
- Building a Tower of Blocks: This requires the hand-eye coordination to stack blocks without toppling them, and the finger control to align them correctly. We see this, for example, in games like Jenga.
- Manipulating a Smartphone: Using a touchscreen requires precise finger movements and hand-eye coordination to successfully select icons, type text, and perform other tasks. Children may learn this when playing games on their parents’ phones or on a tablet computer.
- Cutting with a Knife: Whether cutting paper or food, this skill requires a strong grip, hand-eye coordination, and the ability to regulate pressure. Because this is a particularly dangerous activity, children often don’t get practice at it until they are older.
- Lacing a Thread through a Needle: This requires a high degree of precision, control, and hand-eye coordination that is even difficult for adults to master consistently..
- Writing on a Chalkboard: Writing on a vertical surface demands wrist movement, hand control, and finger strength. The child will also need to be able to apply the right amount of pressure to get the right results on the board but not break the chalk!
- Typing on a Keyboard: Touch typing involves all the fingers, each responsible for precise key pressing, coordinated with visual cues from the screen. Because of how common typing is these days, many adults develop the capacity to reflexively touch type, using minimal cognitive load because it becomes a simple matter of automatic processing due to muscle memory.
- Creating Artwork with a Paintbrush: Holding a paintbrush and creating strokes demands a combination of hand-eye coordination and finger dexterity. Clearly, when we open a child’s coloring book, we can see that it’s a child’s work due to the amount of times they’ve colored outside the lines.
- Doing a Puzzle: Assembling a puzzle calls for visual perception, hand-eye coordination, and fine finger movements to fit pieces together. In Jigsaws, for example, children will start with larger puzzle pieces until they develop the skills to move down to smaller pieces.
- Opening a Zipper: Pulling a zipper up or down necessitates a pincer grasp and enough strength to move the zipper. Feeding the zipper pieces together is an added level of complexity on top of this.
- Cooking: Many aspects of cooking, such as stirring, peeling vegetables, or cracking an egg, call for various fine motor skills. Cooking with parents isn’t just about learning about food and cooking; it’s also a task in learning fine motor skills.
- Planting Seeds: This activity requires the finger dexterity to pick up and carefully place small seeds, as well as the hand-eye coordination to plant them in the right location.
Fine Motor Skills Milestones for Children
Most theories of children’s physical development hold that fine motor skills development in children progresses in a generally predictable pattern, albeit with individual differences based on the child’s unique growth and experiences.
Infants (0-12 Months)
- Grasping Reflex (0-2 Months): Newborns will instinctively close their hand around a finger or object that strokes their palm.
- Voluntary Grasping (3-4 Months): Infants start to reach for and grasp objects intentionally, albeit with a rather clumsy, whole-hand “raking” motion.
- Transfer Object Between Hands (5-6 Months): Babies begin to pass toys or objects from one hand to the other, demonstrating improved hand-eye coordination.
- Pincer Grasp (9-12 Months): Infants develop the ability to pick up small objects using their thumb and index finger, showcasing improved finger dexterity.
Toddlers (1-3 Years)
- Self-Feeding (12-18 Months): Toddlers start using their fingers to feed themselves and will eventually begin to use utensils.
- Stacking Blocks (18-24 Months): They gain the ability to stack a few blocks on top of each other, demonstrating improved hand-eye coordination and control.
- Drawing and Scribbling (2-3 Years): Toddlers start making marks on paper, initially random scribbles but progressively evolving into more controlled lines and circles.
Preschoolers (3-5 Years)
- Cutting with Scissors (3-4 Years): Children begin to use scissors, initially with assistance and eventually independently.
- Drawing a Person (4-5 Years): Children start to draw recognizable figures, such as a person with a head, body, arms, and legs.
- Writing Some Letters and Numbers (5 Years): By this age, most children can write some letters and numbers, and may even write their own name.
It’s essential to remember that these milestones serve as guidelines rather than rigid expectations. Some children may develop certain skills faster or slower than their peers.
Fine Motor Skills vs Gross Motor Skills
Fine motor skills and gross motor skills are often framed as opposing but equally important skills, where gross motor skills are useful for tasks like running and fine motor for tasks like drawing.
- Fine motor skills involve the coordination of small muscle groups, primarily in the hands and fingers, often in concert with visual input, to achieve fine manipulation tasks.
- Gross motor skills are exercised when we engage large muscle groups to perform big movements, often in bursting motions, like when walking, running, jumping, and throwing.
Psychomotor theorist Rudolf Laban, renowned for his work on movement analysis, posited that gross motor movements (which he categorized as “locomotion,” “manipulation,” and “stabilization”) are foundational to human movement.
However, he also recognized the importance of the intricate, precise movements embodied in fine motor skills.
Gross motor skills typically develop before fine motor skills, in a process that we call proximodistal development.
For example, infants will learn first to roll over, sit up, and eventually walk – each being gross motor skills. Later, they will develop more delicate skills such as grasping objects, buttoning clothes, or drawing, which as seen above are examples of fine motor skills.
Despite the differences, the development of both skill sets are interconnected. The stability provided by gross motor skill development can significantly support the development and execution of fine motor tasks.
Occupational therapist Anna Jean Ayres contributed significantly to this understanding through her sensory integration theory, which postulates a strong relationship between sensory processing, sensory memory, gross motor function, and fine motor performance.
Essentially, our ability to make sense of the sensory information around us influences our motor responses, both gross and fine.
|Fine Motor Skills
|Gross Motor Skills
|Coordination of small muscles primarily in the hands and fingers, often in concert with the eyes
|Utilization of large muscle groups for big movement activities
|Writing with a pencil, threading beads
|Walking, jumping, throwing
|Involves smaller muscle groups, precision in execution, visual-motor integration
|Involves larger muscle groups, body coordination, balance
|Typically develop after gross motor skills, requiring a higher level of control and precision
|Usually develop earlier, foundational for many physical activities and certain fine motor tasks
|Anna Jean Ayres (Sensory Integration Theory)
|Rudolf Laban (Laban Movement Analysis)
Fine motor skills are assessed as developing within a generally normal range for children, although there is variation both between individual children and across cultural groups (e.g. some cultural groups encourage children to perform specific fine motor skills earlier than others, leading to faster acquisition). But overall, children will develop these skills at their own pace, and should be given plenty of play time to practice developing these fine motor skills.
Biddle, K. A. G., Garcia-Nevarez, A., Henderson, W. J. R., & Valero-Kerrick, A. (2013). Early childhood education: Becoming a professional. London: Sage.
Collins, J. W., & O’brien, N. P. (2011). The Greenwood dictionary of education. New York: ABC-CLIO.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]