The What and How of Fine Motor Co-ordination

The What and How of Fine Motor Co-ordination

Fine Motor Co-ordination is a term we hear all the time.  But what exactly is it, what are its implications, and how do we foster its development in our children?

Fine Motor skills are the skills that are performed by the hands – we could just as well have called them hand skills.  From this very broad definition we can see that fine motor co-ordination is pervasive throughout our children’s development, and in fact our lives.  They are the skills that enable our children to feed themselves, explore their environments, play, and perform scholastic skills.  Fine motor co-ordination begins to develop when our children begin to notice they have hands and start reaching for, exploring and manipulating objects; which ultimately culminates in our children being able to write.

Mother and daughter indoors playing and smiling

Fine Motor Development for Babies

The baby departments are full of the most amazing manipulative toys that require pushing, pulling, twisting, turning and posting.  Make use of these toys, as well as those from your home that your young child can safely play with.  These early manipulative experiences provide the foundations for the more formalised fine motor experiences your child will encounter at pre-school.

Fine Motor Development in the Pre-Schooler

Cutting is probably one of the most critical pre-writing skills your child will encounter around 4 years of age.  I used to think that cutting was about learning a skill – one that enabled you to cut out a recipe from the newspaper or the stems off your Valentine’s roses.  But how wrong I was – and how the children with whom I was working benefitted once I had that ‘a-ha’ moment.  When held with the correct grasp, manipulation of the scissors develops the exact muscles we require to manipulate the pencil.  I truly believe that pre-schoolers can never get enough cutting miles – they need to cut from Cape Town to Johannesburg and back, and a repeat journey will certainly hold them in good stead!

child cutting paperDevelopmental readiness is a critical factor in deciding when to introduce cutting to your child.  It includes not only your child’s physical muscular development, but their interest in the activity as well.  Girls often start cutting earlier than boys simply because they are more interested in it.  However, the most important thing is not when it is introduced, but how.  Beginner cutters should place their thumb in the upper loop, while their index and middle fingers are placed in the lower loop.  With development and maturity this ultimately progresses to what I tell the children is ‘the Grade 1 way’ (it’s all about marketing!) around 5 to 5½ years of age, with the thumb and middle fingers in the upper and lower loops, and the index finger in front of the lower loop.  To find out more about how to introduce cutting go to

Before commencing formalised pencil and paper work, ensure your child has developed the muscles which will support the hand and allow for manipulation of the pencil.  We have discussed cutting, but working on a vertical surface such as an easel, paper tearing, crumpling, scrunching and spinning tops all contribute to this development.

From these foundations of muscle development we move onto pencil control.  Pencil grip is a much discussed subject with diverse opinions as the rights and wrongs of it.  I believe that grips may be divided into efficient and in-efficient pencil grips.  Efficient grips allow for the bend-stretch movements of the fingers which facilitates speed and quality of handwriting; while in-efficient grips are those that block the development of these movements.  If your child’s pencil grip can be classified as efficient, it probably doesn’t need to be changed, even if it deviates somewhat from the traditional tripod pencil grip.  Remember – look for those ‘bend-stretch’ movements of the fingers – they are your guide.

Children need to experience a wide range of writing materials but I would encourage you to keep the use of koki’s to a minimum.  They offer little resistance as the tip moves across the page, so they can slide all over the place, not allowing the benefit of resistance and feedback that can be so beneficial as they learn to control their pencil.  I would avoid very formalised work and workbooks in the pre-school years unless your child expresses a definite desire to be involved in it.fine motor skills

Colouring is a skill our children need to learn but research has shown no evidence that it helps with the development of handwriting.  So, if your child is anti-colouring, spend enough time to ensure they can achieve an adequate level but after that I would back off.  I always encourage children to choose a direction to begin their colouring and to maintain the same direction until they move to a new section or area.  This helps them to achieve the impression of neatness even if they go out the lines.  However, in my opinion, colouring is not the most critical thing and although many teachers like colour ‘pretty-work’ is not necessarily ‘good-work’.

Fine Motor Development in the School Going Child

Once the time for handwriting comes, you want to be sure that your child learns ‘the right way the first time®’.  A motor map is laid down in the brain which holds the instructions as to how to form each letter.  If the child practises formations in the incorrect pattern, the motor maps will be laid down in the incorrect pattern.  Once these maps are hard-wired it becomes very difficult to change them.  Choose a good handwriting programme based on solid sensory and motor principles to ensure your child ‘masters the motor map™ the right way the first time®’.

Should you have any concerns regarding your child’s fine motor skills you may wish to consult an occupational therapist (OT).  To find an OT in your area who specialises in fine motor skills, contact The Occupational Therapy Association of South Africa (OTASA) on 012-362 5457 or .

©Bunty McDougall – Occupational Therapist





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