Fine Motor Skills: Is your Child Falling Behind?

Fine motor coordination is the capacity of the small muscles of the upper body to allow for controlled movements of the fingers and hands. They include the ability to hold a writing utensil, eat with a fork, open containers, and fasten clothing.  These small movements correspond with larger muscles such as the shoulder girdle, back, and core to provide stability for gross motor functioning and with the eyes for hand-eye coordination. Weaknesses in fine motor skills are often the result of poor hand strength and poor motor coordination.

Fine Motor Red Flags in School-Aged Children

As a former Kindergarten teacher, at the start of each school year, I welcomed an array of children in my classroom with a variety of fine motor skillsets.  Since children have such varying preschool experiences, generally, their skills will vary based on the activities to which they have been exposed. If a child has had the opportunity to practice cutting with scissors, for example, he or she will likely be able to accomplish snipping a piece of paper by 2.5. Fine motor development occurs at an irregular pace, but follows a step-by-step progression and builds onto previously acquired skills. By the approximate ages listed below, your child should be able to demonstrate these skills:

2 to 2.5 Years

  • Puts on and takes off socks and shoes
  • Can use a spoon by himself, keeping it upright
  • Draws a vertical line when given a visual example or after an adult demonstrates
  • Holds crayon with fingers, not fist

2.5 to 3 Years

  • Builds a tower of blocks
  • Draws horizontal & vertical lines when given a visual example or after an adult demonstrates
  • Unscrews a lid from a jar
  • Snips paper with scissors
  • Able to string large beads
  • Drinks from an open cup with two hands, may spill occasionally

3 to 3.5 Years

  • Can get himself dressed & undressed independently, still needs help with buttons, may confuse front/back of clothes and right/left shoe
  • Draws a circle when given a visual example or after an adult demonstrates
  • Can feed himself solid foods with little to no spilling, using a spoon or fork
  • Drinks from an open cup with one hand
  • Cuts 8x11” paper in half with scissors

3.5 to 4 Years

  • Can pour water from a half-filled pitcher
  • Able to string small beads
  • Uses a “tripod” grasp (thumb and tips of first two fingers) to draw, but moves forearm and wrist as a unit
  • Uses fork or spoon to scoop food away from self and maneuver to mouth without using other hand to help food onto fork/spoon

4 to 4.5 Years

  • Maneuvers scissors to cut both straight and curved lines
  • Manages zippers and snaps independently, buttons and unbuttons with minimal assistance
  • Draws and copies a square and a cross
  • Uses a “tripod” grasp (thumb and tips of first two fingers) to draw, but begins to move hand independently from forearm
  • Writes first name with or without visual example

4.5 to 5 Years

  • Can feed himself soup with little to no spilling
  • Folds paper in half with edges meeting
  • Puts key in a lock and opens it

5 to 6 Years

  • Can get dressed completely independently, including buttons and snaps, able to tie shoelaces
  • Cuts square, triangle, circle, and simple pictures with scissors
  • Draws and copies a diagonal line and a triangle
  • Uses a knife to spread food items
  • Consistently uses “tripod” grasp to write, draw, and hold feeding utensils while moving hand independently from forearm
  • Colors inside the lines
  • Writes first name without a visual example, last name may be written with visual
  • Only uses one hand for writing tasks, rather than switching between them

By age 7, children are usually adept at most fine motor skills, but refinement continues into late childhood.  If you notice your young child demonstrating difficulties in above “red flag” areas, it may be time to consult with an occupational therapist.

Jen Brown, MS, OTR/L
Director of Occupational Therapy Services

Resources:

Beery, K.E., & Beery, N.A. (2006). The Beery-Buktenica Developmental Test of Visual Motor Integration. Minneapolis: NSC Pearson

Folio, M.R., & Fewell, R.R. (2000). Peabody Developmental Motor Scales, 2nd Ed. Austin: Pro-Ed.

Retherford, K.S. (1996). Normal Development: A Database of Communication and Related Behaviors. Greenville, SC: Super Duper Publications