Motor skills are the muscle movements we use in our everyday lives. They allow us to do everything from walking and running to brushing our teeth. Importantly, motor skills are learned abilities, meaning we aren’t born with them. Instead, we acquire motor skills through practice and repetition. Eventually, motor skills require little to no effort and can be performed with a great deal of accuracy.
Because motor skills are learned abilities, they’re often used as benchmarks in children’s development. For example, by five, it’s expected that most children can walk and run efficiently. However, the so-called ‘critical period’ for motor skills development is between three and five. This is because the nervous system is at a stage where new skills can be learned relatively quickly.
What Is an Example of a Motor Skill?
Not all movements are motor skills. Some, like blinking and breathing, are involuntary, which means they can’t be improved through practice. Walking is perhaps the best example of a motor skill, given that it’s learned in early childhood. Once mastered, walking requires little effort and can be performed with great precision. In fact, for most people, it’s something that’s rarely acknowledged.
Motor Skills Development:
Motor skills are critical; we use them every day; from opening the door to typing on a keyboard, we are constantly employing our motor skills to help us complete our everyday tasks.
We develop our motor skills as newborns and continue building them into adulthood.
As adults, we use our motor skills without thinking about them. Still, babies and toddlers may need encouragement in the form of different exercises and activities to help them to develop their motor skills.
Ways you can help babies with motor skills development include:
- Tummy time
- Rolling a ball to them and getting them to move it back to you
- Practice giving and taking objects from them to develop skills like grasping and tugging
- When a child is old enough to start eating solid food, getting them to pick pieces of food up can help them get used to picking up smaller objects
How do Motor Skills Develop?
Mastering motor skills is the first step in helping children to feel independent. In addition, being confident with gross motor skills can help children perform essential everyday tasks such as getting out of bed and going up and downstairs.
While the actions we do when we use our fine motor skills tend to be smaller, they can be just as important; for example, brushing our teeth and fastening clothes with buttons and zips require fine motor skills. Therefore, motor skills development is the best way to help children reach these levels of independence.
When children are young, doing activities that require fine motor skills, such as coloring or playing with toys with smaller pieces like puzzles, can feel frustrating. However, as children begin to master their use of fine motor skills, they will be able to employ a broader range of hand manipulations, such as holding crayons between two fingers and a thumb (the way that an adult would have a pen or a pencil), be able to draw circular and cross shapes, and slowly begin to keep their coloring and drawings within the borders of the lines or the whole coloring page.
Motor skills development typically happens in a set order, along with three guiding principles:
- Motor skills involving moving body parts closer to the head develop earlier than those further away. This explains how children can use their hands and arms before walking.
- Movements of body parts closer to the body are mastered before those further away. Again, this explains how children can move their arms before performing finer activities with their fingers.
- Finally, larger muscle groups tend to develop before smaller muscle groups.
The last of these principles highlights the difference between fine and gross motor skills. Fine motor skills involve handwriting (the smaller muscle groups), whereas gross motor skills involve walking and running (the larger muscle groups).
Difficulties with either of the above generally present as clumsiness. This could mean dropping objects or bumping into things. Another symptom might be slowness or inaccuracy when practicing sports, although this is slightly harder to define.
Why Are Motor Skills Important?
Motor skills are essential for several reasons, not all of which are limited to movement. At a basic level, motor skills determine the ability of younger children to explore their environment. If they cannot do so, this can have knock-on effects on their perceptual and cognitive development.
Beyond this, walking and running from a young age can help children develop stamina for exercise. This will be important for keeping fit and healthy as they grow older.
Where fine motor skills are concerned, although handwriting is becoming less important at school and in the workplace, the same muscle groups are involved in typing and using smartphones, so children must get the hang of them from an early age.
What Are the Five Motor Skills?
Motor skills are essential in the classroom, and excellent motor skills, govern things like handwriting. Many consider fine motor skills to be critical to a child’s learning. With this in mind, here’s a list of five fine motor skills you can practice with your class or child:
- Construction Skills
Common in many EYFS classrooms, construction areas are essential for younger children’s learning. Construction activities are a fun way for children to practice fine motor skills. By working in teams, a construction area could also be used to help children learn valuable social skills, like teamwork.
- Pencil Skills
This is perhaps the most crucial classroom motor skill on this list. Aside from preparing children for handwriting exercises, pencil control activities can be a fun way for children to explore their creativity.
- IT Skills
Many of the same muscles used for handwriting and pencil control are also needed for a computer, meaning that what you explore in your IT lessons can have far-reaching effects.
- Scissor Skills
Scissors are a notoriously tricky piece of equipment for younger children to master. Though they’re easily neglected, being able to use scissors is essential, not only for practical reasons but also for reasons relating to personal safety. Apart from this, practicing cutting out with scissors can help with finger strength and hand-eye coordination.
- Self-Care Skills
This includes being able to tie shoelaces, use cutlery and fasten zips and buckles without assistance from an adult. By improving these skills, parents and teachers can help children improve their fine motor skills and develop an age-appropriate level of independence.
Fine Vs. Gross Motor Skills:
Motor skills fall into the category of either fine motor skills or gross motor skills. Fine motor skills tend to be more minor actions requiring higher precision, such as handwriting. Gross motor skills are more significant actions that use large muscles, like jumping in the arms, legs, torso, or feet.
Fine Motor Skills:
Activities that require fine motor skills also tend to employ our use of hand-eye coordination.
Examples of everyday activities that use our fine motor skills include:
- Squeezing objects
- Using zips
- Using cutlery and scissors
Different children will reach fine motor skill milestones at other times. If you are looking at which fine motor skills may require extra support, ensuring children can do fine motor skills needed for school and play is an excellent place to start – this includes any activities that may require pens and pencils.
There are some uses of fine motor skills we rarely even think about. For example, our tongues are capable of many fine motor skills when speaking and eating. This means that some speech development difficulties are down to a lack of fine motor skills, and helping to develop fine motor skills around the mouth may be a vital part of the support.
Gross Motor Skills:
Gross motor skill activities tend to be bigger and more energetic than fine motor skill activities.
Examples of everyday activities that we do use our gross motor skills include:
- Ball skills such as throwing, catching, and kicking
- Going up and downstairs
- Riding a bike
- Reaching for things on a shelf
There is a lot of opportunity to develop these skills in the playground
Children will reach gross motor skill milestones like fine motor skills at different stages. However, it may be more evident that children struggle with gross motor skills at a younger age because it may take them longer to pull themselves up to stand or crawl.
Gross motor skills are sometimes considered riskier because children are more likely to fall over while practicing. Still, they should be perfectly safe with adequate adult supervision.
One big difference between fine and gross motor skills is that fine motor skills typically depend on another object being involved, whereas we do lots of gross motor skills by ourselves.