Helping children prepare for academic success

School readiness can be improved by providing tools and time spent on fine motor skill development.

Most parents can remember at what age their children crawled or took their first step. These large, gross-motor milestones are ones that we easily recall when asked about our child’s development. Fine motor skills generally receive less attention by parents and caregivers. They include reaching, grasping, and using small objects and tools; involving the small muscles of the hands and coordinating them with the rest of the body. Moving and using fingers and hands are a necessity for writing and academic success.

We often neglect fine motor skills until it comes time to prepare children for school. Fine motor skill development requires time and practice and shouldn’t be neglected in the preschool years. The National Association for Sport and Physical Education recognizes early childhood as the most intensive period for the development of physical skills.

Overall muscle development is predictable and consistent and moves from head to toe and from the trunk of the body outward. The development of the upper shoulders and arms provides the base for later fine motor skills that will include self-feeding, using writing tools, using scissors and other small tools, stacking, pouring, and building projects. Just as an athlete preparing for a race or marathon, children need training and practice for their fine motor muscles to properly develop. Preschool fine motor activities require only your time and a few tools. These abilities build on each other and develop when adults provide time, a variety of age-appropriate tools and guidance, and children decide which activities interest them, when they want to try them and what materials they want to use for each.

Michigan State University Extension recommends some activities for each age, and stage, that can assist with building mastery into daily activities that use fine motor skills.

  • Infants - Provide large visuals that baby can bat at using a whole arm motion. Mobiles and play gyms placed over a child are good ways to stimulate interest in reaching and touching. Grasping is a reflect and an infant at this age is not able to purposefully release an object. Adults can offer a toy and assist the child in placing it in her hand. At about four months, the pincer grasp is developing and babies like to practice picking up small items. Snack time is a time to explore poking, prodding and picking up small pieces of food. Provide lots of items that stimulate a child to reach out and explore. Encourage your baby to touch his story books as you read and turn pages.
  • Toddlers - Hand preference is often noted between ages one and two although it is not firmly established yet. You will often see toddlers alternating hands for eating and playing. Fingers are now moving independently as toddlers like to poke and point. Whole arm movements are used in coloring as toddlers scribble using a closed fist over a writing tool. Scribbling progresses from circle scribbles to horizontal or vertical scribble that may resembles lines. This is a great age to include your child in kitchen activities that include stirring or sorting. Toddlers should be provided with lots of play tools including plastic jars and lids, cups and bowls, spoons, and dishes. Include lots of writing and drawing activities in an art activity box. Have your child scribble a grocery list as you mention items that you are writing on yours. Provide a specified place for messy activities that include painting, play dough and glue. Story time at this age includes page opening and closing books, page turning, and following the words in the book with a finger (adult hand providing guidance).
  • Preschoolers - Variety is the key word in providing fine motor activities for preschoolers. Writing practice should not be a chore, but rather part of everyday play. Activities include writing notes of thanks to family members, helping to set the table, assisting in the kitchen with cleaning vegetables or pouring liquid into a recipe. Provide tongs for picking things up, toys that require winding or spinning, puzzles with small pieces, drawing activities outside in the sand, or using squirt bottles to assist with window cleaning. Encourage the use of both hands when throwing and catching. Many self-help skills will build fine motor activities as well and could include shoe tying, flossing teeth or buttoning buttons.

Consciously providing materials, teaching and practicing fine motor skills as you incorporate them into daily activities can assist with school readiness skills. Educate yourself on normal ages and stages of child development and activities that are age-appropriate for your child. Ask questions and seek out assistance if you are concerned about your child’s progress or development. Early On of Michigan suggests that you “Don’t worry. But don’t wait.” Make child physician visits part of your routine. Encourage fine motor skills as you take time to have fun with the children in your life and prepare them for academic success!

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