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Fine Motor Skills: A Key to Academic Success

by Joan Lessen-Firestone, Ph.D. | April 25, 2011 | Early Education & Literacy

By Dr. Joan Lessen-Fireston, Ph.D.

Kindergarten teachers often worry about inadequate fine motor skills exhibited by many of their students. Every year it seems that more children enter school unable to cut along a straight line, manipulate buttons and snaps, and comfortably hold and use a pencil. But in a time when we focus on computer keyboarding rather than elegant or even legible handwriting from the earliest grades, does this lack of fine motor skill matter? Recent research suggests that fine motor development at school entry is extremely important as it is highly predictive of children’s academic success in reading and mathematics at the end of elementary school. Three large-scale, longitudinal studies that followed children’s progress over many years in the United States and Britain all confirmed the important relationship between fine motor skills at kindergarten and later academic success.

There seem to be two explanations for this relationship. First, we have long known that preschoolers learn best through active manipulation of the objects around them. As they build towers with blocks they are learning lessons about balance and gravity, and as they piece together puzzles they are developing skills in matching colors and shapes. But while they are manipulating the blocks and puzzle pieces, children are also exercising and developing their fine motor skills. In fact, almost all the activities that help young children build or practice cognitive skills also involve the use of fine motor skills. So it is not surprising that those children who have developed fine motor skills through daily exploration and manipulation of a wide variety of objects also possess the cognitive foundations necessary to build academic success.

Newly available neuroimaging techniques have provided a second, more complex explanation for the relationship between fine motor skills and academic success. We used to think that cognitive pursuits activated only the cognitive areas of the brain and motor activities activated only the motor areas of the brain. Neuroimaging techniques have helped us understand much more about the strong neural connections between cognitive and motor areas, and to actually see how certain motor tasks activate both motor and cognitive areas of a child’s brain. So when we move and develop our bodies, we are also improving our minds. Fortunately, there are many easy and enjoyable ways to provide additional opportunities for children to actively develop their fine motor skills at home.

  • Before your child can effectively strengthen hand and finger movements, he or she must have strength in the shoulder region. When your child is engaged in easel painting and is moving the whole arm up and down to cover the entire paper with paint, he or she is developing necessary shoulder strength. Your child can also “paint” the side of your house or fence with a big paint brush and bucket of water or help you wash the windows or dry off the car to get the desired whole-arm movement.
  • Your young child can easily and enjoyably develop hand strength through frequently practicing kneading and squeezing movements. Squeezing excess water out of a sponge before wiping off the table or for fun during baths, kneading real dough (ready-made dough from the grocery store works fine) or play dough, or making fresh orange juice with an old-fashioned juice extractor all work well to build the strength needed for fine motor activities.
  • Provide preschoolers with lots of opportunities to manipulate age-appropriate small objects that fit their interests. It doesn’t matter if children are working to connect cars on a train, string beads or dress dolls. It is just important that they have plenty of opportunity to manipulate different types of objects in a variety of ways.
  • Because scissors, markers, crayons and pencils are frequently used in school, pre-kindergartners need to master them. Select safety scissors that can be used by children who are either right- or left-handed, and start by snipping/segmenting a long, snakelike roll of play dough into pieces. Thicker markers and crayons are easier for younger children to use but, with sufficient practice, they will likely be able to handle thinner ones by kindergarten.