The Importance of Fine Motor Muscle Development
Updated: Jul 20, 2021
At parent-teacher conferences, I often get the question, “How can I support my child at home to be successful at school?” My answer included the following:
Spend quality time together.
Involve them in tasks such as getting dressed, cooking meals, cleaning, gardening, and so forth.
Offer experiences in the world that are difficult to replicate in school.
Cultivate fine motor skills.
I often sensed that the last piece of advice fell flat. I would feebly try to explain, “For example, strengthening their hands with activities such as Play-Doh will make it easier to write with a pencil.” I knew through experience that fine motor skills are crucial, but I found it difficult to explain why. I decided to delve into the research examining fine motor skills and academic achievement, and what I found blew me away.
What Are “Fine Motor Skills?”
To begin, motor skills are, “[The] underlying internal processes responsible for moving the body or parts of the body in space.” We differentiate between “fine motor” and “gross motor” skills.
Fine motor = small muscle movements, often with the hand, fingers, and wrist
Real-life examples: writing with a pencil, cutting with scissors, typing on a keyboard, tying a shoe
Gross motor = large muscle movements, often with our torso and limbs
Real-life examples: running, jumping, riding a bike
Exercising both fine and gross motor skills proves essential to healthy development. In this article, we will focus on the former.
Links to Academic Achievement
In a study titled “Fine Motor Skills and Early Comprehension of the World: Two New School Readiness Indicators,” the authors examined both traditional kindergarten readiness indicators such as early math and reading knowledge as well as less-commonly considered metrics, including fine and gross motor skills. They discovered that “fine motor skills are an additional strong predictor of later achievement,” whereas gross motor skills were not. In simpler terms, children who had strong fine motor skills entering kindergarten performed well academically later in elementary school.
They noted that the connection is unsurprising given how fine motor skills are embedded in many academic tasks, including writing, speaking, and reading. However, the link between movement and learning proves more foundational.
The authors relay that multidisciplinary research "suggests that motor and cognitive development are inextricably linked. Literature suggests that the linkage occurs primarily for two reasons: (a) many types of cognitive activities utilize specialized control and modulation functions located in the cerebellum and basal ganglia that develop during motor acquisition, and (b) some of the neural infrastructure linking the prefrontal and motor areas built to adaptively control the learning process during motor development is also used to control learning in cognitive development." Essentially, due to the architecture of our brain, early fine motor practice creates strong neural connections that can later assist with cognitive tasks.
We want children to learn and succeed, and this impulse leads to extra study hours, practice tests, and problem sets. However, the authors conclude that we should trade pencils and worksheets for materials that will give children that strong base. They conclude, “Our results suggest that the focus of interventions should shift from a primary emphasis on changing the direct math and reading instructional environment to interventions that build better foundational skills of attention and fine motor skills and a better understanding of the world outside schools...Paradoxically, higher long-term achievement in math and reading may require reduced direct emphasis on math and reading and more time and stronger curricula outside math and reading.”
I should also note that fine motor skills that incorporated a visual-spatial element, such as copying rather than tracing an image, correlated more strongly with positive academic outcomes. (Visual-spatial = knowing the distance of objects from you and from each other and visualizing different configurations.) I will leave it to neuroscientists to disaggregate the benefits of fine motor skills and visual-spatial reasoning. For our purposes, I recommend favoring fine motor activities that have an element of visual-spatial processing, which proves easy to do.
Fine Motor in a Montessori Setting
Dr. Maria Montessori, though she lacked access to the later insights of neuroscience, understood how fine motor affects learning. In her book The Absorbent Mind, she wrote, "The hands are the instruments of man's intelligence." Thus, when you walk into a Montessori environment, you find both hands-on learning materials and activities for which fine motor manipulation is a direct or indirect goal.
In our next blog post, I will suggest activities that you can do in the home to strengthen your child’s fine motor skills.
Cameron, C. E., Cottone, E. A., Murrah, W. M., & Grissmer, D. W. (2016). How Are Motor Skills Linked to Children’s School Performance and Academic Achievement? Child Development Perspectives, 10(2), 93–98.
Grissmer, D., Grimm, K. J., Aiyer, S. M., Murrah, W. M., & Steele, J. S. (2010). Fine motor skills and early comprehension of the world: Two new school readiness indicators. Developmental Psychology, 46(5), 1008–1017.
Montessori, Maria. The Absorbent Mind. Trans. Claude A. Claremont. Amsterdam: Montessori-Pierson Publishing Company, 2007.