If you are curious about how a child develops good motor skills – here is what you need to know.

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What is a motor skill?

I can tell you that is doesn’t have anything to do with cars – but it does involve an engine…the most miraculous engine…the human body!

A motor skill is simply an action of specific muscles to perform an intentional movement. In order to be able to get our bodies to move and perform in the way we want them to we have to firstly have sufficient strength in the muscles and secondly the coordination and planning skills to put the movements into action.

Gross Motor Skills

Gross motor skills are the way we use our large muscles to move our arms, legs and body. Examples of gross motor skills are running, jumping, climbing, throwing, catching and kicking.

Fine Motor Skills

Fine motor skills are the way we use our smaller muscles to move our fingers, thumbs and hands. We use fine motor skills in tasks such as handwriting, tying laces, cutting with scissors, arts and crafts and using a keyboard. Using the lips and tongue to taste and feel objects is also a fine motor skill and these movements are an important pre-cursor to speech development.

How do these motor skills develop?

Motor development begins in-utero, but a newborn has very little control over their muscles.

For infants, this development is encouraged via a stimulating environment. Babies naturally respond to the eye contact, touch and sound provided by their significant carers – turning to gaze into eyes and gradually gaining sufficient control over their neck muscles so that they can turn their head to respond to various stimuli such as colourful toys, interesting sensory experiences, variety of musical sounds. Sensory stimulation is so important in the early years as this is what provides the interest and curiosity that propels an infant to reach, sit up, crawl, stand and walk – it is that steely determination to investigate…what is that?…I want it….how am I going to get it.

In the first 12 to 18 months of life – most parents are very aware of gross motor milestones – when is my baby controlling their neck and heads, roll over, sit up unsupported, getting ready to crawl, stand, walk? But quite often what happens once that infant becomes a toddler and is starting to get into a bit of mischief that we want them to sit down, stop exploring, be still, be quiet.

Before an infant can use their thumb and forefinger to pick up a small object – they need to be able to move their arm close enough to the object. Imagine a baby trying to feed itself. They can see, smell and feel the food on the tray of their highchair – they are hungry and want to eat. They move their arm then hand close to the food, use their hand and fingers to pick up some food, then need to move their hand up to their mouth and pop the food in. if the baby could not control their arm to get near to the food – then they would not be able to get it into their fingers. This takes a great deal of trial and error – watching any baby feeding themselves is testament to this – how much food actually gets in their mouths versus in their hair or on the floor?

Practice, practice, practice.

This amazing spurt of development – from a newborn to an independently moving toddler – takes practice…every day.

If we stop practicing any skill, what happens? We eventually lose it, if not completely, then as a minimum we lose the proficiency we once had.

This is true for children too. If they don’t continue to use their large muscles in gross motor activities, those muscles become weaker and less responsive to the demands we place on them. Climbing becomes too hard, running puffs us out, our coordination deteriorates, and we fall over more often, become fearful and anxious and eventually withdraw from these types of activities in favour of more sedentary or “safer” pursuits. Fine motor tasks become exhausting as the large muscles aren’t working well to provide a base of support – and the whole thing just becomes too hard.

Why are motor skills important?

Children with poor motor skills tend to do less physical activity than other children and this has been linked to increases in other health problems such as obesity, cardio-vascular disease, Type 2 diabetes and elevated blood pressure. Children with poorly developed gross motor skills may also find themselves being bullied or excluded from playground games and end up feeling socially isolated.

Children who have trouble with their fine motor skills may see themselves as being less successful in the classroom and this can impact on their ideas of self-worth and create feelings of anxiety associated with school.

Researchers have found significant links between a child’s motor skills and other areas of development. You only have to type into Google Scholar: Child Development and Motor Skills to see that currently there are over 2.4 million peer reviewed articles on this topic alone.

What can you do to improve and promote motor development?

Here are just a couple of ideas for you to begin with:

For Infants:

  • Provide a wide variety of stimulating sensory experiences, different colours, textures, sounds, tastes.
  • Move your child in a variety of ways – rocking side to side while laying down, or up on your shoulder – sway to music, hum in their ear.
  • Get out into nature – let them smell and feel the grass on their feet.  Wriggle toes in bubbles and sand. Watch the leaves of trees as they move in a gentle breeze.

For toddlers:

  • Extend the sensory experiences of infancy.
  • Do some simple arts and crafts.
  • Cook with your child.
  • Get into the garden and dig in the soil, plant some vegies.
  • Get active! Run, climb, ride, swing, crawl
  • Explore in nature – go into the bush/woods and collect interesting items, paddle in a stream or at the beach/river.
  • Read stories together – child helps to turn the pages and point to various pictures.
  • Roll balls to each other.

For Pre-schoolers:

  • All of the above.
  • Introduce some simple board games.
  • Play cards.
  • Build a cubby house using some old sheets/blankets and lounge room furniture.
  • Help with household chores.
  • Ride a scooter or bike.
  • Play dress ups
  • Read stories together – child controls the book.
  • Kick a ball, throw a frisbee, fly a kite.
  • Play catch with a large soft ball.

Important Take Away Message:

Have Fun! If children enjoy what they are doing, they are much more likely to want to do that activity over and over again – thereby practicing the skills.

Be playful yourself – laughing really is the best medicine!

Every single day try to think of different sensory and physically active experiences for your children, get outdoors whenever possible – dress for the weather. You will be improving your own health and well-being at the same time.

Let’s brainstorm – Add your ideas of ways to promote motor development in the comments below so we can share the creativity!

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