Fine Motor Skills Needed at School

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Occupational Therapists are often times consulted to assess a child for their fine motor skills that are needed in school and for resources to build fine motor skills in the classroom.  When a child’s fine motor skills are lacking, classroom tasks can be difficult and result in delays in many aspects that are necessary for learning and functioning in the school environment.  


Today, I’m sharing a breakdown of fine motor skills in the school environment and how to build these skills during the school day through simple strategies. One of these strategies is Finger Aerobics.  Read on to learn more about finger aerobics exercises for a fine motor writing warm-up exercise.

Fine Motor skills needed at school and classroom activities to help

 

Fine Motor Skills Needed at School

A recent article in the American Journal of Occupational Therapist called Fine Motor Activities in Elementary School Children: A Replication Study examined the motor and technology requirements of kindergarten, second-, and fourth-grade general education classrooms.

The study found that students spend between 37.1% to 60.2% of the school day performing fine motor activities, with handwriting accounting for 3.4%–18.0% of the day. Does that surprise you? We are talking about all of the fine motor tasks students complete during the school day in this post, but it certainly makes sense that a large portion of the school day includes fine motor work.

The study provides an updated information on the amount of handwriting, technology requirements, and fine motor work that children are taking part in during the school day.

The study also found that fine motor skills were integrated into tasks throughout the day, including transitions to and from the classroom and between activities. tasks like unzipping a backpack to get out paperwork for the teacher,  gathering materials, managing writing utensils such as pencils and markers, activities of daily living (e.g., zipping and buttoning jackets for recess), and technology use (e.g., using a finger to complete a maze on the Smartboard) all are included in the school day. These tasks require development and integration of fine motor skills. It should be noted that students who struggle with fine motor skills will likely struggle throughout the day.

When you stop and think about all of the contributing factors that impact fine motor development and strength, it is no wonder that kids are struggling more than they seemed to in the past (this is coming from personal experience, but I think most of you might agree that kids seem to struggle more with fine motor, pencil grasp, and visual motor skills than they did years ago.) There are so many considerations that play a part in fine motor woes. Check out the fine motor development considerations listed below.

Fine Motor Development Considerations

These are areas of childhood that impact the development of fine motor skills.

  • Skip crawling and move straight to walking
  • More time being rushed around in baby carriers
  • Time spent in “baby positioners”
  • Less “free play” and more scheduled activities
  • Less exposure to small parts and creative play (More structured and planned play)
  • Less movement-based and developmentally appropriate learning in preschool, kindergarten, and the younger grades
  • More time on screens
  • Early screen-time exposure
  • Less outdoor time and strengthening through heavy work/outdoor play

What would you add to this list?

Knowing all of this, we can empower our kiddos with support and fine motor activities integrated right into their classrooms and play. Here are some tools and resources to help with those fine motor struggles:

Spring Fine Motor Activities

Improve Pencil Grasp with Fine Motor

Fine Motor Skills, Defined

DIY Fine Motor Activity Kits

Fine motor examples at school for understanding how motor development impacts learning in kids.

Fine Motor Examples at School

Fine motor skills are essential for independence and functioning within the classroom environment. Consider all of the areas where fine motor skills are needed for ease during the school day:


Handwriting and pencil grasp
Scissor grasp and cutting paper
Paper management including placing papers into folders
Paper clip management
Paper connectors (brads) management
Erasing with a pencil
Rotating a pencil within the hand
Coloring
Squeezing glue bottles
Removing glue caps from squeeze bottles or glue sticks
managing zippers on backpacks
Tying shoes
Managing clothing and clothing fasteners during bathroom breaks
Donning and doffing jackets and coats
Managing buttons, snaps, and zippers on coats and jackets
Tying shoes
Opening containers in the lunch room
Holding utensils and scooping food to eat
Picking up small pieces of food
Manipulating coins in the lunchroom
Typing on a computer keyboard
Toileting (tearing toilet paper and wiping)
Toileting (pulling up pants)
Using a stapler
Opening and closing a three ring binder
Managing glue sticks
Art projects
Packing a backpack
Endurance in writing
Removing and putting on caps on markers
Sharpening pencils
Placing manipulatives and counters accurately in hands-on math activities
Opening jars of paint

Fine Motor Skills Examples

Fine motor skills play a huge part of a student’s day! So what are fine motor skills? I explained in detail the various aspects of and examples of fine motor skills. For more examples of fine motor skills, check out the list below. These are the aspects of motor work that play a part in fine motor tasks during a child’s school day. All of these skill areas are types of fine motor skills that impact function, in big ways.

These daily functions within the school environment require many fine motor skills.  Each daily task requires many fine motor skills: 

  • Open thumb web space
  • Bilateral coordination
  • Thumb IP joint flexion
  • Finger isolation
  • Hand and wrist Development
  • Upper extremity stabilization
  • UE joint mobility
  • Trunk stability
  • Core strength and Posture
  • ROM
  • Dexterity
  • Arch development
  • Intrinsic muscle strength
  • Bilateral coordination and integration
  • Visual-motor control
  • Precision handling
  • Motoric separation of the two sides of the hands
  • Motor control
  • Pincer grasp
  • Grip strength
  • Pinch strength
  • Gross Grasp strength

Fine motor skills definitions for use in understanding fine motor development in kids

Definition of Fine Motor Skills

Occupational therapists know the definition of fine motor skills. It’s an integral part of every therapy evaluation.

For a layman’s definition of fine motor, the Medical Dictionary defines fine motor skills as: “Any of the motor skills that require greater control of the small muscles than large ones, especially for hand eye coordination or for precise hand and finger movement. Fine motor skills include handwriting, sewing, and fastening buttons. Most movements require both large and small muscle groups, and there is considerable overlap between fine and gross motor skills, but distinguishing between the two is useful in rehabilitation settings, special education, adapted physical education tests, motor development tests, and aptitude tests in industry and in the military.”

When fine motor skills are delayed, a student’s success in the classroom can be greatly impaired.


There are many reasons that fine motor skills might be lacking, resulting in delays in functional skills:
Muscle weakness
Dysgraphia
Low tone
Delayed wrist and hand development
Poor posture and core strength
Insufficient somatosensory input with failure to develop kinesthesia
Insufficient visual control
Incomplete bilateral integration
Incomplete utilization of proximal joints of the upper extremity including poor support
Inadequate spatial analysis and or synthesis skills
Insufficient visual-motor control 
Delayed or inadequate arch development
Underdeveloped precision handling
Difficulty with Motoric separation of the two sides of the hands.

These school day tasks are impacted by fine motor skill development.
Development of fine motor skills in kids

Fine Motor Development

Fine motor development and successful use of refined motor skills in functional tasks relies on a sensorimotor foundation of trunk and arm stability, strength, manipulation, ability to motor plan, and effective coordination of visual motor information.  

When kids are required to perform classroom and school activities without these foundations in place, difficulties arise, resulting in frustration, feelings of failure, and behaviors. So many times, there is a question of whether a student should be referred to the school-based OT for evaluation and assessment of fine motor skills for improved success in the classroom.

Teachers, parents, and school support staff should consider a referral to the school-based Occupational Therapist if the following fine motor conditions are observed and are effecting school occupations and learning.


Signs a Student Needs Occupational Therapy in the School for Fine Motor Skill Development:
Difficulty holding scissors and cutting shapes when age-appropriate
Trouble with letter/number formation or reverses letters
Avoids fine motor activities
Trouble using an effective pencil grasp
Fatigue when coloring
Difficulty erasing without tearing paper
Writes too lightly or too dark and written work is illegible
Difficulty putting on coat, managing buttons/zippers/snaps, or tying shoes (from what is age appropriate)
Switches hands during activities

There are some easy ways to build fine motor skills right in the classroom.  Try some of these strategies to accommodating for poor fine motor skills that might impact a student’s success in the classroom:

fine motor development and school tasks

Classroom strategies for addressing fine motor skills at school

Try various writing utensils.
Work on various writing surfaces (chalkboard, slant board, easel).
Use a kneaded eraser for less required effort when erasing.
Evaluate pencil grasp and try various pencil grips to modify for efficiency.
Utilize techniques for organizing papers when motor planning is an issue.
Manage papers and bilateral coordination by taping paper to the desk.

Finger Aerobics for Building Fine Motor Skills

One strategy that is helpful in building fine motor skills in the classroom is finger aerobics.  These finger motor movement exercises are activities that can be used by the whole classroom as part of a handwriting warm-up exercise.  Kids with poor fine motor skills can oftentimes struggle with hand functions and tool use in the classroom.  Finger dexterity activities like finger aerobics promote sensorimotor awareness and manipulation of the hands.  Finger aerobics are ideal as a transitional movement activity for the whole classroom or a brain break type of activity.

Check out the finger aerobics in the images and descriptions below:

Fine Motor skills needed for school and classroom and activities to help build those skills, including finger aerobics exercises.

Spider Push-Ups:  Show the students how to place both hands together with palms and fingers touching.  Then, show them how to push the hands away from each other at the palm.  The fingertips should remain in contact.


Fine Motor skills needed for school and classroom and activities to help build those skills, including finger aerobics exercises.

Finger Pick-Ups:  The students should stand at their desk and place their hands flat on the desk surface.  They can then pick up each finger in isolation.  Ask them to raise each finger from the desk surface 3 times and then pick up and hold each finger individually for several seconds.


Fine Motor skills needed for school and classroom and activities to help build those skills, including finger aerobics exercises.

Fingertip Touch:  Ask the students to touch their thumbs to the tips of each of the fingers.  They can do both hands at the same time or one hand at a time. Then, ask them to touch the tip of their thumb to the base of each finger.  They can touch the tip or base of each finger at different speeds, as they spell words, or count in various increments.  Next, ask them to touch the tips or bases of each finger with their hands held behind their back or out of their field of vision. 


Finger Sounds:  Ask the students to close their eyes.  Then, the teacher or group leader can ask the students to listen carefully as she makes sounds with her hands.  The teacher can make one sound and then ask the students to repeat the sound using their hands.  Ideas include: rubbing the hands together to make a soft swishing sound, snapping, clapping, thigh slapping, finger tapping, or patting the desk. The students should keep their eyes closed as they repeat each individual sound.


Fist Squeeze: Ask the students to make a fist with both hands.  Then, they should try placing their thumb in different positions and squeezing as hard as they can.  Try the thumb at the side of the fingers, wrapped over the knuckles, and tucked under the fingertips.  Show them how to stretch out the fingers and then repeat.


Spider Crawl:  Ask the students to stand up behind their desks.  They can then place both hands with the palm and fingers flat on the desk surface.  Show the students how to make their hands “crawl” across the desk like spiders.  They can move both hands together symmetrically and individually in different directions.  Keep the palm lightly positioned on the desk surface.


Fine Motor skills needed for school and classroom and activities to help build those skills, including finger aerobics exercises.

Finger Muscles:  Show the students how to use their other hand to provide resistance for squeezing.  They can place their pointer finger or their pointer and middle finger of one hand on the outstretched fingers of the other hand.  Ask them to squeeze their fingers and then to try to push against the fingers.


Writing Gloves:  Ask the students to pretend to put a glove on their hands, slowly moving the glove over each finger.  They should push each finger down individually.  Then, they can remove that pretend glove, one finger at a time.  This is an especially calming activity that provides proprioceptive input through joint compressions.


Finger Ducks:  Ask the students to straiten the fingers and thumbs to create a “duck” puppet with just their fingers.  They can make the duck open and close it’s mouth to spell words, count, or read.  Then, ask them to pretend that the duck ate a lemon as they pull the finger tips into the palm.  This is a great activity that strengthens the lumbrical muscles of the hands. 

You can view all of the exercises here: 

 

Finger aerobics for fine motor strengthening and handwriting warm up.



Be sure to visit the other Occupational Therapists and Physical Therapists who are writing about School Day Functions this month in the Functional Skills for Kids series.

Fine motor skills needed in the classroom and finger aerobics ideas

More Fine Motor Activities that will build skills needed for Function and Learning in School:

 fine motor writing activity Pencil Grasp Activity Pencil Grasp Exercise Thumb opposition activity
References:
Sierra Caramia, Amanpreet Gill, Alisha Ohl, David Schelly; Fine Motor Activities in Elementary School Children: A Replication Study. Am J Occup Ther 2020;74(2):7402345010. https://doi.org/10.5014/ajot.2020.035014
fine motor development and school tasks