What are Gross Motor Skills?
The term ‘gross motor skills’ refers to movements that either require moving your whole body or which involve the core muscles of the body to perform everyday tasks. Examples of gross motor skills include basic things such as standing and sitting in an upright position, as well as running, walking, jumping, riding a bike, swimming, or activities with a ball (throwing, catching, kicking, etc.).
Evidently, competence with gross motor skills is crucial for children to develop so that they can accomplish everyday self-care tasks. Getting dressed, climbing in and out of bed, and sitting upright at the table are examples of basic activities that could prove challenging for children who struggle with their gross motor skills.
Many of the aforementioned activities are so basic that most able-bodied adults don’t even have to think about the process the body goes through to perform them, and it’s true that a majority of children don’t need to be consciously taught how to develop these skills. But gross motor skills are more complex than they first appear.
They require the coordination of muscles and the neurological system and affect balance and coordination. They also form the foundation for the development of fine motor skills (see the section on fine motor skills below). For example, a child who struggles to sit in an upright position at a table may struggle to develop fine motor skills, such as writing or cutting with scissors, which can further affect their performance in school.
Children who struggle with gross motor skills, for whatever reasons, often have difficulties in school. School can already be a tiring experience for kids, but when sitting in a chair or on the carpet all day is a challenge, it can be even more exhausting. Walking upstairs to a classroom, keeping up with classmates in the schoolyard, toileting issues, and carrying a heavy backpack can also be a challenge. Sometimes, these difficulties can affect children emotionally and socially as they see their peers doing with ease these tasks they struggle with.
If you want to encourage your child to work on developing their gross motor skills at home, here are a few activities you can try:
- Trampolines. This is a great way to encourage kids to work on their balance and jumping skills. A full-size trampoline in the backyard isn’t necessary – mini trampolines will work just fine and can be easily used inside during cold or inclement weather, too.
- Swinging. Pumping your legs on a swing and the back and forth motion of the torso on the swing can help kids to work on their balance. It also helps them to learn how to shift their weight back and forth. Many children who have sensory needs also find the back and forth motion of the swing to be very soothing.
- Scooters, tricycles, and pedal cars. Bikes are often a big challenge for kids who struggle with gross motor skills, which can sometimes lead to them feeling left out. If you have a younger child, a tricycle can be a good way to practice pedaling – you can even consider a tricycle with a handle attached so you can push while your child practices pedaling. For older kids, scooters are a great way to practice balance and will allow them to keep up with the neighborhood kids until they get the hang of a bike.
- Hopscotch. This classic playground game is a great way to practice hopping, jumping, balance, and coordination. Bonus: practice numeracy skills by counting in sequence, too! Use chalk to draw a hopscotch course in the driveway or on the sidewalk, or use painter’s tape to set it up in the hallway or playroom so your child can practice their hopping skills every time they walk down the hall.
- Balloons and bubbles. Chasing bubbles is a fun way to practice running and jumping in unpredictable patterns. Children will quickly learn to change directions and shift their weight as they chase bubbles, or hit a balloon back and forth with a partner.
- Obstacle courses. Obstacle courses can be a fun way to practice a variety of gross motor skills, indoors or outdoors. Indoors, use furniture, pillows, blankets, painter’s tape on the floor, or whatever you can find to create obstacles to crawl under, climb over, hop on, etc. Outdoors, try using chalk to draw an obstacle course on the sidewalk or playground – curved or zigzag lines to balance on, circles to hop in, mark an X to show where to stand to do jumping jacks, or whatever creative movement challenges you can come up with. Kids will love to watch adults complete the course, too, and if you think it might be motivating for your child you can even pull out a stopwatch and see who can get through the course the fastest!
What are Fine Motor Skills?
Gross motor skills involve the core muscle groups of the body, whereas ‘fine motor skills’ involve the hands, fingers, and wrists that allow the dexterity of movement. These skills are necessary for almost every daily task a child will need to complete. Dressing themselves, feeding themselves, self-care tasks, play, and school-related tasks such as grasping a pencil are all crucial life skills that are dependent upon a child’s mastery of fine motor skills.
There are several different movements that occupational therapists will look at when practicing fine motor skills with children. Here are a few of them:
- Bilateral integration is when both hands move together to complete an action. This requires both hemispheres of the brain to work together to coordinate movements. A child who struggles with this might seem clumsy, dropping items or trying to complete actions with one hand when two would be easier. Examples of skills that require bilateral integration include feeding one’s self, dressing, grooming, and writing activities.
- Gross grasp is when all of the fingers are squeezed around an object – think about gripping the handle of a suitcase, for example. This skill is important for things like holding a toothbrush or pencil, where you need to squeeze your hand shut and maintain the grip for the duration of the activity.
- In-hand manipulation means the ability to move objects within the hands. There are three main components: translation (using fingers to move an item from your fingers to palm, or vice versa), shift (moving an object using the pads of your fingers, for example when you do up a button), and rotation (rolling an object using fingertips, such as opening the lid of a bottle).
- Pincer grasp is when you use a thumb and forefinger to pick up small objects. It is often one of the first fine motor skills babies develop, frequently practiced in early attempts at self-feeding – think of a baby picking up Cheerios between their thumb and finger.
- Finger isolation is the ability to use fingers one at a time, in isolation – for example, pointing, or counting out the fingers, on one hand, are examples of this skill.
- Eye-hand coordination means the coordination between visual input and the brain’s ability to process that information into coordinated hand movements. These crucial skills impact almost all areas of life, from functional tasks required for day-to-day living such as feeding and self-care to basic academic tasks such as handwriting.
- Finger strength is less obvious but no less important. When children lack finger strength, they will not have the endurance required to complete fine motor tasks or manipulate small items. Examples of tasks that are difficult if you do not have finger strength include opening lunch containers or manipulating buttons or snaps.
There are tons of fun activities that can help to improve a child’s fine motor skills, and the good news is that most of these activities will just look like play to them! Here’s a list of a few fun ideas to work on your child’s fine motor skills at home.
- Play-Doh. Play-doh is a fantastic tool used often by occupational therapists to strengthen fingers.
- Easels. Research has shown that writing vertically, on an easel, for example, can actually help to build the necessary muscles for writing more efficiently than on a flat surface. Writing tools such as chunky chalk, fat markers, or paintbrushes can also be easier for children to grasp than a pencil or crayon.
- Sand and water play. Activities performed when using a water table, such as scooping sand or water and pouring from one container to another will help children develop hand-eye coordination, grasp and release, and motor planning skills.
- Tweezers or tongs. Use a pair of kitchen tongs for a toddler or tweezers for an older child, and have them practice picking up small objects such as cotton balls or mini pom-poms. The tweezers provide enough resistance to be a workout for little fingers, and with older children, you can turn this into a sorting game as well. You can also use an ice cube tray or muffin tin and have children practice picking up an object with tweezers and filling the tray.
- Cutting practice. Scissors skills are a frequent activity for children in younger grades at school, so practicing with a pair of child-friendly scissors is an important skill to practice. You can find activity sheets online to print out and practice cutting.
- Lacing cards. These cards, usually made of wood or heavy cardboard with holes punched in them, are a great way to get kids to practice eye-hand coordination and manipulating small objects with their fingers.
- Beads. Stringing beads is a fantastic way to practice several of the fine motor skills listed above, including pincer grasp, eye-hand coordination, bilateral integration, and in-hand manipulation. For young children and toddlers, there are large, chunky beads available with a shoelace-style string to put them on. For older children, smaller beads are readily available at most craft stores and can be used with smaller cords.
- Buttons and zippers. Learning how to do up clothing fasteners is a crucial life skill for young kids to build their independence. There are activity books and toys available with buttons, snaps, and zippers to practice on, or if you’re handy, you can make your own – just search for ‘button busy board’ on Pinterest and see lots of ideas!
When to Seek Help
It’s hard to know exactly when you should be asking for help to improve your child’s fine and gross motor skills. There’s a huge range of what is normal child development, but if you have concerns, it’s important to bring them up with your physician. Occupational therapy (OT) is typically how motor skill delays are treated, and depending on the age of your child and where you live, you may be able to access it through the public school system or you may have to find a private therapist. Your doctor should be able to help direct you to the correct resources.
There are a few different possible causes for motor skill delays. Children who are born with conditions such as cerebral palsy, spina bifida, myopathy, or who are born very prematurely often have developmental delays. However, children who do not have diagnosed conditions can also struggle with gross or fine motor skills for less obvious reasons. One of these reasons may be low muscle tone or hypotonia.
Low muscle tone means that the length of the resting muscle is longer than typical, which means that every time the child uses their muscle it must go through a greater range of motion and, as a result, uses more energy. Children with low muscle tone are sometimes described as being ‘floppy’, and can tire quickly because of the extra effort they need to put into everyday activities such as walking or sitting upright.
If you notice your child is avoiding a particular activity that is typically enjoyed by others their age, it’s worth bringing it up to your doctor to ask their opinion. For example, a child who struggles with gross motor skills may avoid playing games where they cannot physically keep up with the others, or a child with a fine motor delay might appear clumsy or avoid ‘quiet’ activities such as writing or drawing. Don’t be embarrassed to ask your doctor for help – lots of children can benefit from the help of an occupational therapist, and early intervention is key to positive outcomes.
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