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Definition of Fine Motor Skills

Forms of Fine Motor Dysfunction 

Hand Movements - Categorisation

Holding Writing Implements - Techniques

Movement Products - Drawing

Movement Products - Handwriting



What are fine motor skills?

Fine motor skills are movements mainly produced by the body's small muscle groups. They are used in tasks such as:

  • sewing
  • sculpting
  • drawing
  • playing most musical instruments



Fine motor skills often involve the hands and eyes, but not necessarily. For example, visually impaired people are able to develop fine motor skills without the use of their eyes and soccer players often develop fine motor control in their feet through precise ball handling. Movement precision plays an integral role in fine motor skills (Payne & Isaacs, 1987).




Forms of Fine Motor Dysfunction



Trouble acquiring basic self-help skills

Has trouble getting dressed or tying shoelaces

Performs poorly at art and craft activities

Has difficulty manipulating scissors

Has problems drawing and tracing

Lacks insight when engaged in motor problem-solving activities

Encounters difficulty when trying to fix a broken toy

Occasionally displays inappropriate rapid pacing of fine motor challenges

Simply wants to "get things over with."

Becomes frustrated when learning to playing a musical instrument

Appears to have poor table manners

Clumsiness with eating materials maybe misconceived as poor manners

Link for further information: http://ldonline.org/ld_indepth/parenting/motor_levine.html





Categorisation of hand movements

Most research into fine motor skills relates to manipulation. Traditionally, hand movements were described as either intrinsic or extrinsic (Payne & Isaacs, 1987).


Intrinsic movements

This term refers to the movement of fingers to manage objects already in one's hand.


Extrinsic movements

This term incorporates gross motor skills. It relates to the displacement of both the hand and the object in it through upper limb movements.


Elliott & Connolly (1984; cited in Payne & Isaacs, 1987), however, regarded the terms 'intrinsic' and 'extrinsic' as too general. They developed a more detailed system and categorised fine motor skills as simple synergies, reciprocal synergies or sequential patterns.


Simple synergies

These actions involve similar movement of all fingers and the thumb. Such actions include:

  • squeezing a rubber ball
  • pinching and squeezing


Reciprocal synergies

This term refers to the interaction of the fingers and thumb to produce dissimilar movements. Examples of these actions include:

  • twiddling the thumb
  • rolling a pencil between the thumb and forefinger


Sequential patterns

This term describes sequential rather than simultaneous hand movements - in contrast to simple and reciprocal synergies. Such actions lead tot he fulfillment of a goal and include:

  • tying a knot
  • unscrewing a lid



Holding writing implements

One aspect of hand movements which has been widely researched is the development of the techniques involved in holding implements when handwriting and drawing. Rosenbloom and Horton (1971; cited in Payne and Isaacs, 1987) found that children tend to progress through the following predictable stages:


Supinate grasp

The Supinate grasp is crude and involves the whole hand forming a fist around the writing implement. This grasp is usually used by children who have not reached school age. (Refer Figure 1).


Figure 1

Figure 1 shows a Reception student modelling the Supinate grasp. The authors could not find students who still used the Supinate grasp at the schools where they conducted their practicums.



Pronate grasp

The Pronate grasp typically follows the Supinate grasp. It is characterised as a palm down position in which the fingers curl around the pencil and the index finger points towards the point. (Refer Figure 2). 

Figure 2 shows the Pronate grasp as used by a 10 year old boy who has Down Syndrome.


Figure 2


Dynamic tripod

Children usually assume the Dynamic tripod by about 7 years of age. In this 'mature' position the thumb, index and middle fingers act as a tripod. They support the writing implement and enable small, highly coordinated finger movements. (Refer Figure 3). 


Figure 3

The Dynamic tripod is typically preceded by the Simple tripod in which the correct finger positioning is evident, but the coordinated finger movements are lacking.

Few studies have been conducted into fine motor development beyond childhood. Nonetheless, Payne and Isaacs (1987) report that the Dynamic tripod grasp continues to be refined between the ages of 6 -14.



Poor handwriting techniques

Figures 4 and 5 are samples of poor handwriting technique observed during our practicums.


Figure 4


Figure 5


A cross-cultural comparison of Dynamic tripod development

Rosenbloom and Horton (1971; cited in Payne and Isaacs, 1987) used British children when studying the development of techniques for holding writing implements. Later, Saida and Miyashita (1979; cited in Payne and Isaacs, 1987) conducted a similar study using Japanese children. They wanted to compare the fine motor skills of both groups of children.



Overlap of fine motor and gross motor skills

Children's handwriting and drawing techniques follow the proximodistal rule of motor development.

Initially, children hold the pencil away from the tip because the movements needed to propel it emanate from the shoulder. Later, the elbow produces the pencil movement and finally, the fingers and thumb gain sufficient control to propel it (Payne and Isaacs, 1987).


Figure 6

Figure 7

The proximodistal rule of fine motor development was observed during our practicums and can be seen in Figures 6 & 7.  





Movement products - drawing

As well as the technique involved in drawing and writing, researchers have examined the products of the movement process.


Stages of drawing

Children usually draw before they attempt to write. Their drawing efforts familiarise them with writing implements and improve their fine motor abilities.


Following an in-depth study of children's paintings, Kellogg (1969; cited in Payne and Isaacs, 1987) identified the following stages of drawing development:

  • Scribbling stage
  • Combine stage
  • Aggregate stage
  • Pictorial stage

Kellogg's four stages are sequential, however, the age at which children enter these stages is influenced by variables such as the home environment.




Movement products - writing

Like drawings, the products of handwriting also occur in sequential stages. Payne and Isaacs (1987) report that:


At 4 years of age:

Children can usually write recognisable letters, although they are often scattered randomly over the page.

At 5-6 years of age:

Children can usually print their names in large (1.5-5cm) upper case.

At 7 years of age:

Children's writing is usually smaller (about 0.5cm) and printed effectively in lover case.

Difficult letters to write

According to Payne and Isaacs (1987), many children do no master spacing words until they are about 9 years old.


Observations we made in Junior Primary classes during our practicums support this view. (Refer Figure 8).





Figure 8
Payne and Isaacs (1987) also report that young children find some letters more difficult to write than others.


Single-stroke letters, for example, l, c, s

Multiple-stroke letters, for example, f, k

Letters with horizontal and vertical stripes, for example, E, T, H

Letters with slants, for example, K, B, Z

This view was also supported by our observations in Junior Primary classrooms during practicums. (Refer Figure 9).



   Figure 9