Learning and Development

How You Can Help Fast-track Fine Motor Skills

  • How You Can Help Fast-track Fine Motor Skills

Touchscreen use may be having a negative impact on children’s ability to learn to write, but there are things we can do to ensure their fingers are ready for school, says Claire Matthes…

Part of my role is to meet with the headteachers of local primary schools in early summer and give them an overview of the observed challenges local children and their families face, gathered from my experience of those I’ve met at the Sure Start centre.

This helps schools plan for the range of needs they will need to meet and eases the transition of these children into Reception in September.

During these meetings I ask heads what they have experienced from the previous Reception year in terms of significant areas where children’s ‘school readiness’ might be in question.

This, together with the Foundation Profile data, helps us plan a programme and prepare activities that address those areas for the preschool children and families coming through our centre, so that future Reception intakes may be more ‘school ready’.

In previous years, headteachers in our area have highlighted communication, speech and language as being a key area of need.

However, this year, the head of one of our larger infant schools reported that Reception children were struggling with their fine motor skills, particularly with regard to developing handwriting.

The head, who has over 30 years’ teaching experience, has noticed this progressively worsening over the last few years and attributes it to the extensive use of tablet devices and smartphones by preschool children.

Are touchscreens to blame?

Much is written about how preschool children’s social skills are hampered by too much tablet time, and on concerns around internet safety.

In comparison it’s hard to find any information about the effects of extensive tablet use on the development of prewriting skills; the use of tablets by very young children is a fairly new phenomena so the longer-term effects on children’s development can only be guessed at.

Children have indeed been using technology for some time, but tablet use requires a light touch – for instance, the scrolling and pinching motions work best used gently, unlike with the clunky keyboards and joysticks of earlier technology.

So whilst fine motor skills may be developed through tablet use as one study suggests, it is reasonable to surmise that the muscle strength and stamina required to hold and control a pencil for a period of time might not be sufficiently developed.

Thus headteachers like the one mentioned earlier, are noticing that children lack the fine motor skills required to develop handwriting in the early days of Reception. This deficit shows itself in other ways too, such as in self-dressing skills and tool use.

What can we do?

Few would disagree that babies and preschool children are spending increasing amounts of time using tablet and touchscreen devices, an essentially sedentary activity.

As the long-term effects of tablet use on the development of the fine motor skills cannot yet be proved, but the ill-effects of sedentary behaviour (such as extensive periods of time spent on tablets and smartphones) can, to mitigate for a possible future where significant numbers of children starting school lack the fine motor skills to write and may be at risk of developing obesity, we can do/focus on the following:

Ensure children have at least three hours of physical movement a day
Focus on developing motor skills through carefully planned physical play, in addition to the open-ended free physical play that children should always be allowed to enjoy, thus gradually developing the gross-to-fine motor skills.

Guidance for this appears in Development Matters, pages 22–27. The Department for Health has also published factsheets, for example, its physical activity guidelines for under-fives.

Offer children a daily programme of fine motor activities
Providing regular opportunities for children to boost their finger strength is important – in the panel on this page you will find a selection of materials/tools and corresponding ideas that should prove a useful starting point.

Introduce heuristic play using everyday objects
This is where the nursery-parent partnership comes into its own. Most early years settings abound with safe, easy-maintenance, often plastic resources, and for good reason.

Many however, will have a treasure basket and the resources found therein are exactly the sorts of items that challenge and develop fine motor skills. Likewise homes burst with the sorts of everyday items we want to encourage children to use.

In terms of involving parents in children’s learning, consider sending the child home with a small bag of pom-poms or a ball of playdough and asking the parent to find a selection of home tools to ‘work’ with these provocations.

The idea will be to progress the children on to real-life tools of different weights, warmths, size and materials so the same fine motor skills practised in the early years setting are being further developed and challenged.

Give examples and ideas: extruding tools to work with the playdough (eg a garlic press, a potato ricer, a hand mincer); tongs and tweezers to sort pom-poms into colours or sizes (eg a tea bag squeezer, wooden and/or metal salad tongs, bamboo sushi tongs).

The sheer variety of these everyday tools will help retain interest and provide greater stimulus, engaging parent and child in exploratory play together in an everyday way.

Embedding these suggestions and opportunities into the daily routine – both in the early years setting and at home – means that children will be developing those fine motor skills so essential to writing, and learning life skills beyond those that time spent on tablets and smartphones can offer.

When these are combined with adequate levels of physical play, practitioners and parents alike can feel reassured that children’s development needs are being met in preparation for school and the big, wide world.


Nine fine motor resources

1. Playdough and hands
Encourage children to squeeze, squish, roll, push the dough; let them cut the dough with scissors.

2. Pom-poms (or cotton wool balls) and tongs
Sort the pom-poms into pots using tongs.

3. Spray bottles
Help water plants or spray and wipe a surface; add colours and spray paper.

4. Paper (assorted types and thickness, from tissue paper to card)
Rip, tear, scrunch and fold paper to use for collage.

5. Sponges and cloths
Squeeze water out of sponges and wring-out cloths; wipe tables and floors.

6. Fingers
Pointing games, finger rhymes, puppets and stories, finger painting, damp fingers pickup games.

7. Peelable fruit
Offer oranges and bananas at snack-time that the children have to peel themselves.

8. Porridge, pots and wooden spoons
Stir oats in water making ‘porridge’ of different consistencies, perhaps for the three bears; use the resulting porridge gloop below!

9. Mark making tools (not pencils and pens!), eg shaving foam, gloop, porridge on trays, etc
Squidge, swirl and make patterns in the trays.


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Claire Matthes is a Froebel-trained EYT and works in a Sure Start children’s centre.

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