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What does fine motor play look like?

Physical development is not just about large movements, it’s also about mastering smaller movements and gaining control of the hands. Play is a great way of encouraging children to spend time concentrating on, sometimes difficult tasks. It motivates them to persevere.

Good for looking at

  • Development of the hand
  • Hand eye co-ordination
  • Drawing, making and creating
  • Writing
  • Mastering a skill
  • Learning through play



General prompts for discussion

  • Why is fine motor play important?
  • What main types of fine motor play should we encourage and provide for?
  • What are the implications of the growth of children’s hands and development of their hand-eye coordination for fine motor play provision?
  • How can we encourage children to engage in the full range of fine motor play?
  • What sorts of activities should we provide to present children with engaging fine motor challenges?
  • How can adults best support this type of play?

Prompts for developing practice

  • Do we understand sufficiently about children’s physical development of their hands and their hand-eye co-ordination, to be able to make good decisions about our practice in supporting it?
  • In our setting, are we providing for the full range of children’s fine motor play?
  • Do we have a good range of equipment and activities which set different challenges regarding grip an finger control?
  • Do we provide appropriate adult support for children’s fine motor play?
  • Do we have an adequate system of observation to record individual children’s involvement in fine motor or play, and to help us decide on appropriate provision for that child?
  • How do we ensure that every child has the full range of fine motor play experiences they need for their development of their manipulative skills?
  • How do we ensure that every child enjoys their fine motor play, and develops positive dispositions towards it?
  • Do we make appropriate adaptations to provision for children with co-ordination problems and dyspraxia?

Find out more about fine motor play

The growth of the hand & grip

As Maude (2014) points out, as a consequence of the principle of proximo-distal development, while the central organs of the body are fully functioning at birth, the young child’s hands are not fully physically developed until they are 5 or 6 years of age. At birth, the bones of the wrist have not yet separated and the growth of the structure of bones, muscle and cartilage that allows for all the complex movement of the hands and fingers takes a number of years, and is highly dependent upon frequent activity and exercise.

There are a number of different aspects to the development of fine motor movement and control which enable us to engage in a range of activities. These include increasingly differentiated control of the fingers (needed, for example, when playing a musical instrument or using a keyboard), and developing a range of types of grip. The development of these skills is crucially dependent upon experience, partly related to the physical growth of the hand, but also because they involve increasingly well-developed relationships between the hand and the brain regions which control them. Concert pianists, for example, have been shown to have more developed growth in brain regions responsible for the control of the hand.

The development of the ability to use different types of grip is particularly important for tool use, including, for example, scissors, hammers, cutlery, tweezers, screwdrivers, paintbrushes, pens and pencils, all of which require different grips, and the ability for fine movement and muscular strength. In educational contexts, the pincer or tripod grip (between the thumb and index finger) is of particular significance, as this is enables the most dexterous manipulation of a pen or pencil when drawing or writing. Before the age of 6 or 7 years, however, many children have not achieved this and are more comfortable using the palmar or power grasp (pencil gripped between the palm and the fingers) which does not allow such accurate control.

It is enormously beneficial in this area to provide young children with as wide a range as possible of fine motor challenges, through the use of tools requiring different grips and through a whole array of finger games (action rhymes, finger puppets, cat’s cradle etc). The value of adult modelling in this, as in all areas of physical play, is also important to recognise. Many young children are particularly fascinated by very small objects and this can be used to advantage in setting them fine motor challenges.

Hand-eye co-ordination, concentration & perseverance

As well as supporting the development of young children’s manipulative skills with their hands and fingers, many aspects of fine motor play require children to use their eyes to develop their co-ordination. Typically, young children have to watch themselves undertaking fine motor and other physical activities very carefully. This arises as they have not yet built up the strong links in their brains between the information from their kinaesthetic awareness of their hand movements, and the information from their visual system about the interaction of their hands with what they are manipulating. As a consequence, this type of play is also a particularly powerful context in which children learn to develop their hand-eye co-ordination, and to concentrate and persevere (which is discussed more fully in the next section).


Transcript of video

How does play support fine motor skills and abilities of concentration?

Physical development is not just about large movements, it’s also about mastering smaller movements and gaining control of the hands. Babies have a natural desire to explore objects to find out what they’re like and what they can do. The time they spend exploring them coincides with the development of the muscles of the hands and arms and their hand eye coordination. Being able to explore things in a playful way motivates children to persevere and push themselves to master a skill. Hand and finger use is encourages with toys that are quite tiny and need delicate control. Different types of grip develop over time and refine into the pincer grip. This grip is used for all sorts of tool use and manipulation. As well as the hands, the whole arm and wrist is used in many activities. Zoe’s using her hand and arm in a very controlled way. It requires lots of concentration – as does this tower building.

All these types of fine motor play are essential for developing concentration, as children are motivated to persevere with tasks in their play. These movements need to carried our carefully so hand/eye coordination leads to great concentration and long attention spans as children are determined to do things that are difficult for them.

Very active children can become quite calm and concentrate well with a fine task to play at.

Making and creating opens up a world of possibilities for children to be able to express themselves – and make a mark on their world.

Fine motor play develops the hands ability to use tools and is essential for being able to effectively use all sorts of tools in life. Francesca’s keen to be able to use the scissors but her muscles aren’t quite ready yet. Over time, and with practice at these types of activities, the small muscles in the hand and wrist develop and become coordinated with the eye’s making more skilled and complex activities achievable.

Making things often involves other tricky hand/eye coordination skills as children struggle to fix things together. – it can be frustrating and children need determination to succeed. As these skills become increasingly refined and muscles develop, what children can produce becomes more and more complex.

As well as making things children learn to use tools to paint, draw and write as they learn to hold brushes and pens in an increasingly controlled way. Good fine motor control’s an important aspect of eventually being able to write. The drive to connect with others, and the world, motivates children to become increasingly able to produce what their imaginations are thinking about.

So developing hand eye dexterity is hugely important for children. The use of the hands enables so many of the higher human functions. It enables children to explore, use tools, create and write. Crucially, it encourages concentration, a vital aspect of becoming effective in all areas of learning.