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Gross Motor Skills and Fine Motor Skills – How are they different and why are they important?

Published on 2016-03-29 11:21:00

Having a baby and watching a tiny, helpless being grow and learn under your care into a capable human being is one of life’s great marvels. Holding a completely dependent new-born in your arms and then over time being awed as he begins to move his arms and legs, learn to roll over, push himself up to sit, rock back and forth on his hands and knees before figuring out how to crawl, and eventually pulling himself up to stand before taking those few, momentous steps. These are some of the great joys as parents that we often take for granted without considering the underlying processes of this development.

All of these milestones are achieved through the development of your child’s motor skills.

A motor skill is any action where a child uses their muscles, but there are different types of muscles and as such, different skills that put these muscles to use to achieve desired actions necessary for everyday living. Two sets of motor skills, gross motor skills and fine motor skills, are controlled by different areas in the brain.

What is the difference?

Gross motor skills
use the larger muscles of the body to carry out every day actions such as sitting, standing, walking and running. When your baby is learning to sit, she is using her gross motor skills to control her body. When your toddler crawls and later takes his first steps, he is using his gross motor skills again. And when your pre-schooler masters his hand-eye coordination by throwing and catching a ball with his friends, he is further developing his gross motor skills.

Fine motor skills use the smaller muscles to perform more intricate tasks where co-ordination greatly affects the carrying out of the task. Lacing up shoes, drawing a picture or building lego all require fine motor skills.

Why are they important?

Gross motor skills are the core factor in a child’s ability to perform standard daily functions such as walking, sitting upright, balancing, climbing, or running.

Fine motor skills make it possible for a child to develop their abilities to carry out day to day and other tasks such as combing their hair, feeding themselves, playing with toys or dressing themselves.

Gross motor skills influence the ability to use fine motor skills. For example being able to sit upright makes it possible to carry out a fine motor task like drawing.

What can I do to improve your child’s motor skills?

Now that we are aware of the importance of motor skills and the differences, we can consciously encourage play that promotes their development.

Monkey bars and jungle gyms are fantastic for developing gross motor skills. Swimming, climbing and running all build strength and coordination. Ball games, encouraging throwing and catching, enhance hand-eye coordination, and games like Simon Says create opportunities for learning body awareness.

Working with playdough, doing crafts, or constructing with building blocks are super for using fine motor skills. You can use objects around the house, such a clothing pegs on the rim of an ice-cream tub for little children to practice their pincer grip. Large buttons and string to thread, or activities such as pouring and sorting all develop important abilities.

How do I recognise if there is a delay or problem with my child’s motor skills?

In my case, my son’s development was on par with expected milestones until around ten months old where he began losing skills he had already achieved. The first indication was that he no longer sat upright, but rather hunched over. Soon he began to lose his balance while standing, and then later he was unable to stand or sit at all.

Not all developmental concerns are as obvious or as serious as this, and often a child just needs a little extra help. Each child is different, and some children acquire skills faster or slower than average expected milestones so there isn’t always reason to panic immediately if your second child isn’t doing what their older sibling was doing at the same age. There are, however, some guidelines of what to look out for in developmental delays, and these are just a few which could possibly benefit from early intervention:


Gross motor skills (age appropriate)

  • A child is considerably late in learning to sit, crawl or walk
  • Movement is stiff or clumsy
  • Struggles to remain upright when sitting or standing
  • Tires easily from physical activity

Fine motor skills (age appropriate)

  • Struggles to hold a crayon or has an unusual grip
  • Battles with age appropriate tasks such as buttoning, tying shoelaces
  • Cannot manage using a spoon or fork to feed themselves
  • Difficulty with self-care tasks such as brushing hair or teeth.

What do I do if I have concerns about my child’s motor skills?

If you have any concerns regarding your child’s development it is best to consult with your paediatrician. For gross motor skills difficulties it is appropriate to work with a physiotherapist, and for fine motor skills with an occupational therapist, though often these overlap.


Article Author: Deirdre Gower

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