No Fine Motor Skills? What’s the Big Deal?

In a previous post, I wrote that according to many, many teachers, today’s children seriously lack fine motor skills. Teachers tell me that kids can’t grip a crayon or paintbrush, manipulate a pair of scissors, or properly hold a pencil. And I’m not talking about three-year-olds, who shouldn’t be expected to handle these things well; I’m referring to kindergarten and first-grade children.

I wrote:

Children who grow up swiping instead of coloring, cutting, and painting do not develop the fine motor skills they need to hold a pencil and write. To button and unbutton their clothes. To properly hold a utensil for eating. To grasp, squeeze, and release a stapler or bottle of glue. Etc., etc.

Such tasks may not seem like a big deal to those parents and teachers who see children’s future success in terms of what they will be able to do digitally. But we only have to stop for a moment and ponder the frustration of being unable to unbutton a shirt with ease. To fill out a form with a pen. Or to manipulate a knife and fork – particularly in public.

A stronger argument, especially when addressing the issue with parents, is that children without fine motor skills have very little chance to become celebrity chefs, fashion designers, or house flippers. With the popularity of such television shows as Top Chef and Chopped, parents can relate to the need for expert knife work. Project Runway has brought to light the finesse required of sketching, cutting, and sewing. And anyone who’s watched Chip Gaines or Tarek El Moussa on Fixer Upper and Flip or Flop, respectively, has witnessed the success that can result from skill in swinging a hammer and driving a nail.

Becoming a sports hero may also be problematic. It’s difficult to manipulate a baseball, golf club, or tennis racket when you don’t have enough strength in your hands and fingers. This is all too likely, considering the reports I hear about children without the strength to tear a piece of paper.

And then there are the surgeons. They may not be publicly famous, but surgeons are both well respected and well paid. However, they’ll be neither if they’re not also well developed in their fine motor skills. There are few professions, in truth, that require as much precise handiwork as that of a surgeon.

Of course, I had no proof that such professions would in reality pose a problem for children lacking in fine motor development. It was merely theory on my part. Until now.

A colleague sent me an article quoting Roger Kneebone, a professor of surgical education in London. In it he contends, “New medical students have spent so much time on screens that they lack vital practical skills necessary to conduct life-saving operations.”

Dr. Kneebone is part of a campaign working to return more hands-on creative subjects to the curriculum, which he states have a positive effect on the tactile skills necessary for a career in medicine or science. And, I might add, in cooking, fashion, carpentry, or sports.

I don’t know what it will take before parents and teachers realize that the “old stuff” (crayons, play dough, blocks) holds more value than the shiny new digital stuff – with fewer inherent dangers. Sadly, for now it appears that things are heading in the wrong direction. A recently published book for parents, which refers to the digital world as a child’s “new sandbox,” unfortunately is selling very well. And a new study determined that screen time for the under-two set more than doubled from 1997 to 2014, a year during which the little ones spent 3.05 hours a day in front of screens. I can barely stand to imagine what all that screen time replaced in their lives, or the host of health-related issues, many of which I’ve documented here and here, that will result from that much screen time.

Sadly, it may take a good long while before health and career-related issues become severe enough that an “aha” moment occurs. My fear is that it will be too late by then for an entire generation of children.

In the meantime, perhaps we can hasten that aha moment by pointing out that hours spent glued to the screen will do nothing to help develop and refine those tactile skills to which Dr. Kneebone referred. Those fine motor skills that will enable children to become capable of handling the life and professional skills requiring them.


  • Hello Rae ~

    I don’t like the idea of scaring people either, especially parents, who are under such scrutiny and pressure to be ‘perfect’, as if that could ever be possible. However, statistics and facts do have hard corners, and there’s no ducking that. Your friend who suggested you emphasise the benefits of using chubby crayons from a early age (paraphrasing here) is well-meaning but stressing crayons completely ducks the issue of screen time. We have all to state clearly, with supporting evidence, what needs to be done for infants, young children, pre-teens, teens, college and university students, and all the rest of us, to be saved from any use or overuse of blue-light emitting devices, depending on age, and the resultant lack OR loss of fine motor skills.

    How can a child eat a meal at the table with cutlery and flatware, including cutting vegetables or meat, without having built up the strength and agility through developing their fine motor skills for a number of hours daily? There are so many things a young child can do to help in the house when drawing and cutting and sticking are over for the day. One suggestion from my experience is sorting socks into pairs from the laundry, and pegging them onto a clothes horse or onto clothes hangers which could be hung out on the line later. The senses are wholly engaged in this activity as well as differentiation and making choices. Learning to prepare food is a fundamental part of socialisation for a young child; it develops confidence and self-reliance. I remember so well watching my 18 month niece as she stood on the kitchen chair and, very seriously, cracked eggs into a bowl to make pancake batter. The degree of concentration was enormous.

    Preparing seed trays and handling the seeds as they are sown in rows is a joyful and expectant experience for young and old. Shall gardening dwindle away? Can youngsters mend punctures in their own bicycle tyres, or does everything go to be mended?

    These are the ‘old-fashioned’ skills that youngsters are missing out on. Frequently, we older people who learned sewing, cooking, and penmanship in junior school are not now as agile with a pen. I notice my friends’ handwriting has deteriorated over the years, and we’re not quite old enough to blame it on age – that’s down to no longer writing notes, or letters, or even shopping lists, in some cases. Perhaps, if we START with the adults and ask ‘is your handwriting as good now as it was when you had to WRITE essays in school?’, the realisation may be easier for them to grasp.

    My view is there should be NO screen time for any child under five years, including television. After that, one hour of supervised television watching early in the day, so as not to affect sleep patterns, might be allowed. A blanket ban is easier to explain and to manage than adding ten minutes here for Johnnie while younger Rosie has to leave the room as she’s had her quota. I’m perfectly aware this is not a popular view, but I can take the flak!

    Best of luck in this skirmish, which is part of a greater battle, and a still greater war, for the welfare and best interest of all our children.

    Kind regards, Iseult.

    • Rae says:

      As always, I value your thoughtful responses to my posts, Iseult. Thanks much for the examples of fine-motor activities!

      I guess we’d all better learn to take the flak!

  • Joe Appleton says:

    As an early childhood education consultant, my mantra to remind myself not to be too harsh on people’s actions is, “People believe they do is the right thing to do or they wouldn’t do it in the first place.” And parents as well. Therefore, when we offer data or other evidence that contradicts what they BELIEVE is right, they become defensive. Sometimes teachers (and parents) realize somewhere inside that what they are doing is not right, but are unwilling to change. Thus the response that you got for your blog post; we can’t know for which reason. That does not change the truth of what you posted. What I try to remind myself constantly is that we first have to show folks why they might not be right, and that we have to show them what to do instead and why that works better. So we have a way to go with this one, but we have to start somewhere, and thank you, Rae, for making that courageous beginning.

    • Rae says:

      Really appreciate your input, Joe! I do agree that many people, including (especially?) parents are doing the wrong things for the right reasons. They are getting so much misinformation these days! I do want to enlighten them without making them defensive.

      Can you provide an example of a time you’ve followed the process you mention? I think we’d all benefit from it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Share This

Copy Link to Clipboard