The next time your baby picks up a Cheerio and chucks it at you, know it's a sign of fine motor skill development. Grasping a piece of cereal between his thumb and finger (what's referred to as the pincer grasp), attempting to shovel a heaping spoonful of mac 'n' cheese into his mouth, and making the two ends of a crayon circle meet are all skills that require coordination of the use of small muscles.
Fine motor skills may be closely related to cognitive development. Studies have shown that they may be a predictor of later achievement in math, reading, and science. This is likely because tactile learning, or learning by writing things down, is delayed if a child has trouble using writing utensils. Meghan Corridan, a pediatric occupational therapist in New York City who works with children who have developmental delays, says that fine motor delays are the most common delays she sees: "The initial phone call from parents often starts with their telling me that their child's teachers have noticed he's having a hard time keeping up with his peers in that way."
Although pediatricians screen for fine motor delays at the 2-month visit, parents can actually watch for clues earlier. Hand-eye coordination can be seen in infants who use their eyes to track the mother's face and make an effort to reach out and touch her nose.
By 6 months, dinnertime may become especially noisy as infants practice picking up objects and dropping them or banging them together. At about 10 months to a year, babies become more adept at using spoons and sippy cups, often creating a happy mess in their high chair. Twelve-month-olds should be able to hold a marker or crayon, build a tower of about four cubes, and remove their socks independently. Between ages 2 and 3, children learn to dress and undress themselves by manipulating buttons.
There are many ways parents can help support the development of fine motor skills and complement what their child is learning in therapy. Kneading objects out of Play-Doh and making macaroni necklaces, for example, both encourage the coordination of hands and fingers and help develop patience. You can also manipulate materials by mixing, pouring, and scooping; connect dots on a piece of paper; or pop bubble wrap. All of these develop control, dexterity, and the pincer grasp. Corridan suggests incorporating practical activities into daily routines, such as having children with decreased grasp strength use kid-friendly (i.e., connected) chopsticks during a meal. When writing or coloring, break the crayons into small pieces for younger children. "This automatically puts your child in a more age-appropriate grasp," she explains.
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