what are fine motor skills

Motor Skills Therapy: What Are Fine Motor Skills


Medically reviewed by Grace Mollohan

Motor skills are basic movements that utilize the body’s muscles to perform a specific task. They require the brain, nervous system, and muscles to function together seamlessly. Throughout development we learn basic skills first, and then build upon them to complete more complex tasks. Practice and repetition help us perform motor skills with accuracy and efficiency.

Motor skills delays or impairment can occur for a variety of reasons in people of all ages. However, it is often possible to improve motor function with physical therapy and occupational therapy.

What Are Gross Motor Skills?

There are two types of motor skills. They differ based on the size of the movements and the muscles used to produce them.

Gross motor skills are whole-body movements, like running and jumping, that utilize larger muscle groups like the arms, legs, and torso. They require coordination of the muscles and the neurological system and are lined to other abilities like physical strength, reaction time, balance, coordination, and body awareness. Gross motor skills are the basis of smaller fine motor skills.

What Are Fine Motor Skills?

Fine motor skills are more precise movements that involve small muscle groups particularly of the eyes, lips, tongue, wrist, and hands. Examples include picking up a small object, turning the pages of a book, or threading a needle. Fine motor skills are essential for doing all of the tasks that make up our day like dressing, grooming, and eating.

What Causes Motor Skill Delays or Impairment?

A person’s ability to perform fine or gross motor skills can be affected by wide range of causes and conditions. Some commonly affect children, while others can impact individuals of all ages and stages of life.

Conditions that may impair motor skills include:

  • Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS)
  • Brain injuries
  • Developmental coordination disorder
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Down’s syndrome
  • Epilepsy
  • Hydrocephalus (child)
  • Multiple sclerosis (MS)
  • Muscular dystrophy
  • Neurological disorders
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Prematurity
  • Sensory processing disorder
  • Stroke

Difficulty with motor skills may be a sign of an underlying condition that requires treatment. It’s important to discuss your symptoms with your provider to obtain an accurate diagnosis and follow the appropriate course of care.

Now let’s look at a few examples of fine and gross motor skills for different ages.

Fine Motor Skills for Infants

  • 0-3 months: bring hand to mouth, swing arms, gradually open hands
  • 3-6 months: hold hands together, use both arms to reach for objects, push up on arms during tummy time
  • 6-9 months: bring toy to mouth, transfer object from one hand to the other, use a raking grasp
  • 9-12 months: bang two objects together, release an object voluntarily, start putting objects in a container

Gross Motor Skills for Infants

  • 0-2 months: turn head to both sides while on back, kick both legs and arms while on back
  • 3-6 months: roll over, support own head while sitting, push up on forearms and turn head side to side while on belly
  • 6-12 months: crawl, sit without support, pull up from seated to standing position, walk while holding one hand

Fine Motor Skills for Toddlers

  • 1-2 years: insert shapes into toys, self-feed using fingers, scribble with a crayon
  • 2-3 years: draw circle, drink from an open cup, undress, removes socks and shoes
  • 3-4 years: draw a simple stick-figure person, wash and dry hands, color within the lines

Gross Motor Skills for Toddlers

  • 1-2 years: crawl up stairs, walk alone, squat and stand without holding on for support
  • 2-3 years: walk and run well, walk up and down stairs alone, kick a ball
  • 3-4 years: catch a large ball, balance on each foot for a few seconds, hop on one foot, jump forward several inches

Fine Motor Skills Examples for Children and Teens

  • Manipulate small objects easily
  • Write legibly for long periods of time
  • Write without the need for ruled lines
  • Use tools and instruments to perform various tasks

Gross Motor Skills Examples for Children and Teens

  • Display increased body awareness and self-perception
  • Participate in exercise and team sports
  • Maintain good balance and coordination to complete a wide range of tasks
  • Learn to drive a vehicle when age-appropriate

Keep in mind, every child is unique and develops on their own timeline. These milestones are general guidelines. There is no need to panic if your child isn’t hitting them within these age constraints. However, it’s important to monitor delays to ensure they receive the proper support, whether that is early intervention with physical therapy or another course of treatment.

Physical Therapy & Occupational Therapy to Improve Motor Skills in Childhood

Many motor skill delays can improve with exercise and play activities focusing on the activities that build neural pathways to acquire and build new skills.

Yet some children require more intensive physical therapy or occupational therapy to learn these skills and build their confidence and independence. In some cases, children need to relearn skills that have diminished due to injury or illness.

Physical therapy and occupational therapy are used to improve motor control and motor learning using evidence-based, age-appropriate techniques. Therapy starts with an initial evaluation to assess the child’s strengths and weaknesses.

From there, the therapist creates a personalized treatment plan to gain the necessary skills. Physical therapy generally focuses on the larger movements, or gross motor skills. Physical therapy for gross motor skills might include:

  • Gait and balance training
  • Stretching and strengthening exercises
  • Assistive devices (like shoe inserts or braces)
  • “Homework” parents/guardians can do at home with the child

Occupational therapy focuses on smaller, more precise tasks, helping children with mobility, strength, endurance, tool use, and the manipulation of objects.

An occupational therapy treatment plan may focus on:

  • Bilateral hand coordination: coordinated use of both hands together
  • Gross grasp: squeezing all the fingers around an object
  • In-hand manipulation: moving objects in different ways with the hand
  • Pincer grasp: pad-to-pad grip to pick up small items like beads
  • Strength: finger strength required to color or write with endurance
  • Eye-hand coordination: coordination and processing of visual information for hand movement
  • Wrist stability and extension: to create optimal finger and thumb position, and manipulate objects without moving the wrist
  • Hand muscle strength: strengthening muscles that define the arches, bend knuckles, and oppose with the thumbs

While these skills may seem and sound a bit technical, therapy for children of all ages is cleverly disguised as fun. The child placing coins in a bank may not realize they are working on their visual motor coordination.

Pediatric therapists know how to connect and get results through games and activities that engage and encourage younger patients. Puzzles, sidewalk chalk, and even peeling and placing stickers are simple but effective activities to improve fine motor skills.

Improving Fine and Gross Motor Skills in Adults

“Use it or lose it” is a common saying that underscores the importance of staying physically active to maintain function. In older adults, physical therapy plays a crucial role in preserving motor function by focusing on exercises that target strength, flexibility, balance, and coordination. As we age, motor skill performance tends to decline. Yet research shows that our motor learning ability does not.

Older adults are capable of improving these skills. Activities that can help adults improve fine motor skills include: gardening, baking and cooking, puzzles and games, knitting and crocheting, and making jewelry. To improve gross motor skills, try climbing stairs, walking, water aerobics, yoga, dancing, and riding a bike.

Although you can do a lot of activities on your own to maintain your body, at some point you may require the assistance of  a physical therapist or occupational therapist to address symptoms related to aging, an injury, illness, surgery, or a chronic condition. .

Physical and Occupational therapy play a crucial role in helping older adults sustain and even improve their motor function by providing tailored exercises to target strength, flexibility, balance, and coordination.

Through these targeted interventions, therapists help individuals maintain muscle mass, joint mobility, and overall physical independence. By engaging in these exercises, older adults can counteract age-related declines, enhance their quality of life, and reduce the risk of falls and injuries, ultimately supporting their long-term mobility and well-being.

To learn more about how to improve motor skills at any age, find an occupational therapy or physical therapy clinic near you.



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Medically reviewed by

Grace Mollohan

Director of Orthopaedic Residency

Dr. Grace Mollohan has been a practicing physical therapist in Atlanta, GA since 2011 when she obtained her Doctor of Physical Therapy degree from Emory University. Dr. Mollohan completed an Orthopaedic Residency and Dry Needling Certification in 2013. She later went on to complete an OMPT Fellowship in 2018 where she discovered a passion for teaching and mentoring orthopedic physical therapists. Since 2019, her primary role has been the Director of Orthopaedic Residency for Upstream Rehab Institute. However, she also severs as a Senior Instructor for the Institute of Advanced Musculoskeletal Treatments (IAMT) and as an Adjunct Professor in Emory University’s DPT program. Outside of work, she enjoys traveling with her husband and two kids, wine, and exercise to maintain balance.

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