Fine motor skill development and the 21st century child

Growing up as a child in the 21st century is not as easy as we may think. In addition to not being as physically active and being at greater risk of obesity, children today are falling behind in terms of fine motor skill development. Fine motor skills involve the use of small muscles often used to manipulate objects. They underpin many activities of daily living such as buttoning shirts, tying laces, brushing your hair or using a fork to eat. They are also a key component of school activities such as manipulating a pencil and so are strongly associated with academic achievement. Studies in the past found that children in primary school spend between 30-60% of the school day involved in activities requiring fine motor skills.


Recent evidence has shown that 36% of 11-12 year olds were found to be below average on an assessment of fine motor skill proficiency. This particularly large percentage of children begs the question; Why? What is happening?


In a word. Practice. Or to put it more accurately, a lack of practice.


We live in a society where the plentiful opportunities to practice fine motor skills is slowly being engineered out. Take tying shoelaces for example. I challenge you to look at the feet of children next time you find yourself at a primary school or a kids birthday party Instead of seeing shoes with laces we are all too often  greeted with the sight of Velcro straps, slip on shoes or Crocs. Playing with Lego or Pogs has been replaced with YouTube or digital tablets. These examples may seem trivial but the message transcends this antidotal evidence. In order to learning, children require practice. And children aren’t getting the same opportunities to practice that have been available in the past and so many Irish children are now falling below normative levels.


Alternatively, perhaps we should not look at this as a problem but rather the adaptive nature of human motor development. The fact that children are capable of swiping or scrolling on a digital device at the age of 2 is quite a remarkable. These skills also require fine motor skill proficiency however they are not apart of any motor skill assessment. As such perhaps children are developing and refining a set of new fine motor skills that more accurately meet the demands of the environment which they grow up in. Finland for example, have taken the significant step of removing the compulsory teaching of cursive handwriting from their school curricula in favour of teaching keyboard skills.


Whether or not we view decreasing levels of handwriting proficiency a concern or not there is no escaping the impact of reduced fine motor skill levels can have on children and indeed adults ability to carry out many activities of daily living.  In addition, reduced fine motor skill has detrimental consequences on children’s social interaction, confidence and engagement in physical activity. When taken together these consequences could have substantial impact on children’s development and quality of life.


[1]      D. Marr, S. Cermak, E.S. Cohn, A. Henderson, Fine motor activities in head start and kindergarten classrooms, Am. J. Occup. Ther. 57 (2003) 550–557. doi:10.5014/ajot.57.5.550.

[2]      K. McHale, S.A. Cermak, Fine Motor Activities in Elementary School: Preliminary Findings and Provisisonal Implication for Children with Fine Motor Problems, Am. J. Occup. Ther. 46 (1992) 898–903. doi:10.5014/ajot.46.10.898.

[3]      D. Gaul, J. Issartel, Fine motor skill proficiency in typically developing children: On or off the maturation track?, Hum. Mov. Sci. 46 (2016) 78–85. doi:10.1016/j.humov.2015.12.011.

[4]      J. Zwicker, S. Harris, A. Klassen, Quality of life domains affected in children with developmental coordination disorder: A systematic review, Child. Care. Health Dev. 39 (2013) 562–580. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2214.2012.01379.x.


Mr. David Gaul,

PhD Candidate

IRC Award Holder

Multisensory Motor Learning Laboratory

Dublin City University



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