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Swim Lab International
A small girl practicing standing and taking steps towards her therapist in a shallow pool

The difference between fine and gross motor skills

If you’ve read some of our other blog posts, you’ll have heard us talk about the ways we develop your child’s fine and gross motor skills, but what exactly do we mean by that?

All motor skills need planning, coordination and strength, allowing your child to move their muscles to complete an action, and are classed as either fine motor or gross motor skills.


Gross motor skills

In general terms, gross motor skills are used for the movement of large muscle groups in the body, and often require coordinating multiple body parts. For example, using our feet for jumping or kicking a ball, and our legs for running and swimming. Our core muscles are also important for a lot of gross motor movements including walking and keeping our balance.

As your child develops their gross motor skills, he or she will be able to move in a more controlled way and with more confidence and agility, allowing them to play and explore more freely and rely less on physical aids.

Gross motor skills can also be broken down into two categories, object control and locomotor skills.

Object control skills include pulling and pushing or throwing and catching. Locomotor skills are, as the name suggests, used for movement, so crawling, walking, hopping or skipping.

As you probably know, swimming uses all the main muscle groups in the body. When your child takes part in our aquatic therapy sessions, we use various exercises to naturally develop their muscles, including their core, legs and arms. This builds strength and muscle tone, making it easier for him or her to further develop their gross motor skills in our land-based sessions.

An underwater shot of a teenage boy swimming front crawl, demonstrating gross motor skills


Fine motor skills

Fine motor skills are used for making smaller and more precise movements, like facial expressions, moving our eyes and hand-eye coordination. We use fine motor skills in our hands and fingers for gripping, threading or mark-making and with our tongue in order to speak and eat.

Developing our children’s fine motor skills is often what gives them a little more independence, being able to complete basic self-care tasks like getting dressed, cleaning teeth and tying shoelaces.

Activities such as blowing bubbles in the pool or holding sponges whilst swimming to feel the resistance of the water help to develop these fine motor skills in a gradual way. We also use different activities in our land-based sessions, based around your child’s interests, to further develop these skills.

Interestingly, in general, girls develop fine motor skills before boys of the same age, whilst boys tend to develop gross motor skills more quickly than girls.

A young boy practicing fine motor skills squeezing a ball of red play-doh with his pediatric physiotherapist


Motor control

When we talk about Motor control, we’re talking about the coordinated muscle movements your child makes to perform a task or activity. These movements involve a connection between the brain and the muscle groups. By sneaking repetitions into our therapy through fun activities, we help create and strengthen this connection, allowing your child to develop their motor control as well as their strength and coordination with each movement.


Motor planning

As the term suggests, this is your child’s ability to plan, coordinate and carry out a certain activity. This might be something small like tying shoelaces, where he or she needs to repeat the same small steps each time to accomplish the overall task.

Children who struggle with motor planning often seem clumsy, and even when they’ve done a task before, it seems like they’re doing it for the first time.

The good news is that, with the right support and stimulation, motor planning will improve over time, it can just take a little longer in children with sensory processing challenges.


Signs of development delays in motor skills

It’s important to remember that every child will develop at their own pace, no two children are the same. We encourage our Swim Lab International family to celebrate each new milestone they reach, whether big or small.

If your child struggles with their posture or balance, or has difficulty sitting, standing or walking, these are signs of a delay in gross motor skill development.

If he or she has poor hand-eye coordination or struggles to grip or manipulate small objects, we would use activities to help develop their fine motor skills.

Our unique combination of aquatic and land-based therapy sessions allow us to combine elements of Occupational, Physical and Speech therapy to help your child learn and practice new movements and skills, while improving their coordination and strength in a fun way.

A small girl in a pink bathing suit practicing standing in a shallow pool, holding on to a long pool float


How you can help develop fine and gross motor skills at home

When you come to a Swim Lab International intensive therapy week, we’ll give you a program of activities to take home and use to continue working on your current goals, whatever they may be.

If you’re currently working on developing your child’s fine motor skills, we recommend activities like painting, for example with fingers, sponges and potato stamps, or creating shapes and fun faces with materials like Play-Doh and kinetic sand.

You can also make fun collage-style pictures with different papers. Think tissue paper, shiny metallic paper, and papers with different colors and textures. Have your child tear the paper into shapes or scrunch it up into balls and glue them together in layers to create an image. It can be something totally abstract or they can create an image like an animal face or a forest of trees.

Small toys like logo or any kind of building blocks are also great for hand-eye coordination and fine motor control.

If you’re focussing on your child’s gross motor skills, we love activities like homemade obstacle courses using everyday items around the house to move around, over and under. You can make stepping stones out of cushions, use broom handles to duck under or step over, and have activities along the way like turning in a circle on the spot or throwing a ball into a hoop before they carry on.

Playing with balloons and large bubbles are also a great way to develop gross motor skills, because you never know which way they’re going to go. Your child will naturally have to chase, run, jump, dart to the side and move their body in all directions which requires coordination and a constant shift in balance.

Ball games are another fun way to include the whole family and can easily be tailored to your child’s current abilities and age.

Ready to find out more about how we can help remove your child’s limits and reach their full potential? Check out our intensive therapy weeks. 

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