I have many friends who teach in primary schools in the North-West of England. Common concerns that most primary school teachers share with me are: “What can I do to get the students to focus better in class?”, “How can I help this kid improve their handwriting?”, and ‘‘Is there something that can be done to enhance attention span in children?’
A simple answer to all these questions: yes, all of that can be done. The time kids enter middle childhood (6- 8years) is when they commence their formal academic life that requires them to step up and focus intensely on multi-sensory activities such as reading, writing, developing social skills. It ranges from being independent, tying their own shoelaces, buttoning their shirts, coats, attending classes, writing notes, sustaining their attention for longer periods to name a few. The activities mentioned above require fine motor skills and cognitive abilities, namely attention.
What are fine motor skills? What are they used for? Fine motor skills are the synchronised coordinated movements of the small muscles in our fingers. Fine motor skills are used on an everyday basis by individuals from brushing one’s teeth, to opening jar lids, typing on the laptop, writing and complex activities like making craft, sewing, drawing, or playing the guitar. Most of the activities that we as individuals execute on an everyday basis require attention and concentration. Attention may be defined as a cognitive process where an individual gives his/her entire focus to all minute details that a particular task or activity demands to help process the steps that it involves. Any activity that involves new learning or executing an old learnt behaviour, a physical activity or even a mental task requires attention. Reading a book, driving, cooking, even listening to a telephonic conversation, we need to be attentive!
Any typically developing child is faced with the humongous task of trying to balance previously learnt behaviour with constant new learning. In most cases attention and concentration go hand in hand with new learning or trying to master a particular task. In schools one of the primary requirements is to enable students to write independently as they advance to higher classes. This means the child needs to recruit multiple cognitive faculties; listening to instructions in class, processing them, translating them into actions, engaging fine motor skills to write.
Neuroscience literature over the past few years suggests that neural pathways that are recruited for basic cognitive abilities such as selective attention, visual memory, visuomotor coordination, planning and decision making are also recruited for performing voluntary physical movements. This implies that the region in the brain that helps us move to music, ride a bicycle, run, jump up and down, slice a toast could also help us to make lists, make us think or even help us decide how to level up whilst playing a video game! So could this mean that if we train ourselves to play the piano, a physical activity that requires fine motor skills it could also improve our attention which may help us read better? Possibly! A group of researchers even identified that training children solely in fine motor activities was effective in increasing their attention. 
So, how can we apply all of this and assist typically developing children help achieve their maximum potential? How can we ensure that they are able to sustain their attention for long periods in classrooms? How can we help them improve their fine motor skills and support them to improve their handwriting?
A few suggestions:
- Engage children/students in as many fine motor skill activities as possible. This could include drawing, painting, puppetry, sewing, origami anything that would need them to utilise their fine motor skills. They may struggle initially or may show disinterest after a few attempts at the activity. Therefore, to try and indulge them in an activity that piques their curiosity is what needs to be chosen.
- Encourage physical activities that require new learning. Practice and repetitive learning for any physical activity is always strongly encouraged and these keep the neural pathways engaged. Research also suggests that combining new learning with old learning for gross or fine motor skills enhancement not just engages but also enhances the region of the brain that performs the dual function of storing new motor movements learnt and cognitive faculties (e.g.: attention, focus, planning abilities).
- Since there are brain regions that store motor movements learnt, it’s worth exploring to see if the motor skills learnt whilst learning practising one activity can be transferred to other activities that require similar skills. For example: During one of my client sessions, I had an elderly person struggling with a neurodegenerative condition report that a mudra (a hand gesture that requires fine motor muscle skills) I taught her in a therapeutic creative session helped her when she had to open a doorknob and open the lid of a tightly shut jar. This suggests that fine motor skills learnt could potentially be transferred to other activities that require similar skills.
- Human beings have the incredible potential to constantly learn and improve throughout their lives. The goals to achieve physical and cognitive excellence differs with age and ability. However constant practise, perseverance and following a process can help us progress and achieve our goals. As I conclude, I leave you with an activity that could be tried in school or home surroundings with children to help enhance their fine motor skills and attention.
|Activity description||Materials needed||For age range|
|Separating mixed lentils: Lentils come in different shapes and sizes and is an ingredient easily available at home. Mix three lentils of three different colours and shapes and ask the students to separate them in three different bowls. To make it competitive time them. This activity will demand a child’s attention, planning ability, visual skills and also help exercise the small muscles in the fingers.||Red, green, and yellow lentils. three tumblers, a stopwatch||Age 4 onwards|
References: ➢ Stewart, R.A., Rule, A.C. & Giordano, D.A. The Effect of Fine Motor Skill Activities on Kindergarten Student Attention. Early Childhood Educ J 35, 103–109 (2007).
➢ JM Huffman, C Fortenberry - Young children, 2011
Author: Dr Gayathri Ganapathy is a Chartered Psychologist (British Psychological Society), Founder and Director of Equilibrium International, a psychology, research, neuroscience, and innovations company. Her interdisciplinary research examined the link between motor skills (gross and fine) and cognitive abilities (Selective attention, visuo-motor coordination, visual memory) among typically developing children using dance as a medium. Her Masters training in clinical psychology makes her proficient in counselling and psychological assessment as well. Championing mental health causes using a scientific paradigm, using psychometric evaluation to measure benefits to physical and mental health, working towards achieving neurodiversity in different sectors; ranging from recruitment in corporate sectors to addressing psychological concerns in schools and universities are things she works on under her company banner.