How Fine Motor Skills Build the Brain

I walked into the kitchen to find a pile of peeled paint chips all over the floor, in front of the door, again. Yes, I had a toddler who was obsessed with peeling things. We did our best to feed this need with positive peeling tasks. Bananas, mandarins, and stickers were all relished activities. But still, sometimes I guess he needed more of a challenge and he would head for that door again. Most of the time we caught him before he got started and could redirect him.

This is why parents panic when their toddlers are quiet. Because we know they could be carefully destroying our home.

They can’t help it. Their brain is demanding that they move. In little ways, in big ways, sideways, upside down, and any other way imaginable. In fact, children’s brains to don’t stop demanding this just because they have reached an age where our stunted culture has decided they must sit at a desk for hours and hours each day. No, the brain still demands it.

And when they are teenagers, whose brains may have learned to quit asking for movement, because they never got what they wanted from it anyway (which was nothing less than to build up more neurons, white matter, and BDNF), they still need to move. Just as surely as they need to eat and sleep.

And I don’t mean the walk between the refrigerator and the couch. I mean, getting their heart beat up several times a week. I mean learning new, higher-level skills of coordination, I mean working with their hands in whatever way they enjoy. It might be kneading bread, repairing a car, drawing, sculpting, sewing, or origami.

Building the brain and moving are one and the same task. As our culture moves less and less, the number of children who struggle with learning challenges just gets higher and higher. Of course, this is just a correlation. Or is it?

Let’s take a look at the science of how moving affects the brain so much. I have written before about how exercise affects the brain. So in this post I want to focus on the details of movement. The fine motor skills. Why they matter, and how to make them a regular part of your home life.

What happens in your brain during fine motor activities

The mystery of the red nucleus

Scientists still have a lot to learn about the area of the brain that shows neuron growth when people practice fine motor skills. This area is called the red nucleus and is a part of the midbrain. The midbrain is located at the upper part of the brain stem and plays the crucial role of connecting the brain to the spinal cord.

Simply grasping a coffee cup needs fine motor coordination with the highest precision. This required performance of the brain is an ability that can also be learned and trained. Prof. Kelly Tan’s research group at the Biozentrum, University of Basel, has investigated the red nucleus, a region of the midbrain that controls fine motor movement, and identified a new population of nerve cells which changes when fine motor coordination is trained. The more that grasping is practiced, the more the connections between the neurons of this group of nerve cells are strengthened.

One thing we know is that as scientists study and discover more about the brain, they continue to find that everything is connected. It sounds simple to state that our bodies and brains are not two separate entities. Yet that is still often how we treat them. Especially when it comes to learning.

We sort physical activity and mental activity into different categories, as if they have different purposes. But the purpose and result of both is one thing, to build a healthy human.

Learning is experience. Everything else is just information.

Albert Einstein

Sensory experience is how we learn. This is more complex than just funneling info into the head of a child. They don’t learn from information dumps. They learn from experience. They learn through their hands, their feet, their skin, their eyes, their ears, and every other part of their body that sends sensory information to their brain.

Our whole body is designed as a fine tuned sensory receptor for collecting information.

Carla Hannaford, Ph.D. Smart Moves – Why Learning is Not All in Your Head, pg. 40

Kids Need to Learn to Write so They Can Write to Learn

One of the biggest benefits of practicing fine motor skills for children is that is paves the way for them to learn how to write. If even grasping the handle of your coffee cup is a complex task, how much more is the task of forming letters?

Writing is complicated. It is a difficult skill for children to learn. So why do we still teach it? Can’t we just skip it and teach them how to type? Or digitize all learning, so all they have to do is touch the right answer on the screen?

It’s not so simple as that. So much is going on in the brain when a child writes. A symphony of neuronal connections plays every time they pick up that pencil. By not teaching writing, we silence the symphony. And the brain sits in silence, instead of playing beautiful, complex tunes.

The use of pen and paper gives the brain more ‘hooks’ to hang your memories on. Writing by hand creates much more activity in the sensorimotor parts of the brain. A lot of senses are activated by pressing the pen on paper, seeing the letters you write and hearing the sound you make while writing. These sense experiences create contact between different parts of the brain and open the brain up for learning. We both learn better and remember better.”

Van Der Meer

“A recent study from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), published in Frontiers in Psychology, shows that cursive handwriting helps the brain learn and remember better.” Source: Very Well Mind

Fine motor skills aren’t just for little kids

Like many areas of learning, we don’t outgrow the need to use fine motor skills. Unless we want to lose our abilities, even adults should take up practices that utilize fine motor skills. Throughout history we had no choice but to constantly be doing things with our hands. It was part of our survival.

  • Planting seeds and harvesting fruits and vegetables
  • Sewing/Mending clothes
  • Knitting warm clothing
  • Preparing food, kneading bread, chopping, crushing, ect.
  • Weaving baskets

Now we have machines to do most of these things for us, or we just buy what we need from a store. Which is fine, except that we need to get back to our hands, using them in productive ways that reach beyond the confines of the keyboard.

I encourage you to find ways to make sure that everyone in your family is getting the fine motor exercise they need. Whether it’s writing in journals, caring for a garden, knitting up scarves, or just doing a bunch of fun, messy activities.

This is why, every month, I am adding a fun activity to my blog that requires fine motor skill use. Many of these will be craft or art projects, but sometimes they may involve Lego blocks or rubber bands. I’m trying to keep these activities fairly simple, with short supply lists and inexpensive materials.

Practicing fine motor skills should be an enjoyable task. Try different things until you find something your kids love doing and then let them do that thing as often as they like.

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