Leaves, sticks, fingers and toes - developing fine motor skills in the woods
What are our fine motor skills?
Fine motor skills refer to our ability to make little movements and actions with mainly associated with our hands and wrists. They refer to the smaller muscles which are found in wrists, fingers but are also found in toes and feet. Fine motor skills include the use of hands and fingers for drawing, threading, tying laces etc. They are linked to gross motor skills as when children's entire bodies begin to move and become more steady, fine motor abilities begin to improve. Gross motor skills ultimately lay the foundation for our fine motor skills to develop upon.
Being outdoors and exploring nature opens a wealth of opportunity for promoting fine motor skills. Woods provide a natural playground and with that a holistic approach to learning can happen, without prior thinking and planning.
When I was young, one of my favourite things to do outside was to collect things. Off we would trek to the woods with a random pot and find different items of nature. Through picking up small objects, my pincer grasp was naturally developing and as natural items come in a wide range of sizes, this allowed for natural differentiation for my developing skills.
I loved to create my own imaginative worlds with the things that had been collected. A favourite game was to re-create my primary classroom. Once the items were collected lots the decisions needed making as to what would work best. Leaves may have been chosen for chairs, stones for tables, snail shells for children and a pinecone for the teacher. I do remember once having a feather and the feather was used as a pointer for the teacher.
This simple idea of collecting natural objects not only supports developing fine motor skills but also introduces mathematical concepts of shape, size, colour along with sensory learning using touch, sight, smell. Children can compare their items and a wealth of rich language is literally at the tip of their fingers. Think of all the wonderful things that can be collected, such as, leaves, twigs, fir cones, worms, snails and acorns. There is a whole host of imaginary games that can take place with such a variety of resources.
Proprioception and fruit picking
The proprioceptive sense, which gives us knowledge of our bodily position, is closely tied to the sense of movement. It informs us about our body's location in relation to the nearby environment. It also tells us how to move our bodies and how much force is required to complete a task.
Being in the woods offers plentiful opportunities to pick berries, leaves, fruits and nuts from nearby bushes and trees. Your child will start to learn how much pressure is needed to pull some fruit from a tree or how much pressure will burst the berry in their fingers. Each bush, tree and even piece of fruit or berry will feel different in their fingers.
The berries that have been picked may form a natural ink that can be used to create marks. If you have some tissues with you, your child can either squeeze the berries onto it or they can try to make marks by sweeping the juice across the tissue. There may be larger stones or rocks that can double up as paper; fruit juices can be moved along the stones to create patterns, images or possibly words.
If there are stones in the ground, these can also be utilised to draw with, along with various sized sticks and twigs. Games can be forged into the ground by scraping lines to mark territory, or objects can be drawn in the soil. Twigs and sticks are all-natural writing instruments and utilising a range of different sized twigs and sticks to create a variety of different widths of marks is fantastic. Even making mud pies can lead to making marks. A simple act of 'accidentally' getting mud on your face can open a whole new world of mark-making possibilities. These marks can appear on people, trees or larger stones if they are available.
When walking through the woods, even as an adult, if a den is spotted you are naturally intrigued to go and have a look in it. Who made it? Why? Are they still here now? Can I go in it? All these questions naturally buzz around in your mind. Making a den yourself then engages more thoughts, what size sticks will I need? How can they link together? Can I make a roof? The idea is thrilling. When den making, you are using so many muscles and you don’t even notice.
Den building benefits children of all ages in a variety of ways, from developing fine motor skills to critical thinking abilities. When dens are in creation, a team is usually required. Children need to work together to work out how to move materials and think what shape their den will be.
If your child is still quite young, and they are still to learn about the world of friendship, teamwork and collaboration, you can still support den building by role modelling and talking about what you are doing. Ask your child to join in with you and to help lift items, even it is a small stick. These early interactions will develop your child’s communication and language as they listen and join in with an exciting activity.
Older children will naturally talk with one another, they might disagree and have to reach a solution. Turn taking naturally opens as discussions take place and children listen to one another. Not only is all this going on, but the development of fine and gross motor movements is naturally occurring as materials are moved and balanced. There is a skill of developing grip due to natural objects being large, slippy or an odd shape. Children are challenging themselves and learning about independence. The more they practise and think imaginatively, putting their ideas into action, the more they can build on their previous knowledge and learn from experience.
Ahhh, taking off the shoes or wellies is such an exhilarating feeling. Feeling the woods under your feet, or stepping into a puddle or moving water sends waves of excitement through the body. Being barefoot is underestimated and not something that is often considered. Being barefoot builds balance and strength. By actually feeling what is beneath them, different muscles and bones are used and new movements are created. It might feel a bit ‘oooh’ ‘ahhhh’ and it might hurt at times, yet these experiences give opportunity to build resilience. Research suggests that walking barefoot is vital for children. It promotes agility in feet, ankles, legs, knees and hips and provide support for future balance posture and movement .
Treasure hunts in nature have always been a personal favourite of mine. Having the responsibility of going off on my own to look for items. I used to enjoy lifting logs and marveling at the number of bugs beneath them, watching them move so quickly. Looking under, behind, and on top is directional language that lends itself to learning about position.
I would also love to bury things, I don’t know why. I would use my fingers to scrape back the soil, leaves, mud, whatever was there and hide things. I don’t actually think I ever found anything I hid in the woods, that wasn't the point. The point is, there was no point, it was pure fun! Looking at it now, all the learning that took place in the one activity of burying was amazing. Gross motor for balance and squatting. Fine motor development whilst scraping and picking up small objects. Imagination and language, where can I hide it, near the stream, at the top of the hill? So much was going on.
What to do next?
Go for a walk in the woods. Bring a towel or two with you in case you have the need to go barefoot exploring. You may wish to take containers with you so that you can take goods home with you. Make sure you have plenty of time, there is so much fun to be had.
 Johnson. J, Watts. A (2019). Developing Creativity and Curiosity Outdoors: How to extend Creative Learning in the Early Years. Routledge