Play is such an important part of your toddler’s development when it comes to fine motor skills. You may think that it’s all fun and games when your little one builds their block tower, knocks it down and then repeats it all over again – but it’s so much more than that!
So what are fine motor skills?
Fine motor skills are movements that involve the coordination of small muscles in the hands, fingers, feet and toes. Children will use their fine motor skills to participate in smaller actions, such as picking up objects between the thumb and finger and eventually developing coordination.
Whilst it might seem more exciting to watch your baby develop gross motor skills such as crawling, standing, walking and jumping… fine motor skills are actually equally as important. As your child grows, their fine motor skills play a huge part in them being able to care for themselves and explore the world.
Fine motor skills are essential to learning and completing tasks such as writing, cutting, using a fork or spoon, threading beads, moving puzzle pieces, zipping, buttoning, brushing teeth, opening lunch boxes – the list goes on!
Development of fine motor skills – baby to toddler
Babies are born with no control over their hand movements and any grasping that a newborn does, is actually reflexive.
Between 6 and 12 months – babies develop the ability to grasp objects with their whole hand. They will explore objects by touching, poking, throwing and banging. Around this time, your baby may also develop the ability to stack.
Between 12 to 18 months – your toddler will develop the ability to pinch, also called the ‘pincer grasp’. This allows them to manipulate objects, often pulling things in and out of smaller spaces. They will also likely be able to hold their sippy cup, feed themselves with a spoon, take their socks on and off and put a hat on their head.
Between the ages of 1 and 3 years – fine motor skills become much more sophisticated. You will notice your toddler is able to push, pull, twist, turn pages, throw a small ball and unwrap objects. Around this time you will also likely notice whether your child favours their left or right hand.
Ways to support your baby’s fine motor skill development
Have you ever come around the corner to find your toddler completely pulling apart the Tupperware cupboard? Despite the mess, this is actually a great way for them to build their fine motor skills. This type of play and manipulation will prepare your child for using a crayon to draw, and eventually write – both critical skills for preschool and kindergarten classrooms.
Unlike gross motor skills, fine motor skills need attention in order to develop well. For example, there is no way you will be able to stop your baby walking when they are ready to walk, but if they are not taught how to hold a pencil, then it is likely this is something they will struggle with now and in the future. With this in mind, it is important to take the extra time to support your toddler to develop their fine motor skills. This is often about giving them the independence to explore.
Try to find activities that will not only strengthen your toddler’s fine motor skills, but also encourages their confidence. The more praise they get, the more likely they are to continue engaging in the activities you suggest. Look for opportunities throughout the day for your child to practice small movements with their fingers.
Suggested activities for fine motor skill development
A younger baby /
- Clap hands
- Touch fingers
The development of hand skills are complex, but usually follow quite a predictable pattern. A young baby will initially reach for your face, mouth or jewellery. This will then develop into the grasping reflex, when your baby’s fingers close if something touches their palm. In the beginning, it is difficult for your baby to release whatever they have in their hand and they will initially drop items by accident.
- Sensory bins and treasure baskets
A sensory bin can be as simple as a little bit of sand in a ziplock bag for your baby to interact with. For the treasure basket, create a comfortable area on the floor where your baby can explore a basket full of interesting objects. This can be anything (age appropriate) around the house such as whisks, ribbons, spoons, their favourite rattle or a selection of toys. You will be amazed by the simplest of things that grab your baby’s attention!
- Tummy time
Placing your baby on their tummy when they are young is an excellent way for them to experience weight-bearing on their hands. It also encourages wrist stability and strengthens muscles in the hands. Try placing toys in front of them (just out of reach) as this will help your baby learn how to reach and grab.
An older baby or toddler /
- Shape sorters
- Filling and dumping
Your toddler will likely explore the Tupperware cupboard regularly, or fill up a container and then dump it all out a second later. Whilst this activity may seem frustrating, it actually takes a significant amount of concentration and integrated muscle movements for your toddler. Embrace the mess!
- Pasting things onto paper
- Dress themselves
- Build a tower out of blocks or large lego
- Use pencils and crayons in an attempt to colour and draw
- Get creative with Playdough
Encouraging your toddlers creativity begins with you, but it is important to stand back at times and let them explore the activity on their own. Even if things get messy!
- Play with dolls or figures that have moving limbs, or changeable clothing
- Simple, age appropriate art projects
- Self-feeding (using a Spoon & Sippy Cup on their own)
- Pasta threading
As your toddler’s dexterity improves, encourage them to use both hands to do new tasks. Have them try threading big beads or penne pasta onto yarn to create a very glamorous necklace!
If your child is at daycare or preschool, it’s always a good idea to ask their teacher how they are progressing with their fine motor skills. If you ever have any concerns about your toddlers fine motor development, be sure to have an assessment done by a occupational therapist to find out more.
Lastly, be patient with your child whilst they learn to improve their fine motor skills. Let them lead the way, and don’t be alarmed if their fine motor skills progress more slowly than their gross motor development. The smaller muscles of the body (like those in the hands and fingers) tire out more easily than the larger muscles in the arms and legs, so endurance and strength must be built up gradually before your child’s dexterity can improve.