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Fine Motor Skills for Toddlers and Preschoolers: Tips and Activities

Early childhood development includes the acquisition of fine and gross motor skills. While both of these skills involve movement, they have differences:

  • Dexterity involve the movement of the smallest muscle groups in your child’s hands, fingers and wrists.
  • Overall motor skills involve the movement of larger muscle groups, such as the arms and legs. It is these larger muscle groups that allow babies to sit, roll over, crawl, and walk.

Both types of motor skills allow children to become more independent. However, fine motor skills are especially crucial, as the ability to use the small muscles in the hands allows children to perform self-care tasks without assistance. This includes:

  • brush your teeth
  • to eat
  • writing
  • get dressed

Babies and toddlers develop fine and gross motor skills at their own pace. Some children develop certain skills earlier than others, and this is quite normal. Children typically start learning these skills as early as 1 or 2 months of age and continue to learn additional skills in preschool and early primary school.

The most important fine motor skills that children need to develop are:

  • Palmar arches let the palms fold inwards. Strengthening them helps coordinate finger movement, which is necessary for writing, unbuttoning clothes, and gripping.
  • Wrist stability develops from the first school years. It allows children to move their fingers with force and control.
  • Skillful side of the hand is the use of thumb, index and other fingers together for precise gripping.
  • Intrinsic development of the muscles of the hand is the ability to perform small movements with the hand, where the tip of the thumb, index and middle fingers touch.
  • Bilateral manual skills allow coordination of both hands at the same time.
  • Scissor skills develop by age 4 and teach hand strength and hand-eye coordination.

Here is a brief timeline of the stages of fine motor skills for babies and toddlers:

0 to 3 months

  • puts his hands in his mouth
  • hands become more relaxed

3 to 6 months

  • hold hands together
  • pass a toy from one hand to the other
  • holds and shakes a toy with both hands

6 to 9 months

  • begins to grasp things by “raking” with the hand
  • grips an object with his hands
  • touch fingers together
  • grabs a toy with both hands
  • uses his index finger to touch things
  • clap your hands

9 to 12 months

  • feeds on appetizers
  • grabs small objects with thumb and forefinger
  • bang things together
  • holds a toy in one hand

12 months to 2 years

  • built a tower of blocks
  • doodles on paper
  • eat with a spoon
  • turn a page of a book at a time
  • holds pencil with fingertips and thumb (pincer grip)

2-3 years

  • turn a doorknob
  • washes his hands
  • correctly uses a spoon and fork
  • zip and unzip clothes
  • place the lids and remove the lids of the cans
  • string beads on thread

3 to 4 years

  • unbutton and button clothes
  • use scissors to cut the paper
  • trace shapes on paper

Fine motor skills develop naturally as your child learns the ability to control and coordinate their body. Keep in mind that some children may develop fine motor skills earlier and have better coordination than others.

A baby can learn to shake a rattle at 3 months, while a baby of the same age may not shake a rattle until a month later. This is completely normal.

Don’t worry if your child is not developing as fast as a child of the same age. Remember that your child’s body is still growing. Within weeks or months, they can build enough muscle strength in their hands to learn new fine motor skills.

Incorporating fun activities into your child’s daily routine can help improve fine motor skills. The ability to learn and practice fine motor skills at an early age can benefit them academically, socially and personally.

Here are some activities you and your child can do together:

  • Allow your child to help with meal preparation, such as stirring, mixing or pouring in ingredients.
  • Complete a family puzzle.
  • Play board games that involve rolling the dice.
  • Finger paint together.
  • Let your child set the dinner table.
  • Teach your child to pour their own drinks.
  • Have your child roll and flatten the clay with their hands, then use a cookie cutter to make the cutouts.
  • Show your child how to use a hole punch.
  • Practice placing rubber bands around a bobbin.
  • Place the items in a container and have your child remove them with tweezers.

Although fine motor skills develop at different rates, see your child’s pediatrician if they have difficulty with these skills or their gross motor skills. The delays could be a sign of a developmental coordination disorder. It affects about 5 to 6 percent of school-age children.

Signs of a fine motor problem include:

  • drop objects
  • unable to tie shoes
  • difficulty holding a spoon or toothbrush
  • difficulty writing, coloring, or using scissors

Some fine motor delays are not detected until the child is older. Identifying a delay early can ensure your child gets the help they need to develop their skills and help them grow.

Your child’s pediatrician may diagnose a coordination disorder if your child has:

  • fine motor skills lower than expected for their age
  • poor fine motor skills that make it difficult to complete daily chores at school and at home
  • delays in the development of motor skills that started at an early age

Your child may need to work one-on-one with an occupational therapist to learn techniques to improve coordination of their small muscle groups.

Fine motor skills are essential for life and learning. If your child is having difficulty with daily activities or if you feel your child is struggling with these skills, discuss the possibility of a developmental delay with their doctor.

With early diagnosis, home activities, and the help of an occupational therapist, you can help your child thrive and reach developmental milestones.

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