toddler playing with a xylophone

How to Help Your Toddler Develop Fine Motor Skills

Childhood is full of developmental milestones and the acquisition of new skills. After your child has mastered basic gross motor skills, they’re going to need some time to work on their fine motor skills.

These fine motor skills will help your child throughout their life. If you’ve been wondering how you can help strengthen your child’s fine motor skills, this article may be for you.

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What Are Fine Motor Skills?

Fine motor skills relate to the sophisticated small movements of fingers and hands. They hinge on the ability to do deliberate tasks on a small scale. Reaching for, grasping, and other controlled movements executed with the wrists, hands, and fingers are considered fine motor skills. Gross motor skills are large-scale skills like walking and jumping.

Why Do We Need Fine Motor Skills?

We need fine motor skills. You use them every day without giving it a second thought. It’s how you adjust your glasses without poking yourself in the eye, dial your phone, and successfully use writing implements and eating utensils. If you take a moment to truly consider how many refined movements you make every day, you may be surprised by the quantity.

Fine motor skill development begins so early, you likely don’t remember a time where you didn’t have them. They’re crucial not only in your day-to-day adult life but also in many school-age activities and subjects. You can help your child get off to a bright and successful academic career by helping them build up their fine motor skills.

Like everything else your body does, fine motor skills are linked directly to your brain. Empowering your little one with fine motor skills will also expand their knowledge base and encourage learning in other areas as well.

Why Do Some Children Struggle With Fine Motor Skills?

Children may struggle with their fine motor skill development for any number of reasons. Much of this has to do with how brains develop throughout childhood. Generally speaking, a developing body and mind focus on one thing to improve at a time.

This means, if you have a toddler that seems especially competent at gross motor skills, their fine motor skills may be lacking. If you have a sophisticated talker at an early age, that may come along with some klutziness. All of this is perfectly within the scope of normal. There is no reason to panic if you feel your child hasn’t hit expected developmental markers.

There isn’t always a sex-based divide, but frequently boys become more physically competent at an earlier age. Girls, on the other hand, often excel at fine motor skills and speech early on. 

Besides the basic aptitude or developmental moment for your child, there are other reasons your child might have difficulty with fine motor skills:

  • Lack of exposure: If your child rarely has access to scissors or small manipulatives, they are unlikely to easily transition to using them. Fine motor skills are a complicated and sophisticated skill to learn and to enhance. Expect that it will take some time.

  • Frustration: Take a good look at your child’s personality. Some children like to achieve and be successful—immediately. This can be very frustrating for a child learning fine motor skills, and they would rather not participate in the activity than “fail” at it.

  • Poor muscular development: Those large muscle groups enable small muscle groups to function properly. This development begins early—with tummy time. A lack of tummy time has been linked to difficulty crawling as well as difficulty with fine motor skills. 

If you feel your child is behind on their motor skill development, consult your pediatrician. They may recommend an evaluation with an occupational therapist. An occupational therapist will be able to create a plan of action for your child (if needed) and get an Individualized Education Program (IEP) in place. This IEP will ensure your child receives appropriate accommodations when in school.

Activities That Encourage Fine Motor Skill Development

Even if you don’t seek intervention from an occupational therapist, activities can be done at home to encourage fine motor skill development. Some activities you may want to try include the following.

toddler coloring

Arts and Crafts Activities

Arts and crafts are a great way to get your child working on their fine motor skills. Here are some fun options that usually appeal to children:

  • Coloring: Coloring books and crayons can be a great tool for improving fine motor skills. Holding the crayon, applying pressure, and staying within the lines all help increase fine motor ability.
  • Gluing activities: Children love to use glue. You can provide your child with fake gems, fun pictures, or popsicle sticks for gluing activities.
  • Cutting activities: Learning how to use scissors is a great way to build fine motor skills. Provide your child with plenty of paper and some child-safe scissors.
  • Painting: Even if you’re only giving your child paint brushes and water, this is a great way to finesse fine motor skills. There are plenty of washable paint options to suit your needs.

Tactile Experiences

Strong tactile activities can help encourage fine motor skill development. If you’re looking for ideas, here are some things you may want to try:

  • Baking cookies: Working in the kitchen boosts a host of skills. Your child can practice counting, measuring, and stirring. Working the cookie dough and dropping it onto a cookie sheet works those fine motor skills.
  • Playing with playdough: Making shapes with playdough works the muscles in the hand responsible for many fine motor skills.
  • Finger painting: Finger painting can be fun while also working those small muscles and increasing fine motor skills.
  • Playing with shaving cream: Shaving cream activities are an exciting way to encourage fine motor skills. Prepare for a mess and let your child play in the shaving cream—you can even dye it for extra fun.

Small Manipulatives

Playing with small toys is a great way to build up fine motor skills. Stacking, sorting, and organizing can all help your child accumulate fine motor skills:

  • Building blocks: Choose an age-appropriate building block for your child and let them build to their imagination’s content. Even sorting through the blocks and collecting what they need works to help develop fine motor skills.
  • Sorting tins: Pull out an old cupcake tin and a random assortment of small toys. Let your child sort them according to type, color, number, or material. This can provide hours of fun, while strengthening both fine motor skills and learning skills.
  • Magnets: Magnetic toys can be a great option for building fine motor skills. Choose an age-appropriate set of magnets for your child. They can be shapes, alphabets, numbers, or magnetic building blocks. 
building blocks

Tips for Fine Motor Skill Development

If your child has been resistant to fine motor activities, here are some tips to help make things go a little more smoothly:

  • Keep it fun: Fun activities can take a child’s mind off the process. It will be about having fun and not about achieving a certain outcome. This is especially beneficial for children who don’t like to feel like they are underperforming.
  • More frequent, shorter sessions: Early on, a little goes a long way. It’s going to be more about repeating the action and activity and not about doing the activity for an extended period of time.
  • Mix it up: Unless your child expresses a clear preference for a certain kind of activity, alternate through them. This will help keep things fresh and prevent your child from becoming bored.
  • Keep options readily available for your child: If your child can pick out the activity themselves it’s likely to not feel like work. Keep many options on hand so your child can pick and choose what suits their mood.
  • Make things social: Kids are social beings. If other children aren’t available, you will be a welcome addition to your child’s activity time. 

Most importantly, don’t allow your child to see you discouraged by their progress (or lack thereof). Praise them for their effort and make them feel good about the time they’re putting into the activity.

If you’re working with an occupational therapist, check in frequently. They may have a perspective that you don’t. If your child is in school, check in with teachers as well. It’s always possible children will perform well at tasks for others even when they aren’t performing well for you.

Working on Fine Motor Skills

Fine motor skills are a crucial early skill. Don’t let your child feel like they can’t keep up because their fine motor skills aren’t up to par. Plan extra time and activities to give them the edge they’ll need to have a successful academic career and a positive future.

Remember, these skill-boosting activities can be fun as well as beneficial. Choose an activity you think will resonate with your child, and go from there. Even if the first one isn’t successful, there’s bound to be something here that piques their interest and strikes their fancy. Try them all—your little one will be acquiring the skills they need before you know it.

About the Author Ryan Howard

Ryan is a co-founder of Smart Parent Advice. When he isn't spending time with his wife, Cristin, or his two children, he can often be found running around on the tennis court.

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