15 Activities to Help Develop Fine Motor Skills in Toddlers

Medically reviewed by Karen Richardson Gill, MD on February 29, 2016Written by Leah Campbell on February 29, 2016
toddler demonstrating fine motor skills

As parents, we all remember the first time we threw a bunch of Cheerios in front of our baby and watched in awe as they figured out that all-important pincer grasp.

But now that we’re past the baby years, do you want to know what fine motor skill I’m most excited for my daughter to develop?

Learning how to wipe her own bottom after pooping in the toilet.

Bet you didn’t even think of that as a fine motor skill, did you?

Well, it is. And while it may be a few years before she’s really ready to take that task on, I am all for helping her to continue developing her fine motor skills until she gets there!

The Basics

A lot of our muscle movements can be broken down into either fine or gross motor skills. Gross motor skills typically involve the use of your bigger muscles — things like running, standing, or rolling over. Fine motor skills are those that use the smaller muscles of the body, particularly in the hands. Hand-eye coordination is related, but a separate skill.

Fine motor skills are important to develop because functioning as an adult requires you to have just as much control over your fine motor skills as your gross motor skills. Think about it: How many times a day do you rely on your hand muscles? Typing, writing, fixing things around the house, changing light bulbs, cooking… they all require the use of your fine motor skills.

What’s Normal?

Like most developmental milestones, where your child falls on the fine motor development spectrum can vary quite a bit. And just because your child doesn’t seem to be caught up to their peers, doesn’t necessarily mean anything is wrong.

But according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, your toddler should be able to work simple puzzles by age 3, and they should be using scissors for cutting by age 4 (with supervision, of course). During these toddler years, your little one will also begin scribbling with a crayon, feeding themselves with a spoon, and doing any other number of activities that require that fine motor control.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that pediatricians complete formal developmental screenings at 9 months, 18 months, 30 months, and 48 months. This means that their pediatrician is probably already getting screened at well-baby visits. You’ve probably been asked to fill out a questionnaire at each visit pertaining to what your toddler is and isn’t accomplishing.

Pediatricians usually identify fine motor delays by around 30 months. But if you have any specific concerns about your child’s fine motor development, you shouldn’t hesitate to set up an appointment and go over those concerns in person.

In the meantime, here’s what you can be doing to encourage that fine motor development at home.

The Activities

1. Playing with Play-Doh or Clay

Kids love Plah-Doh, and the hand manipulation involved in rolling, pulling, stretching, and building with Play-Doh or clay will help them to build hand and finger strength.  

2. Practicing Hand Signals

Try a “thumbs up” or your child signaling their age. This improves dexterity and will get your toddler excited about communicating with their fingers.

3. Stringing and Lacing

Another great activity for improving dexterity is stringing beads on a piece of yarn (if your toddler is over 3), or using lacing boards to weave that string in and out.

4. Popping Bubble Wrap

Your toddler will love popping bubble wrap just as much as you do. And each pop is a way to build thumb and finger strength.

5. Coloring

While your toddler may not be coloring in the lines just yet, talking about doing so can encourage them to pay attention to their crayon grip. Now is also a good time to start encouraging them to copy a circle you may draw for them.

6. Cutting and Gluing

While you’re doing craft time anyway, child-friendly scissors can be a great way to improve grip and strength, and using a glue stick to glue some of those recently cut shreds to a new piece of paper can also encourage hand-eye coordination.

7. Picking Up and Hiding Objects with One Hand

Tell your child you’re going to perform some “magic.” Then, pick up a coin using just one hand and close that hand around it to make it “disappear.” Your child probably won’t be fooled, but they will want to practice now, too. Remember, the goal is to pick up and hide the object using only one hand.

8. Tearing Paper

Kids love to make a mess, and tearing up paper can be great for dexterity. Who needs a shredder when you have a toddler?

9. “Helping” with Twist Tops

Need to twist the cap off the milk carton? Let your toddler try! Twisting tops off helps to strengthen the arches within the hand, which will help your toddler to improve their grip.

10. Stacking Blocks

Set aside some time to build, and encourage your toddler to stack tall towers.

11. Washing the Car

OK, so your toddler probably won’t be much help with the actual cleaning of your car. But if you keep a few spare sponges in the bucket, they can improve thumb opposition by squeezing water out of that sponge. The same concept can apply to washcloths in the bathtub.

12. Buttoning and Zipping Clothing

Sure, it takes so much longer to let your kids get themselves ready. When you have time, start encouraging your toddler button (or unbutton) and zip (or unzip) their own clothes. They’ll be so excited at the chance to show off some independence!

13. Having Water Wars

Equipping your child with a spray bottle or squirt gun gives them a chance to practice pulling the trigger to soak you, which will have them roaring in laughter and improving hand strength at the same time.

14. Singing Songs with Finger Motions

If you haven’t already, start adding some hand motion songs to your regular repertoire. Think "Itsy Bitsy Spider" and "Little Bunny Foo Foo."

15. Clipping and Decorating Clothespins

Get out the paints and some clothespins for double the fine motor action. First, have your child clip the pins around a piece of paper or to a T-shirt you don’t mind getting paint on. Then, let them decorate those clothespins with a small paintbrush to improve dexterity.

The Takeaway

Like so much of development, your child is learning and growing through play at this age.

This means that they are probably improving upon their fine motor skills every day, through normal interactions that you don’t even necessarily think about. So keep getting down to play with your kids, because it’s helping them grow in more ways than you may even realize!

For more information on what qualifies as “normal” in toddler development, The Wonder Years: Helping Your Baby and Young Child Successfully Negotiate the Major Developmental Milestones is a great resource.

For additional activity ideas for boosting your toddler’s fine motor development, check out Busy Toddler, Happy Mom or 99 Fine Motor Ideas for Ages 1 to 5.

Leah Campbell
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