Expert Articles

A Hands-On Approach to Developing Fine Motor Skills

Author: Mel WAGENAAR
Educational Psychologist, Teacher and Mother, South Africa

Experts involved in education all emphasize the importance of fine-motor stimulation from an early age. Far too many children begin formal schooling at a disadvantage due to the incorrect manipulation of writing implements and not having their core muscles sufficiently developed for sustained writing activities. It has become increasingly apparent in my practice that the remediation of under-developed muscles is more difficult and expensive than the stimulation thereof. One really does have to follow the adage of “move it, move it, move it!” from birth. Babies and toddlers learn from exploring and manipulating their environments with their hands, and parents can facilitate this. Your baby begins practicing and fine tuning his motor skills from the minute he can move independently and the emphasis here is on the exercising of those small muscles in the wrists, hands, and fingers.

From birth to 12 months plus, you will notice a continual progression in muscle control with your tiny baby first displaying tightly curled fists, then unfurling and exhibiting more active arms until around the 6-month mark. This is when he might be observed bringing his hands together and playing with his feet as well as reaching for or swatting at objects clumsily. Immeasurable development occurs between 6 and 12 months as your baby begins to crawl, grasp, hold onto and let go of objects, hold food in his hands, feed himself and use his hands to pull himself up against furniture. He will begin walking and pushing toys with wheels, as well as rolling and even throwing a ball. All these movements develop, strengthen, and build up the various muscles in the hands which are essential for manipulating tools and ultimately the “work” of writing.

What games can be played to stimulate your baby’s fine motor skills?

  • Simple marionette movements stimulate both muscles and joints – gently massage, bend, flex and straighten her arms, making a game of it. 
  • Safety toys can be strung across a cot, bassinet, or pram – model swiping at these and having fun so that your baby is motivated to do the same.
  • Lie baby on her back on a soft, safe surface – dangle a toy suspended on elastic in front of her and as she stretches her arms to hit at or reach for the toy, know that she is laying the groundwork for future spatial and judgement-in-space skills. 
  • Balance a ball on an upturned plastic bucket – encourage your baby to push it off.
  • Sort colored bottle tops into containers.
  • Thread rope or string through large-sized holes.

Toddlers typically love movement games and any form of pulling, hanging, climbing, throwing, catching, or swatting ultimately strengthens those essential finger muscles. To further develop eye-hand coordination, play games such as aiming and tossing balls/soft objects into boxes/large soft containers as this type of activity develops the neural pathways for eyes and hands to work in unison. This is laying the groundwork for future writing (and of course, reading). As the toddler becomes a young child, objects used can become smaller (substitute a beach ball with a tennis ball) and a hoop can be used rather than a large box. 

Your young child can help with simple chores around the house that require carrying different objects such as a plate of food to the table or soft toys to be packed away. Practice taking off socks and putting these into the family washing basket, one hand at a time and with both hands. They can help make beds, pack the dishwasher, and feed the family pet; involve your child in baking activities that require pressing down, mixing, etc. Pick up progressively smaller objects using kitchen tongs or the thumb and finger in a pincer grip. Be creative in utilizing these and any other activities you can think of: develop opportunities for these everyday “moments” to become natural learning activities which also promote parent-child interaction and thus relationship-building (a secondary, essential gain!). Provide “play” objects that have slots and can twist, stack, and come apart – here some commercially sourced toys like wooden jigsaw puzzles and interlocking toys can be utilized. The actions of twisting, turning, cutting, inserting, and even hammering all promote the development of fine motor skills and coordination and ultimately build up pre-writing skills.

Eventually your child will naturally progress to sitting at a table to write. Provide age-appropriate material when this occurs. Up until around 24 months any marks on paper tend to be arbitrary. Your child can stand at an easel to write, scribble, or draw – this is a whole different angle and requires different muscles and motor forces to be in play. Tape big sheets of inexpensive paper to flat surfaces at home such as the back of a door and encourage the creation of murals. Provide an array of writing implements, e.g., finger paint, fat crayons, shaving foam, etc. A stick for writing in sand is yet another natural tool, as is using a finger to “draw” on a parent’s back.

The caution I wish to insert at this point is to allow your child’s fine-motor development to progress along a natural trajectory. Although there are references to ages in this article, these should be used as mere guides rather than a checklist. If you have concerns about your child’s development, consult your wellness clinic or a pediatric specialist. There is much material available should you wish to research further ideas to promote the development of fine motor skills in the very young child. However, try not to be tempted to hurry things along. The early years are when immeasurable development and growth occurs – enjoy the journey with your child.

1,000 FAQ
A Hands-On Approach to Developing Fine Motor Skills