Strengthening fine motor development in young children

Helping young children strengthen their fine motor skills.

Using an idex finger to pop a bubble shows developing pincer coordination skills.
Using an idex finger to pop a bubble shows developing pincer coordination skills.

Development occurs in a proximodistal fashion, meaning it starts at the center of the body and works its way out. Children are able to reach for toys and push themselves up long before they are able to grasp small items or write with a pencil. Fine motor skills refers to the small muscle groups, like in the hand or wrist. Control over these muscles is essential because we use them to write, button a coat, pick up small items and perform any small-scaled or detailed tasks. Fine motor skills are learned and developed through a process of motor development occurring throughout childhood.

According to “Developing fine motor skills” by Michelle Huffman and Callie Fortenberry, fine motor development has four main stages:

  1. Whole arm. Children work through activities that build and strengthen the muscles of their whole arm.
  2. Whole hand. Once the arm muscles are developed, children begin to practice control over their whole hands.
  3. Pincer. Whole hand development leads to pincer practice, or movements that require children to coordinate and press the thumb and pointer finger together like picking up a small toy or a piece of food.
  4. Pincer coordination. With advanced fine motor muscles and coordination, children are now able to grasp writing utensils and begin writing. During this stage they are able to use their thumb, index finger and middle finger together to balance a pen, pencil, marker or crayon.

These are the four main stages of fine motor development, but there are plenty of smaller advances that happen along the way. Parents and caregivers have the opportunity to support the fine motor development of young children, which not only keeps their developmental progress on track, but helps prepare them for important activities that require precision.

Michigan State University Extension offers the following tips to support your child’s fine motor from birth to two years.

0-6 months fine motor development

During the first four months of life, babies will begin to reach and grasp objects. They are setting the stage for advanced fine motor development by practicing moving their eyes and their heads in unison.

  • Practice “tracking” with your child. Lay your child on their back and get their attention with a toy – rattles or bells work very well – by holding it over their heads. Once you have their attention, move the object slowly right or left towards the floor. If your child stops following the object with their eyes, bring the object back to the center and try again.
  • Encourage your baby to grab and hold on to small toys like rings, blocks, spoons, rattles, teething rings or even your fingers.

6-12 months fine motor development

Babies are better able to grasp and hold onto objects during this stage. They develop the ability to squeeze and hold objects with closed fists and are able to pick up small objects, like cereal or small toys. During this range they will work on picking up objects using their thumb and pointer finger instead of their whole hand.

  • Encourage your child to pick up cereal, raisins or other small objects.
  • Help your baby to grab and hold on to small toys like rings, blocks, spoons or rattles.
  • Give your child objects they can pick up with one hand, like a small block or sticks.
  • Help your child put objects in and take objects out of a container, like blocks in a bucket.
  • Practice isolating fingers by providing finger foods, squeeze toys, popping bubbles or finger-painting.
  • Start working with crayons – your child will use their whole hand to grasp the crayon during this stage.
  • Practice waving bye-bye and doing finger plays with your child, like pat-a-cake.

1-2 years fine motor development

During this stage, the child is working on pincer coordination skills. They start to use fingers separately from each other, like isolating their index finger to point or pop a bubble. Children may start to show a preference in the use of their hands, but it is normal for children to switch back between left and right at this stage, so don’t worry if they don’t show a dominant hand yet.

  • Explore books – help your child learn to turn the pages.
  • Encourage self-help skills like feeding themselves with a spoon or fork, dressing, brushing teeth and drinking from an open cup.
  • Build and explore – help your child build with blocks and sticks, or stack items into tall towers.
  • Get creative – provide several different types of utensils for your child to build up the muscles in their hands. This includes chalk, paintbrushes, pencils, crayons, etc.

By understanding how fine motor skills develop in young children, you can help your little ones develop self-help skills, complete detailed tasks and be ready to learn when they get to school.

For more articles on child development, academic success, parenting and life skill development, please visit the Michigan State University Extension website.

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