So you want to develop your little one’s fine motor skills? What exactly is “fine motor?”

Fine motor is made up of 2 categories: grasping (using your fingers in a variety of ways to hold and manipulate objects) and visual motor (or coordinating movement of your hand with the movement of your eyes).  

You’ll need to choose the right tools to work with, and for 0-2 year olds, toys are tools. Put your OT thinking cap on: what will give the most stimulation to increase the desire to explore objects? Toys with moving parts, lights, or those which are brightly colored or have a variety of texture will elicit the most response or desire to play. If a child appears to not "like" a toy, most likely it is either not stimulating enough to elicit the desire to explore it or it needs to be modeled by adults further to support understanding of the purpose of the toy. Look at the toys your child "likes" and ask "what input is this toy providing that my child may be seeking or find fulfilling?" At  age 0-2, repeated behaviors are most often serving a need of the body vs. fulfilling a deeper thought such as a “like” of an certain animal or character.  For example, if your child "loves" Sophie the Giraffe, is it really Sophie or is this a toy that they are easily able to grasp and visually understand right now due to the elongate neck and bold pattern of Sophie, while also providing oral input (teething on Sophie)?

So what is the 0-2 year old crowd looking for?  And what is developmentally appropriate to encourage at each age? 

O-6 months  

The littlest of the little ones should first be working on "tummy time" or holding up their body weight through their forearms or hands while on their bellies. Strength developed as a result of such exercise provides a stable base at the scapular, or shoulder, muscles while also developing the arches of the hands so that they will be able to grasp and hold onto items in future months.  You can do tummy time with your child on your chest so they are face to face with you, in front of the mirror, or sideways over your lap. These options give your child more body contact and visual feedback, increasing "motivation" to continue on. 

Under 6 months old, purposefully holding objects (vs reflexively) is also and important milestone.  Start with peg/cylinder shaped toys like classic rattles or water bottles with bells or beans inside. Even hair curlers on a paper towel roll can be a lot of fun to watch move and stimulate the desire to grasp. Next offer ball shaped toys such as an Easter egg with beans in it, whiffle ball, or a bell ball (in pet section of most stores). Last, offer a block to hold; blocks you can shake with a noise maker in side will be the most desirable.  

In the later months of this age group, holding mom or dad's hands for “Row Row Row Your Boat” or other interactive song can be a fun way to stimulate purposefully holding on (in this case, to adult's hands).

While holding an object is great, developing reach for objects is of equal importance.  Reaching while laying down will be easier initially than sitting and reaching.   Choose toys that have moving parts like a slinky or cheerleading Pom Pom and wiggle on the hand initially for visual and tactile (touch) stimulation. Then, inch away as you see that your child is beginning to grasp the moving parts of the toy to encourage the hand to follow the object. 

7-12 months 

At this point kiddos are really starting to see objects more clearly and are very attracted to visually stimulating objects. The best toys encourage purposeful visual skill development such as tracking (following a moving object with eyes), for example, a rattle, a race car, or a ball.  

Children should also start to squeeze toys to develop hand strength at this time.  Entice your child to squeeze toys by picking items that include several types of stimulation. For example: squeezing a wet sponge stimulates the skin (the tactile system) while watching the water come out of the sponge is visually stimulating.  

At this age, picking up small objects via a raking (whole hand) or pincer grasp (index finger and thumb) should be in progress.  Of course, any type of play involving small parts should be done with one on one direct supervision.  If your child is ready to eat puffs, raking/pincer grasp can be developed via presenting tiny foods like this. “Sensory bins” or tubs including varied textures such as  uncooked rice, beans, sand, etc mixed with pom poms, erasers, or other small toys are great for exploration and also encourage movement of individual fingers. 

13-18 months 

The biggest skill to begin developing in this age group is the use of two hands together for the same role, for example, clapping, tapping objects together, and drumming (hands on tabletop).  Toys which encourage pulling apart such as pop beads, Play Doh, and even tearing paper or napkins are great for this. 

Continue to develop pincer grasp, but at a more refined level called the "fine pincer” grasp. This is the retrieval of objects with the tip of the index finger and tip of thumb.  Removing beans, beads, or other tiny objects from Play Doh is a fun way to work on this. 

"Put in" and stacking activities are also important at this age to begin aiming for a target. If your child is not interested in blocks, you can stack cups, cones, sponges or any other toy you can and "clean up" after every toy presented to encourage "put in" concept. 

18-24 months 

Around this age, kids are beginning to draw a vertical line (vs. scribbling). Invest in an easel at this age, and your child can use it for many years. To help your child begin to make vertical lines, place his or her hand at the top of the easel and let gravity take over to finish the line. Working with sidewalk chalk to draw lines is a fun way to build shoulder stability due to one hand supporting the body while the other arm is reaching overhead to make lines (if working on the belly or on all fours). Repeated predictable sound effects paired with making the line, i.e. “zip!” can add to your child’s motivation to continue. Use the same verbal cue with toy cars or other moving objects in order to continue developing the line concept. 

This is also the age where the use of two hands together for differing roles begins, one hand for lead role and other as support. Removing and replacing clothespins or chip clips from a card can help to develop the tiny muscles that develop the arch of the hand and are important to scissor and drawing skills. 

Scooping is also a great skill to work on at this age. You can use measuring cups, shovels, or kitchen spoons to scoop in a sand box, bathtub, or sensory bin. 

As you play with your child with the above activities, just remember, presentation is EVERYTHING! Even the simplest of household objects can become fuel for hours of play (and fine motor skill development) if presented with the right level of support and enthusiasm.  Let yourself be have fun with it and they will have fun too!   

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