Fine Motor Activities: How to Encourage and Develop Skills

Have you ever watched your preschooler try to dress himself? His little hands fumble with his socks and shoes. He can't quite pull up his pants. Getting a shirt over his head is a new experience, as is putting his arms through sleeves. The whole process seems to be quite a task -- from buttoning a shirt to zipping a zipper -- for the both of you.

Though you may be tempted to move the process along by jumping in to help, letting him practice is key. It's time to talk about fine motor activities: the ones that require tiny hands and fingers to do big jobs.

While most of these skills will develop over time, there are fun interactive ways for parents help at home. Here are six activities, courtesy of Amy Baez, a pediatric occupational therapist and creator of Playapy, to play with toddlers and preschoolers to encourage the development of fine motor skills:

  1. Have Fun Finger Painting
    Start with a clean, flat surface. Next, scoop out a dollop of yogurt or whipped cream, and spread it on the table. Let your children use their index fingers to draw shapes and lines in the yogurt. "Using yogurt provides a sensory experience for the child and creates more awareness of the hands," says Baez. "Using the index finger to paint encourages a separation in the hand created by an arch, which is needed for future advanced skills like writing and cutting with scissors."
  2. String 'Em Along
    You'll need ribbon and some O-shaped cereal, such as Cheerios, for this fun craft. First, cut the ribbons into varying lengths and set out a bowl of dry cereal. Let preschoolers thread the ribbon with the cereal to make edible necklaces. If needed, beads can be used instead of cereal with older children. "This (activity) encourages the index finger and thumb to work together in opposition, which readies the hand for future skills like holding a pencil and manipulating buttons and zippers," says Baez.
  3. Monkey Around
    Slice ripe bananas into one-inch-thick coins. Have the children poke holes through the banana slices with the straw, fitting as many as they can onto one straw. Kids can eat the leftover slices for a healthy snack! "It's important to remember that toddlers can hone fine motor skills by parents encouraging and helping them to become more independent in everyday tasks," says Dr. Ashanti Woods, an attending pediatric physician at Mercy Medical Center. "This means allowing them to feed themselves with a baby spoon or baby fork -- have plenty of paper towels on stand-by." This activity is excellent for this approach, as it can easily be incorporated into snack time.
  4. Treasure Hunting
    Place several objects into a large bowl or bucket of dry rice. These should be small items like keys, buttons, smooth rocks or little action figures. Have kids "hunt" for the objects and try to guess what they are without taking them out of the rice. "The purpose is to enhance the awareness of different textures and identifying objects without using vision," says Baez. "This skill is needed for future skills like buckling a belt."
  5. Put Everything in Its Place
    Collect containers of various sizes with lids, such as old coffee cans, plastic containers or mason jars (watch your toddler carefully with any glass containers). Next, let your toddler place small toys into the containers, close the lids and then redo the process over and over. In addition to practicing small movements with his fingers and hands, this also helps your child learn to match objects of similar sizes as he figures out which lid fits each container.
  6. Water Color
    Fill a small bowl with water. Let your preschooler dip his index finger into the water, and draw strokes onto colored construction paper for a mess-free "paint" session. For a reusable option, consider investing in magic water-painting paper, which will show the image for a few minutes before evaporating.

Whatever fine motor activities you choose to play, remember that repetition is key for building strength, which leads to better skills. Dr. Woods explains, "Fine motor development begins as soon as the baby comes out of the womb. Whether it's a baby using his or her eyes to track a parent as the parent walks across the room, or the baby using his pointer finger to touch the thumb (also known as the pincer grasp), fine motor development is constantly taking place around us every day."

Want more activities? Try these Developmental Activities for 3-Year-Olds and Older Preschoolers.

Christina Montoya Fiedler is a mom, wife, copy writer, parenting blogger, former publicist, dog lover, Los Angeles native, coffee drinker extraordinaire and lima bean hater. Follow her @cmf2009.

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