How to help your toddler develop fine motor skills
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When it comes to using gross motor skills — things like walking, jumping, and running — your little dynamo probably doesn't need much encouragement. But it's equally important that she work on her fine motor skills — small, precise thumb, finger, hand, and wrist movements. That's because they support a host of other vital physical and mental skills. "Stacking blocks, for instance, involves not just picking up the blocks, but knowing what to do with them and planning out the action," says Gay Girolami, a physical therapist and executive director of the Pathways Awareness Foundation, a nonprofit organization focused on physical development in Chicago.
How can you encourage your child's fine motor skills? As any parent who's ever heard "Me do it!" knows, toddlers don't need much prodding to try new things. Of course, your child won't be able to do everything she wants to right away. But with encouragement, support, and lots of time to learn, she might surprise you. So back off and let her try her hand at simple tasks, like getting dressed (she can start looping large buttons through buttonholes) and making breakfast (hand her a spatula, a slice of toast, and a jar of jam, and let her get busy). Remember, too, that variety is the spice of life, so mix things up once in a while. The activities below, for instance, will build on your child's fine motor skills and help foster new ones.
- Filling Up and Dumping Out
As your child's daily wake of destruction has made perfectly clear, emptying a container requires a lot less precision than filling one. This is one of the first fine motor feats your toddler will master — and once she does, she's likely to repeat it with a vengeance. As exasperating as it may be come cleanup time, this dumping is an important cognitive exercise, too: Your child is beginning to realize that one object, like a bucket, can hold another object, like a load of dirt. Once this dawns on her, she'll delight in establishing that the dirt can also be emptied out.
Prepare for this stage by setting up play areas and offering manageable activities. Taking blocks out of a large box, pegs out of a pegboard, toys out of a trunk, and sturdy puzzle pieces out of a puzzle will keep your toddler busy and may distract her from less charming pursuits, such as emptying a bag of cat food onto the floor. Once she has the "taking out" step down, it's time for the "putting in" step. Some of the above tasks can be reversed (although you may not be able to generate much enthusiasm for putting toys away) and will flex your child's visual and mental muscles as well as her fine motor skills. For a follow-up, encourage her to try a more challenging feat, such as dropping "O" cereal bits into a container with a slightly narrowed neck, or trying her hand at a shape-sorter.
- Dressing and Undressing
Ten minutes ago you dressed your toddler in his Sunday best. Now that you're ready to head out, he's stark naked again! Putting things on and taking them off is a toddler delight. But your child isn't doing it to tax your patience. And dressing and undressing — himself or a toy — provides a host of opportunities for him to practice his finger and hand coordination.
Help your child out by creating as many chances for success as possible. Tiny doll clothes are too intricate for him and will only lead to tears, but big capes or ponchos for his teddy bears will be manageable (you can cut these out of felt). Felt boards with people shapes and changeable outfits are perfect, too, since they let toddlers indulge their fashion sense (and sorting skills) without being too challenging. Reusable stickers can also fascinate, though very small ones are tough for little fingers to manage. If your toddler especially enjoys dressing himself, provide him with a big box of dress-up clothes that are easy to manage — dad's old coat and shoes, your old scarves, and hats galore.
When it comes to dressing himself for the day, your toddler will do best with pants that have elastic waists, pull-on tops, and Velcro-fastening shoes to minimize morning struggles. Be sure to introduce new challenges — a single large button or a big snap — one at a time.
- Drawing and Scribbling
Sometime between the ages of 12 and 18 months, your toddler will probably attempt to "write" by making marks on paper, and sometime between 18 and 24 months she may surprise you by drawing vertical and horizontal lines and perhaps a circle. Applaud these early doodles, which encourage a whole raft of new abilities: Drawing with a crayon involves fine motor skills such as grasping and holding, for instance, as well as boosting your child's visual acumen and tapping her imagination.
Set up your budding artist with big sheets of thick paper taped to the table — after all, nothing inhibits creativity like a dismayed shriek from Mom when the crayon slides onto the tablecloth or rips through thin newsprint. Thick, sturdy crayons or washable pens in a few primary colors (so as not to overwhelm) are a good choice. If your toddler isn't interested, offer some alternatives: chunky sidewalk chalk to use outdoors, paper pinned to an easel instead of a flat surface, or soap crayons in the tub might pique her interest.
And don't forget finger-painting. While learning how to hold and manipulate an implement is important, finger-painting gives your toddler's fine motor skills and creativity a workout, too. If she's tired of paints, try printing. Hand- and footprints on paper makes great gift wrap. Or tap into her interest in nature and brush leaves, acorns, carrot-tops, or flower petals with paint to use as homemade stamps. For a special treat, let her finger-paint with pudding or brightly hued fruit juice — she'll exercise her motor skills and will have fun licking her fingers.
- Stacking, Sorting, and Stringing
From carefully balancing one block on top of another to placing colored rings on a pole, stacking (and knocking down, of course) is a toddler tradition. It's also a fantastic way for your child to use her ever-more-nimble fingers and to work on her sorting and building skills. To make these architectural pursuits even more intriguing, let your child experiment with blocks of different sizes, shapes, and colors, and offer a variety of other materials for building and manipulating. Though ABCs and 1-2-3s games are a ways off, your toddler can sort refrigerator alphabet magnets by color or size. Or introduce her to bead stringing with plastic snap-together beads. Once she's mastered those, offer her a thick shoelace and a piece of felt with holes cut in it or a sturdy string and big wooden beads — before you know it, she'll be making edible jewelry (colored pasta shapes or fruit rings are perfect for this).
- Poking and Pinching
Toddlers are sensualists above all else — they love to smell, taste, and touch. If you give your child plenty of fun-to-feel materials to keep her little hands busy, she'll have a great time developing their strength and agility.
Non-toxic modeling clay invites hand and finger movement as your child rolls, shapes, punches, and molds the material to her liking. A few simple tools, such as a lightweight rolling pin and some plastic cookie cutters, stretch this activity out longer. If your toddler seems reluctant, try a few different products — she may not like the smell of one or the feel of another. And the softer the dough, the easier it is for small hands to shape. Real edible dough is, of course, the ultimate treat, so when you bake, give her some leftover dough to shape into her own "pie" and cook it with yours. (If baking isn't something you have much chance to do, check out the frozen dough in the freezer section of your grocery store.) And finally, don't forget "gak," the gooey preschool favorite made from equal parts white glue and water (often colored with food coloring), which kids just love to squish and squeeze.
Outside (or in the basement, if you have a big one), a mud pie kitchen or a sandcastle construction zone creates opportunities to use those same manipulative skills. As your toddler molds a tower and carefully tops it with a feather, she won't even realize she's honing her fine motor skills — but you will!