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Handy Work

There's no doubt about it: Seeing your child master the major milestones of the first two years -- crawling, walking, running -- is pretty thrilling. So it's easy at this stage to overlook the fact that his fine motor skills -- his ability to move his hands and fingers in a deliberate manner -- are blossoming too. To keep you up to speed, here's a rundown of some amazing leaps he'll make in manual dexterity.

Accomplishment:

Picking up Cheerios or little pieces of food one by one. He can even grab them from his bowl and drop them into his cup or another container (let him practice with a muffin pan or an ice-cube tray).

When it happens: 12 to 15 months

What it means: Your child is beginning to understand that small objects can be placed in and taken out of larger ones. And he's increasingly confident with his pincer grasp -- using thumb and forefinger to grip an object.

How to help: Children this age stick everything into their mouth -- so first and foremost, keep a very close eye on what he's picking up and what he's doing with it. Encourage him to practice his new skill by giving him his favorite finger foods to work with, as long as they are reasonably good for him, soft enough to gum, and larger than half an inch in diameter (anything smaller could be a choking hazard). He'll enjoy showing off his achievements and having a yummy snack at the same time, says Barbara F. Cracchiolo, a pediatric occupational therapist in Huntington Beach, California.

Accomplishment:

Assembling a series of large objects on a string. She'll be able to thread thick yarn through big wooden beads and empty spools of thread (make sure the objects she's using are too big to fit through a toilet-paper tube).

When it happens: 15 to 18 months

What it means: Your tot now has the ability to use both hands to accomplish a task. Known to developmental experts as bimanual skills, this vital new talent really kicks in during the second year of life.

How to help: Once again, monitor your child carefully and don't give her any small beads or other objects that could be choking hazards. Demonstrate how to string the objects first. If she needs more guidance, hold her hands and help her through the task.

Accomplishment:

Stacking blocks. You'll start to see your little one making mini towers with two or three blocks -- and by the end of this year, he'll be able to stack four to six.

When it happens: 18 months and up

What it means: He's showing his mastery of a tricky move called controlled release. "It's much easier to pick up an object than to carefully put it where you want it to go and then let go of it," says Jody L. Jensen, Ph.D., an associate professor in the department of kinesiology and health education at the University of Texas, in Austin.

How to help: Fill a basket or box with large wooden or fabric blocks in mixed sizes and shapes that your child can easily pick up and manipulate, Cracchiolo recommends. Store the container on a low shelf so he can play with the blocks whenever he likes. Let him do the building, but if you see signs of frustration, step in and help him out.

Accomplishment:

Feeding herself with a spoon or fork. Your junior dining companion may be an incredibly sloppy eater -- but remember, simply being able to move her applesauce in the right direction is an achievement in itself. "Kids aren't too accurate with this until they're close to 2 years old," says Sharon Ramey, Ph.D., coauthor of Right From Birth. "Often they get the food to their cheek instead of their mouth."

When it happens: 18 months and up

What it means: Your toddler has a growing awareness of how her body relates to objects around it. She's figuring out how to find her mouth with the correct part of the spoon -- which is trickier than simply bringing hand to mouth -- and she'll soon learn to rotate the spoon so that food doesn't spill as she raises it.

How to help: Let her get messy. "Babies have a lot of fun feeding themselves," Dr. Ramey says. Your child will get more coordinated with practice. Offer verbal praise for getting the food on the utensil and into her mouth. The more chances she gets to feed herself, the more she'll hone her visual-spatial orientation. She'll have plenty of time later to learn proper table manners and cleanup skills.