Another area of development to encourage this year is fine motor skills—or use of the hands. Just as gross motor skills enable your child to perform important everyday tasks, such as getting out of bed and going downstairs for breakfast, fine motor abilities allow for increasing independence in smaller but equally significant matters: opening doors, zipping zippers, brushing teeth, washing hands, and so on.
When combined with increasing hand-eye coordination, fine motor skills also open new doors to exploration, learning, and creative expression. In fact, research shows that emphasis on purely intellectual activities—memorization of letters and numbers, for instance—is far less useful at this stage than pursuits that encourage fine motor abilities and hand-eye coordination. These skills—rather than counting or reciting the alphabet—lay the foundation for academic learning in later years. In order to learn to write or draw, for example, a child's hand must be strong and coordinated enough to hold a pencil steady for a long period of time; in order to participate in school sports, games, and projects, dexterity and coordination must be up to par.
Among the fine motor skills your child will perfect in the preschool years are the abilities to:
The best way for you to help promote these and other hand-related skills is to provide your child with a wide range of materials to manipulate as her imagination dictates. Good choices include blocks (especially the interlocking types like magnetic blocks, Legos, bristle blocks, Tinker Toys, and construction straws), crayons, nontoxic and washable markers and paints, paste, glue, modeling clay, an easel, construction paper, safety scissors, a smock to guard against stained clothing, coloring books, and simple sewing cards. This is also a prime time for puzzles, sand and water toys, and musical instruments.
Once you've provided your child with the tools that inspire creativity, stand back and let him loose, even if things are likely to get rather messy. Preschoolers tend to focus more on process than on product. They throw themselves into exploring the properties and possibilities of materials like paint, mud, sand, water, and glue without worrying about the results. In fact, when your 3-year-old proudly displays his latest masterpiece, you should try not to ask, "What is it?" That question may have never even occurred to him.
Instead, admire the work for what it is: "That's really wonderful! Tell me just how you did it." Then, encourage him to explain to you in his own words how he felt and what he was thinking about while he was making it.
The less control you try to impose over your child's creativity, the better. This advice especially holds true when it comes to the hand your child favors. One of the milestones of this age is becoming right-handed or left-handed. In fact, handedness is an important sign of increasing brain organization. By age 4, some 90 percent of children have become clearly right-handed, while the rest have become dedicated southpaws.
The main determinant of handedness is heredity, so it's best not to tamper with your child's genetic predisposition. Left-handers are no less socially acceptable than righties. And when pressure from parents or preschool teachers induces a child to switch, doing so usually takes a long-term toll in emotional upset and poor coordination.
So let your child lead the way. And don't be alarmed if her fine motor skills progress more slowly than her gross motor development. Fine motor skills develop more slowly because the kinds of delicate movements that enable children to manipulate objects (stacking and nesting blocks or putting together puzzle pieces, for example) can be learned only over time with a lot of practice. Unfortunately, while most 3-year-olds will run happily for hours on a playground, few really have the patience to sit and copy a drawing of a circle or a cross over and over. And keep in mind that the smaller muscles of the body (like those in the hands and fingers) tire out more easily than the larger muscles in the arms and legs, so endurance and strength must be built up gradually before your child's dexterity can improve.
There's one more reason why your child's fine motor skills progress more slowly: They are closely linked to cognitive development. In order to build a fort with blocks, for instance, a child must be able to think in a three-dimensional manner. Adding limbs, hair, or facial features to an incomplete picture of a person means that your child is capable of understanding that two-dimensional drawings can symbolize real people. Your child must mentally compare the picture with stored images of what people look like to figure out what's missing from the drawing, and he must be able to manipulate a pencil or crayon well enough to fill in the absent features.
The thought process involved in such acts is far more complicated than that for figuring out how to climb a ladder, chase a ball, or walk out a door. So it's important for you to be patient, encouraging, and supportive of your child's efforts. Whatever he masters today will stand him in good stead once he starts more formal learning in kindergarten and beyond.
All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.
Sources: Angela Mattke, M.D., a pediatrician at the Mayo Clinic Children’s Center, in Rochester, Minnesota; Tiffany Otto Knipe, M.D., a pediatrician in New York City; Sandra Schmieg, a pediatric occupational therapist at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.