Developing Fine Motor Skills in Preschoolers

Your child's mastery of fine-motor skills will allow them greater independence. Here are some of the skills your youngster will perfect in the preschool years.

child learning to get dressed
Photo: Blend Images/Getty

Just as gross motor skills, which require the coordination of the large muscle groups such as those in the arms and legs, enable your preschooler to perform important everyday tasks such as getting out of bed and sitting on the potty, fine motor skills allow for increasing independence in smaller but equally significant tasks such as opening doors, zipping zippers, brushing teeth, washing hands, and using a fork.

What Are Fine Motor Skills?

Fine motor skills are the everyday movements (like holding a pencil or tying a shoelace) that require the strength, coordination, and dexterity of the small muscles of the body like those in the hands, fingers, and wrists.

Read on to learn about fine motor skill development in preschoolers and how you can help your little one master these skills.

The Importance of Fine Motor Skills

When combined with increasing hand-eye coordination, fine motor skills open new doors to exploration, learning, and creative expression.

In fact, research shows that emphasis on purely intellectual activities—like 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. It is these fine motor skills that actually 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.

Examples of Fine Motor Skills for Preschoolers

Among the fine motor skills most 3- or 4-year-olds will master in their preschool years are the abilities to:

  • Thread large beads onto a string
  • Cut out simple shapes with safety scissors
  • Build a tower of 10 blocks
  • Paste things onto paper
  • Button and unbutton
  • Work a zipper
  • Complete puzzles with five or more pieces
  • Manipulate pencils and crayons well enough to color and draw
  • Copy a circle or cross onto a piece of paper

How to Encourage Fine Motor Skills in Preschoolers

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 their imagination dictates. Good choices include blocks, modeling clay, simple sewing cards, and crayons, markers, and paints. This is also a prime time for simple puzzles, sand and water toys, and musical instruments.

Encouraging fine motor skills can be a fun and enriching experience for your child. Try one or more of these hands-on, engaging activities that will have your child building up those critical fine motor skills in no time.

Cutting with safety scissors

There are many affordable options for scissor skills booklets that feature fun designs for kids to cut out. By following various patterns, kids learn to manipulate scissors to cut along lines and curves, which is a fantastic and difficult fine motor skill for preschoolers to practice. To create your own, try drawing simple shapes like circles, squares, or zigzagging lines on paper and have your preschooler practice their cutting skills.


Playing with puppets requires hand-eye coordination, not to mention lots of fun imagination. There are many tutorials online for making your own puppets out of everything from old socks to paper bags. Not only can your child help create their puppet, but putting it to use will be a marvelous activity to strengthen those little hand muscles.

Building with blocks

Your child needs hand and wrist stability to place blocks on top of one another with control. Large wooden ones are easiest for younger kids to manipulate. Once they get the hang of larger blocks, you can switch to smaller building materials. And while we love interlocking blocks like magnetic tiles and bristle blocks as much as the next parent, learning to stack good old-fashioned wooden building blocks of different shapes and sizes will really help your preschooler practice fine motor skills.

Using playdough

Playdough is a wonderful tool for helping your preschooler develop their fine motor skills. Teach your child how to roll a ball, a "snake" shape, and how to pinch, poke, and pull the dough into different shapes. All of that work will help develop their hand and wrist muscles to give them better control and precision over time.

Flossing and brushing teeth

Not only will regular flossing and brushing help set your child up for a future of healthy teeth, but the action of manipulating a child's flosser and toothbrush can go a long way toward building those necessary fine motor skills.

Using silverware

Using silverware at the table for every meal offers consistent and frequent opportunities to practice fine motor skills. Your child will not only learn how to eat with silverware but they will get plenty of practice building up those hand and wrist muscles.


Create some fun art by cutting out shapes and pasting them onto paper. This is a fantastic activity that combines the cognitive skills of creative thinking and problem-solving with the fine motor skills required to cut and paste. Grab some googly eyes, feathers, and tissue paper to create wonderful artistic landscapes.

Hole punch designs

Similar to scissor cutting, this activity uses a hole punch to follow simple lines or designs. Save all the paper dots to paste on construction paper for even more fine motor skill practice.

Car wash

Gather up all your child's toy cars (or dinosaurs, dolls, and plastic figures), some soap, and a toothbrush to create a fun washing game. Have your child "scrub" the toys clean using the toothbrush to get into all those nooks and crannies.

Colander bouquets

Take a regular old colander and flip it over, making a dome. Grab some faux flowers and have your preschooler stick the stems in the holes to create a beautiful bouquet. No faux flowers? No problem! Try the same activity with pipe cleaners and create a silly creature.

Button sorting

Teach your child their colors while simultaneously giving them an opportunity to work their fingers while nimbly picking through colorful buttons to sort into containers. Sort by size, color, or shape to help your child think about all the different ways to categorize buttons. Their fingers and hand-eye coordination will get a great workout.

Build on basic skills

As your preschooler’s dexterity improves, encourage them to use both hands to do new tasks. Have them try threading big beads or rigatoni pasta with yarn. And play games like “The Itsy-Bitsy Spider” to teach them how to work their hands in tandem.

Timeline for Developing Fine Motor Skills

Let your child lead the way. And don't be alarmed if their fine motor skills progress more slowly than their 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.

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 they must be able to manipulate a pencil or crayon well enough to fill in the absent features.

The thought process involved in these activities is far more complicated than that of 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 they master today will stand them in good stead once they start more formal learning in kindergarten and beyond.

When to See a Specialist

If you notice your preschooler is really struggling with performing age-appropriate tasks such as holding a pencil, brushing their teeth, cutting with safety scissors, buttoning or zipping their clothing, then it might be time to talk to your child's health care provider to rule out an underlying health concern.

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.

Was this page helpful?
Parents uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Association Between Preschoolers' Fine (But Not Gross) Motor Skills and Later Academic Competencies: Educational Implications. Frontiers in Psychology. 2020.

Related Articles