Hands On! Fine Motor Skills

You'll be amazed by the big leaps in your toddler's fine motor skills this year.

Handy Tools

My daughter, Sasha, has a knack for pushing my buttons (like the time she used my new toothbrush to clean our dog's teeth). But recently, she's become adept at pushing other types of buttons, such as the tiny red panic one on my car keys -- right in the middle of a busy restaurant. Lesson learned: Don't underestimate your child's nimble little fingers.

After your child's first birthday, her manual dexterity will really take off. She'll learn to build block towers, scribble with a crayon, and use a spoon. These developments have as much to do with a child's brain as with her hands. "As a toddler's mind matures, she'll start to use her hands differently," says Nasreen Talib, MD, a pediatrician at Children's Mercy Hospitals and Clinics in Kansas City, Missouri. Babies use their mouth to explore objects. But as your child's motor skills improve, her hands become a more important tool. She'll use them to discover how a toy feels, what it does, and how she can control it.

Your child's increasing gross motor skills also contribute to his ability to use his hands. "It's hard for a child to manipulate anything well until he can keep himself upright without losing his balance," says Victoria Nackley, assistant professor of occupational therapy at Utica College, in New York. Get ready for these breakthroughs -- and be ready to lend a helping hand.

The Breakthroughs

Handy skill: She points at things.

Your child is figuring out how to use her fingers individually. Poking objects is beneficial too: It helps her strengthen each finger. Just make sure she steers clear of her brother's eye.

When it happens: By 13 months

How you can help: Encourage her to knead and experiment with Play-Doh -- it's the equivalent of calisthenics for little hands. Let her squish through a bowl of pudding or Jell-O (if you can stand the mess). See whether she can push individual keys on a mini piano, and show her how to press the buttons on a toy that pops up, flashes lights, or makes sounds.

Handy skill: He moves objects between his palms and his fingers.

Your child's thumbs are becoming quite nimble. He uses them to roll objects up and down his palms, a skill he'll use to control and play with things.

When it happens: 15 to 18 months

How it can help: Give your child a sticky object, such as a ball of masking tape, to play with. The extra resistance will strengthen his fingers. Also show him how to move an object from his fingertips to his palm, then grip it tightly to hide it. This boosts hand coordination, and you can turn it into a fun game: Have him open his fist to show you the object when you "guess" what it is.

Handy Skill: She feeds herself.

Although many kids can hold a spoon by the time they're 1, most won't be able to maneuver food into their mouth until their motor skills improve. "And even then, they don't have very good table manners," says Ari Brown, MD, Parents advisor and author of Toddler 411: Clear Answers and Smart Advice for Your Toddler. "Many toddlers continue to pick up food with their fingers."

When it happens: 15 to 20 months

How you can help: Give her a small plastic spoon to hold. Even if she just plays with it, this will help her develop the ability to use it. Eat meals together with your child, so she can watch and imitate your actions. When she's ready, give her a small amount of applesauce or yogurt. Don't expect much to make it into her mouth at first. And hold off on handing her a fork for a while. Even if it's plastic, she could still hurt herself.

Handy Skill: He creates works of art.

Your toddler gains control of his palm muscles, which lets him get creative. Instead of just patting clay, he can knead it, pull it, squash it, or roll it into a ball (or something resembling one). He'll also become an accomplished little builder, using his newfound dexterity to stack several blocks at a time.

When it happens: 18 to 24 months

How you can help: Let him roll and shape clay. Keep washable markers, crayons, and paper within reach so he can draw whenever he wants. You can also try finger-painting, though you'll want to supervise this messy activity closely. Boost his hand strength and coordination by having him tear a sheet of paper, crumple it into a ball, and (with your help) glue it to an art project. And give him stickers to embellish his work.

Song-and-Hand Games

Build your child's manual skills by playing these classic song-and-hand games with him.

  • "The itsy-bitsy spider"
  • "Here is the church, here is the steeple"
  • "Miss Mary Mack"
  • "This little piggy"
  • "Open, shut them"

Copyright © 2007. Used with permission from the September 2007 issue of Parents magazine.

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