When Do Kids Develop Manipulative Motor Skills?

Kids playing a game with balloons

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Manipulative skills involve moving or using an object with the hands or feet to achieve a goal or complete a task. For fine motor skills, that object might be a pencil or button. For gross motor skills, the object might be sporting equipment or toys such as bats, balls, racquets, or jump ropes. These skills are also sometimes called object-control skills. 

Types of Manipulative Skills

In the gross-motor area, these skills include:

  • Bouncing
  • Catching
  • Dribbling (moving a ball with the feet, as in soccer)
  • Kicking or rolling (a ball)
  • Lifting
  • Pushing and pulling (the object might be a wheeled toy)
  • Striking (such as swinging a baseball bat or golf club to hit a ball)
  • Throwing
  • Volleying (a ball back and forth to another person, either with the hands or a racquet)

Activities like pencil tracing, stacking coins, and playing checkers, by contrast, require fine motor skills.

When and How Skills Develop

Think of these skills as building blocks. Easier skills serve as a foundation for more challenging activities. Children learn the very basic skills as infants, and gradually conquer more complex tasks as they grow. Object control skills are harder for kids to master because they are more complex and challenging than motor skills that don't involve objects. Thus, they develop after other gross motor skills.

When children are first learning manipulative skills, the goal isn't complete accuracy—hitting a ball right at a target, for example, or throwing it to another player in a game. They must first learn the basic action before they can fine-tune it.

If you are worried about any aspect of your child's physical development including developmental milestones or mastery of manipulative skills, contact their doctor or your school district's early intervention program. Sometimes physical or occupational therapy is recommended.

Games to Develop Skills

To help develop and fine-tune these skills, you can also participate with your child in activities like these at home:

  • Bowling: Start with large, lightweight pins (such as empty 2-liter soda bottles). Then move to smaller plastic bottles, add weight to large bottles or use a kids' bowling set.
  • Kick it: Have kids practice kicking with a large beach ball or soft foam ball. Challenge them to kick with their preferred foot, then switch to their other foot. See if they can kick their ball from a spot you choose and hit a wall; gradually move them farther from the wall. You can also hold up a jump rope and see if they can kick the ball over it or under it.
  • Over the line: Divide a playing area in half with a line (use chalk, tape, or a long jump rope to mark it). Put an equal number of soft items—like scarves, rolled-up socks, beach balls or lightweight bean bags—on either side of the line. Have kids toss the objects over the line, onto the floor on the opposite side. They can then switch sides and throw the items back over the line to the other side. Make it more fun by using small stuffed animals and pretending they are crossing a river.
  • Strike up the band: Young children often enjoy practicing striking by drumming on pots and pans with spoons or playing with other toy musical instruments.
1 Source
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  1. Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU. Gross Motor Skills: Birth to 5 Years.

By Catherine Holecko
Catherine Holecko is an experienced freelance writer and editor who specializes in pregnancy, parenting, health and fitness.