Fine Motor Skills for Toddlers and Preschoolers

A young boy draws in a book.

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Many of a child's daily activities involve the use of fine motor skills like getting dressed, opening a lunchbox, and using a pencil. These skills, which involve coordinated efforts between their fingers, hands, and eyes, begin with grasping a rattle and the raking finger grasp as a baby and eventually evolve to more complex skills like using scissors, manipulating a computer mouse, and even playing a musical instrument. Learn why these skills are important and how to help your child build on these skills.

What Are Fine Motor Skills?

Fine motor skills refer to the coordination between your child's small muscles, like those in their hands, wrists, and fingers in coordination with their eyes. Fine motor skills involve the small muscles of the body that enable such functions as writing, grasping small objects, and fastening clothing. They also involve strength, fine motor control, and dexterity.

These skills are important in most school activities as well as in life in general. Weaknesses in fine motor skills can affect a child's ability to eat, write legibly, use a computer, as well as turn pages in a book and perform personal care tasks, such as dressing and grooming.

Milestones for Fine Motor Skills

Although children develop at different rates, having an approximate timeline when they reach certain milestones can be useful in helping you determine if your child is progressing at a normal rate. Here are some general guidelines for fine motor skill development.

Birth to One Year

During your baby's first year of life, they will develop a number of fine motor skills. For instance, a newborn typically has a primitive hand grasp and by 2 months of age they can hold a rattle when it's placed in their hand.

By 6 months of age, babies can typically hold one block in two hands and can shake a rattle. At 9 months, most babies display the raking pincer grasp and by 12 months of age they have perfected the pincer grasp, can hold a bottle, and can drop a block into a cup.

One to Two Years

At 18 months old, many babies can insert different shapes into toys as well as stack two to three cups. They also should be able to feed themselves with their fingers and scribble with a crayon in their fist. By 2 years old, a toddler usually can copy a vertical line, use a spoon, and stack six cups. They also are beginning to learn how to help dress themselves.

Two to Three Years

During the time period between their second birthday and their third birthday, most children are learning to make circles as well as copy a horizontal line. They also are mastering drinking from an open cup as well as using a fork and a spoon. Kids this age also can undress themselves as well as remove their socks and shoes.

Three to Four Years

As preschoolers approach their fourth birthday, they are perfecting their drawing skills. They should be able to copy a cross as well as draw a two- to four-part person. They also are learning to cut paper and can dress themselves but may still struggle with buttoning buttons.

Four to Five Years

By the time a child is 5 years old, they should be able to copy a square and draw a 10-part person. They also are likely more adept at holding a pencil using the tripod position and can color between the lines. Kids this age also should be able to wash and dry their hands thoroughly.

How Fine Motor Skills Develop

Your child's fine motor skills will develop through every day actions and at playtime with activities that involve grasping, holding, and pressing. They also will perfect the pincer grasp first through feeding and then through play and eventually by dressing themselves.

As your child grows and their fine motor skills improve, they will move on to more advanced skills. For instance, they will learn to tie their shoes, button buttons, use scissors, write their name, open and close plastic baggies, put a straw in a juice box, and open their lunchbox.

If you feel your child is falling behind or not meeting certain milestones, be sure to talk to your child's doctor.

They can evaluate your child and offer suggestions of things you can do at home to help improve your child's fine motor skills. They also can refer you to a specialist if needed.

Activities to Build Fine Motor Skills

When it comes to helping your child develop their fine motor skills, you don't have to do anything fancy nor do you have to buy expensive toys. Most kids can practice and improve their fine motor skills through play and normal every day actions.

For instance, you can invite your child to help in the kitchen by making cookies, setting the table, or pouring their own milk. You also can let them practice fine motor skills by using tweezers to pick things up or practice putting rubber bands around a cup. Here are some other ways to practice fine motor skills at home.

Toys and Games

Many toys develop fine motor skills, including those for infants and toddlers. For school-aged children, puzzles as well as board games with pieces and parts to pick up and move are ideal for developing these skills. For instance, Jenga is a strategy game using fine motor skills that focus on the pincher grip, which is necessary for writing.

Remote control cars are great for preschool and elementary kids. Video games also can be helpful but watch out for carpal tunnel syndrome. Also, be sure to check the video game ratings to ensure they are appropriate for your child.

Drawing and Coloring

You can help your child practice their fine motor skills by drawing with them using markers, crayons, colored pencils, and chalk. Drawings needn't be perfect, and scribbling is just fine for developing fine motor skills.

Scratch Magic kits have the cool factor older children like. Make your own by coloring paper with multiple colors and shapes and then covering the sheet in black crayon. Scratch off with an orange stick or safety scissors.

Crafts

Paper-cutting activities build skills and muscle control and can be as simple or complex as you want them to be. Beginners can start with cutting out paper chains and progress to more complex projects.

For older kids try origami, a fun paper-folding art. Use construction paper, wrapping paper, or other decorative papers to make origami shapes. Or, try these crafts with your child:

  • Create greeting cards and placemat crafts
  • Learn Kirigami, a Chinese art that uses decorative paper cutting
  • Make paper snowflakes
  • Try a rainbow loom craft
  • Develop a collage together
  • Finger paint a picture
  • Make figures out of clay

Problems With Fine Motor Skills

There are some warning signs that your child may have issues with fine motor skills such as frequently dropping things, difficulty holding spoon, as well as trouble writing or using scissors. As your child gets older, even the inability to tie their shoes could indicate a problem. To determine if your child has issues with fine motor skill development, it's important to ask your doctor for an evaluation if you suspect an issue.

If your child is identified with fine motor weaknesses that may affect their education, discuss your concerns with your child's teacher. Or, if your child has an individualized education plan (IEP), discuss the issue with the IEP team.

Evaluation by a physical or occupational therapist can determine if their fine motor skills are a concern and if therapy can improve them.

Your child's team will use the therapists' assessments and other evaluation data to determine if your child needs regular therapy as a related service. If your child needs therapy to benefit from specially designed instruction, these services will be written into the IEP.

A Word From Verywell

When it comes to the development of fine motor skills, most of your child's development will occur naturally as they learn and play. But you can help your kids improve these skills by choosing activities, toys, and games that support fine motor skill development.

If you start to notice some delays or suspect that your child is experiencing challenges learning or perfecting these skills, talk to your child's pediatrician. Early diagnosis and intervention is important in getting your child the support they need.

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