Baby fine motor skills

You might have heard of fine motor skills and be wondering what exactly they are, why fine motor skills are important and how you can support your child's development in this area. Read on to find out what fine motor skills are and how they develop as your child gets older. You’ll also find some examples of activities that can help develop your baby or toddler’s fine motor skills based on his or her age.

What Are Fine Motor Skills?

Fine motor skills – sometimes also known as ‘hand and finger skills’ – are the ability to coordinate movements of those small muscles in the wrists, hands and fingers. They’re important for things like buttoning up clothes, using scissors, writing, tying shoelaces, eating, picking up and handling small objects and all the other ‘fiddly’ tasks that you probably take for granted. Even though these movements probably come completely naturally for you, your child will spend the first few years of his or her life learning how. You might have heard of gross motor skills, these are the ability to coordinate the large muscle movements of the arms, legs, and feet, as well as the ability to balance and control the entire body. You can encourage your child’s fine motor skills development through various activities and play depending on his or her age. We’ll give you some concrete examples on what to try in the next sections. Remember that since each child develops at his or her own pace, the development of your child's fine motor skills may happen earlier or later when compared to another child. If you’re ever worried or have any questions about your child’s development, talk to your health visitor or doctor.

Fine Motor Skills in the First 3 Months

In the first few weeks most of your newborn baby’s movements will seem random, but your infant can already grip onto your finger with his or her fingers or toes. This is just one of the many reflexes your child is born with. Others include turning towards your breast and sucking when hungry or making stepping movements if you hold your infant upright on a flat surface. Most of these reflexes (except sucking) disappear after a few months, but by then your baby’s fine motor skills will be developing apace. You’ll need to be careful during this time, because these movements are reflexive your newborn could release at any moment – that’s why you should never hold your baby up with just her hands curled around your finger, for example.

By 3 Months Old, your baby will likely be able to:

  • Put a hand to his or her mouth

  • Reach out and swipe for nearby dangling objects

  • Open and close his or her hands.

How to Help Develop Your 1- to 3-Month-Old's Fine Motor Skills

To encourage the development of these fine motor skills, show your little one toys that stimulate various different senses. As your baby starts getting the hang of controlling the finger and hand muscles, he or she will reach out and explore them by touch. Toys that could help your baby’s development at this stage include:

  • Musical mobiles

  • Rattles with different shapes and textures

  • Comforters with various tactile materials and bright colours.

In Summary

By around 3 months old your baby will be able to open and close the hands, bring a hand up to his or her mouth and swipe for objects dangled nearby. Help develop these fine motor skills by offering toys that stimulate different senses and attract your baby’s attention.

Fine Motor Skills at 3 to 6 Months Old

Between the ages of 3 and 6 months old, your infant will keep developing those fine motor skills, becoming more dextrous as the weeks and months pass by. By 6 months old your baby will probably be

  • starting to grasp objects

  • reaching with one hand at a time

  • shaking and banging toys in his or her hands

  • using the hands like a little claw or rake, picking things up with a scraping motion.

Fine Motor Skills Activities for Your 3- to 6-Month-Old Baby

  • Let your baby hold onto your fingers, and pull him or her up into a sitting position

  • Encourage your baby to reach for toys

  • Give your little one toys like rattles that are fun to shake, look at, listen to and grab hold of.

In Summary

Examples of your baby’s fine motor skills at around 6 months old might include grasping objects, shaking them and banging them against a surface. You might also notice your baby picking things up with a raking motion.

 

6-month-old baby fine motor skills

Fine Motor Skills at 6 to 12 Months

Between 6 months and 1 year of age, you could start to discover one of the more challenging aspects of your child’s newfound fine motor skills. For example, your baby may want to put everything in his or her mouth. As a part of baby proofing your home, you’ve probably already cleared away any small objects that could be a choking hazard or could be dangerous if your child ingests it – but just to be on the safe side it might be worth doing another sweep of the house, paying close attention to anything that’s within your baby’s reach. There’s an upside to this, of course: Your little gourmet will be able to eat finger foods and hold a cup as he or she makes the transition from breast milk or formula to solid food.

By 12 months old your child will usually be able to

  • use a ‘pincer grasp’ to pick things up between a thumb and finger

  • bang two objects together

  • place objects into a box or other container and take them out again

  • let go of things at will

  • poke and prod things with an index finger.

Fine Motor Skills Activities for Your 6- to 12-Month-Old

Here are just a few examples of activities for your 6- to 12-month-old to help improve fine motor skills:

  • Encourage your baby to play at ‘dropping’ things – this is an important way of learning about cause and effect

  • From around 9 months old onwards, play games with your baby that encourage the use of a pincer grasp (holding things between the thumb and forefinger). For example, taking soft toys or safe household items like plastic spoons out of a basket and putting them back in again.

  • Your little one may also love playing with latches, wheels, levers or hinges, so look for toys or activity centres with these types of functions

  • Offer your baby finger foods at mealtimes. Picking up little morsels like peas or raisins off the plate is great for practicing that pincer grasp. Never leave your child unsupervised when eating.

  • Play games with water or sand – just remember to always supervise your baby whenever he or she is around water

  • Unleash your child’s inner artist with some finger painting.

  • Teach your baby some actions songs – like Incy Wincy Spider or One Potato, Two Potato – and encourage him or her to join in.

In Summary

By 12 months your child will be perfecting the ‘thumb-and-finger pinch’, banging objects together, dropping them on the floor, and putting things into boxes and taking them out again. Action songs, finger painting and having fun with water and sand are great activities to encourage the development of those fine motor skills.

Fine Motor Skills at 1 to 2 Years Old

If it hasn’t happened already, it won’t be long before your child takes those first tentative steps. As your toddler becomes more mobile, you’ll probably find your little one is always poking fingers into holes and taking items down from shelves and out of cupboards, drawers and containers. All that exploration will bring plenty of opportunities to hone those fine motor skills even more. For you, this is the time to do another round of child proofing to ensure any cupboards or shelves your toddler can reach only have safe items in them. Any other cupboards should have childproof locks on them. Move unsafe items that can’t be locked away on to a high shelf that’s completely out of reach of your toddler.

By 18 months, your toddler will probably be able to

  • stack two or three blocks on top of each other

  • make marks on paper (or the walls or furniture) with crayons or felt-tip pens

  • pull off socks, shoes and gloves

  • start eating with a spoon.

By 2 years old your child may be able to

  • turn over a container to pour out whatever’s inside it

  • scribble on a blackboard or piece of paper without help

  • stack three or four building blocks to make a tower

  • turn the pages of a board book.

Fine Motor Skills Activities for Your 1-Year-Old

As your toddler gets older, you could try the following activities to help develop essential hand and finger skills:

  • Encourage two-handed activities that involve holding something with one hand and doing something else with the other. For example, unscrewing bottle tops or squishing modelling clay into a mould.

  • Let your little one help out when you’re cooking or baking – mixing things in a bowl is another great way of keeping both hands busy at the same time. Don’t let your child handle or get close to any hot ingredients or sharp utensils, and always supervise kitchen activities closely.

  • Keep offering your toddler finger foods and encourage the use of a spoon for eating. Be prepared for messy mealtimes!

  • Construction toys with interlocking blocks are great for developing fine motor skills at this stage, as two hands are needed to put them together and take them apart again.

  • After around 18 months old, try playing at threading pasta or beads onto a piece of string or using tongs to pick up small toys.

  • Keep giving your child plenty of opportunities to get creative with crayons, finger paint, felt-tip pens and anything else that can make a mark on paper or any other surface

  • Soap crayons are a terrific way of combining splashy bath-time fun with fine motor skills development.

In Summary

By 12 months your child will be perfecting the ‘thumb-and-finger pinch’, banging objects together, dropping them on the floor, and putting things into boxes and taking them out again. Action songs, finger painting and having fun with water and sand are great activities to encourage the development of those fine motor skills.

 

1-year-old baby fine motor skills

Fine Motor Skills at 2 to 3 Years Old

Although this period is sometimes known as the terrible twos, it really isn't all that terrible when you think about all the progress your child’s making with those fine motor skills and other abilities.

Between 2 and 3 years old your toddler will likely learn to

  • stack six or more blocks on top of each other

  • scribble on paper, and later make deliberate up-and-down or side-to-side lines with a crayon, pencil or marker

  • be able to eat with a spoon

  • help get him or herself dressed

  • turn the pages of a book one-by-one

  • screw and unscrew nuts and bolts, jar lids or bottle tops

  • turn a rotating knob or lever like a doorknob or the handle on a musical toy.

Fine Motor Skills Activities for Your 2-Year-Old

By now your child's ability to focus will be much improved, so he or she will be able to concentrate for longer on creative tasks. Some examples of fine motor skills activities for your 2-year-old include:

  • Try more intricate finger actions such as rolling out some modelling dough or pinching a ball of clay to make the ‘ears’ of a mouse

  • Mix and match textures and sensations: drawing in sand or making patterns with lentils or beans on a tray.

  • As your little one gets more dextrous, you might start introducing activities like snipping with child-safe scissors or counting out coins.

In Summary

Between the age of 1 and 2 years old your child will be getting better at using those little hands and fingers to stack things and manipulate objects using both hands in a coordinated way. Encourage two-handed activities to help your toddler practice these fine motor skills.

 

Fine Motor Skills at 3 to 4 Years Old

At 3 years old, your child will have a greater degree of muscular control, and this will be reflected in his or her fine motor skills. You might notice this in the way your budding scribe’s grip on a pencil or crayon changes during this period – from a fist-like clench to a more adult-like hold using the thumb, index and middle fingers. This is also the year when your 3-year-old may develop a clear preference for using the right or left hand. When this happens, your child will mostly use this dominant hand to pick things up. Some fine motor skills your child is likely to gain between 3 and 4 years old:

  • Draw a person (or something vaguely resembling one) with a head and at least some other body parts like arms and legs

  • Copy straight lines and circles

  • Lace a threading card

  • Cut in a straight line with a pair of child-safe scissors

  • Eat with a fork or spoon.

Fine Motor Skills Activities for Your 3-Year-Old

Your 3-year-old may already love scribbling and making marks on things, so provide plenty of opportunities to draw with all sorts of different writing implements such as pencils, crayons, chalk, paintbrushes and more. Vary the texture and position of the drawing surface. For example, one day you could use a vertical black/whiteboard or just a sheet of paper masking-taped to the wall. On another – if the weather’s nice – let your budding artist use chalks to decorate the pavement, your garden path or driveway. Using child-safe scissors to cut paper or other materials like fabric and card is another fun activity that helps your 3-year-old develop fine motor skills. Under your close supervision, your child could lend a hand with safe household tasks. These are some examples of safe activities that help develop the fine motor skills of a 3-year-old:

  • Using a screwdriver or a toy hammer on DIY projects, like helping adults build a playhouse or assemble flat pack furniture

  • Working with a gardening tool, such as a hand rake or trowel, for planting flowers

  • Using a whisk or wooden spoon to beat eggs for an omelette or mix pancake batter.

In Summary

Your 2-year-old’s hand and finger skills will continue to improve as he or she learns to draw lines with a pencil or crayon, turn the pages of a book and turn handles, knobs and levers.

 

Fine Motor Skills at 4 Years Old

At 4 years old, your child is well on the way to having fully developed hand and finger skills. From the age of 4 upwards, your little one will learn to do all this and more:

  • Copy lines and simple shapes, like circles, crosses, triangles and squares

  • Write a few letters

  • Draw a person with a body

  • Cut out simple shapes – like a square or circle – with scissors

  • Get dressed and undressed without your help

  • Eat with a fork and spoon, and maybe use a table knife.

Fine Motor Skills Activities for Your 4-Year-Old

Keep doing all the things listed above, increasing the difficulty as your child gets better at them. Sometime after the age of 4 your child will learn how to draw the basic shapes – lines, circles, squares and crosses – that will eventually form letters when he or she learns to write. These shapes are often learned in the following order:

  • Vertical line |

  • Horizontal line –

  • Circle O

  • Cross +

  • Forward diagonal /

  • Square □

  • Backward diagonal \

  • X

Some more activities to engage your 4-year-old’s fine motor skills:

  • Drawing fully formed people with arms, legs and faces

  • Printing or drawing letters

  • Drawing, tracing or copying geometric shapes

  • Painting with a paintbrush or fingers

  • Modelling clay or dough into shapes

  • Helping to make cookies by mixing the batter and cutting out the shapes with a cookie cutter

  • Using child-safe scissors to cut shapes out of paper

  • Playing with blocks and building oversized structures like a tower or fortress

  • Playing with cards or board games.

In Summary

Your 3-year-old may soon learn to hold a pencil between the thumb index and middle fingers. It’s also around this time that you could find out whether your little one is left or right-handed.

 

FAQS AT A GLANCE

  • Fine motor skills are the ability to precisely control the muscles of the hand, fingers and wrist. Gross motor skills enable your child to control large muscles such as those in the arms, legs and feet.

  • Examples of fine motor skills include:

    • Writing
    • Drawing
    • Turning a doorknob
    • Opening a jar
    • Picking up a small piece of food.
  • Fine motor skills are important for doing many of life's basic tasks such as eating with a spoon or fork, gripping objects, tying shoelaces, getting dressed and undressed, and much more.

The Bottom Line

Fine motor skills are essential for our daily tasks – the ones we often take for granted, like getting dressed, tying shoelaces, and typing an email. Encouraging playtime activities isn't just about fun. Play also helps your baby, toddler or older child master the fine motor skills (and other skills) that he or she will need each and every day throughout life. For more tips on playing with your baby, see our article on baby games in the first year. If you’re looking for ways to keep your toddler or older child entertained and busy, check out our list of indoor games and activities for toddlers.

How we wrote this article
The information in this article is based on the expert advice found in trusted medical and government sources, such as the National Health Service (NHS). You can find a full list of sources used for this article below. The content on this page should not replace professional medical advice. Always consult medical professionals for full diagnosis and treatment.