Our five best everyday objects you can use to help develop fine motor skills
Fine Motor Skills are the skills that develop following on from the progression of gross motor movements. Fine motor skills involve intricate, more defined actions that require manual dexterity such as picking things up between a finger and thumb, wriggling toes and even the manipulation of lips and tongue.
It can often feel like complex tasks such as ‘pencil grip’ and ‘writing’ are in the spotlight of fine motor development. Yet, it's key to remember that fine motor development begins with everyday purposeful movements which are just as important, and the building blocks towards these later skills.
Why is it important to help my child develop their fine motor skills?
Your child will rely on a range of fine motor skills for many everyday tasks and as they explore and play in their early years. They will use these skills to point out and reach for objects they want, pick up smaller items, hold a spoon or cup, bring items to their mouth to explore and taste, and even to turn pages of a book.
As they grow, these skills will also support your child’s developing independence and early self-care abilities. They will support your child to get dressed on their own, self-feed, brush their teeth and hair, and even begin to use the bathroom. The muscles will gradually mature to allow your child to have more precision in their movements, for example, to master skills such as making controlled marks, using scissors and using a knife and fork.
How can I help my child develop their fine motor skills?
You might feel like you need specialist equipment to support your child's development. This isn't the case; fine motor skills can be developed using simple, household objects and through your child’s everyday routine and play. You can adapt these objects or play activities to support your child in the best way possible and to reflect their interests and skills.
Here are our top five everyday objects to help the developement of fine motor skills
Knife and fork
Mealtimes offer a great opportunity to support fine motor skills. When your child is eating, you might notice them trying to grab hold of their spoon or pick up their food with their fingers. This is helping the muscles in your child’s fingers and hands to strengthen and supporting them to integrate their hand and eye co-ordination. They are also developing the co-ordination to guide their food successfully to their mouth.
When your child grows a little older, you can encourage them to use a knife and fork. A fun way to practice cutlery skills is with play dough. Perhaps, help your child to roll out some 'sausages' and then practise cutting them into smaller pieces whilst holding them steady with the fork. This can be a less frustrating way to practise than with real food at dinner time. Once they gain confidence then you can introduce the cutlery at mealtimes. It takes lots of practise and repetition! Modelling how you use your own knife and fork, and offering lots of encouragement to have a go, can help. Children can also practice using a knife to spread butter or cut sandwiches.
Posture comes into play when your child is first using a knife and fork to eat as engaging the core muscles helps with balance and stability, providing a firm foundation for the smaller movements. Ensure that your child can reach the table comfortably, perhaps offering them a cushion or a booster chair. Some children also find it more stable to sit when their feet can rest on something. It may be helpful if they can rest their feet on a box, footstool, or a lower chair. Having a non-slip placemat under your child’s plate can also support them when eating with a knife and fork.
A child’s ability to write their name is often used as a measure of fine motor development, especially as children approach school age. At My First Five Years, we emphasise that there are many complex steps to master on the journey to becoming a writer, and faster is not always better. Your child may be keen to use pens and pencils to make marks at an early age, especially if they see you doing this in real life situations, however having a wide range of mark making and writing tools in their everyday environment allows your child to use them regularly as part of their play.
Offering pencils and pens alongside other play activities can offer purposeful motivation for making marks. For example, if your child loves construction activities, they may want to make a list of the tools that they need with pencil and paper on a clipboard. They could sketch out a plan of what they want to make, or label signs related to their buildings, such as open/close signs or welcome signs.
It's important to consider the width of the mark making tool when your child first starts writing. It might be easier for younger children to use chunky pencils, crayons and chalk while they are experimenting with the correct grip. These offer children the opportunity to make marks on a larger scale and your child will benefit from using these with larger pieces of paper or cardboard, or perhaps old rolls of wallpaper.
At this stage, your child may want to experiment with drawing and writing on different textures too. They may like using chalks on the ground outdoors, crayons on pieces of cardboard, or even pressing pencils into playdough to make marks.
As your child’s grip progresses from a fist grip to using their finger and thumb, they will be gaining more fine motor control and you could introduce more standard-sized pencils, crayons and pens and materials such as envelopes, cards and notebooks.
Tongs are a useful household item that can support your child’s fine motor development and are really versatile. The action needed to use tongs is similar to that of using scissors so this is a great activity to prepare your child for using scissors at a later date. It helps to strengthen the hand muscles, requires hand-eye co-ordination and also concentration and patience.
You could play alongside your child using a pair of tongs to pick up and sort objects. Place a pile of objects on a table or a floor, with two containers. You could encourage your child to sort the objects into the containers by a chosen property. This could be by size, colour, or type.
Because of the open-ended aspect of this activity, you could choose anything that your child is interested in. This could be toy cars, animals, or even blocks. If your child loves playing in the bath, this activity could even be adapted into a bath time activity.
Your child might like to use tongs to help at mealtimes. They could have a go at using tongs to serve themselves or others different foods, such as spaghetti, salad, or pieces of bread. As they get more confident using tongs, they may want to progress to using other similar equipment with squeezing motion such as tweezers to pick up tiny items.
Water play provides opportunities for different types of learning and can capture the imagination of children of any age. It's easily adaptable to your child's interests and you could offer toys and activities at bath times, outdoors or even in a washing up bowl outside. By adding resources to the water that encourage the use of small finger movements children can develop the fine motor skills of hands, fingers and possibly even toes.
Pipettes are great for getting individual fingers moving, developing handgrip and control. Spray bottles also work, as the spray trigger encourages children to practice a squeezing motion. This develops strength in their hands and enables them to have a go at applying pressure in different ways for different results. Why not mix in a little food colouring to different spray bottles and hang up an old sheet for your child to “paint” with their coloured water?
Another water play item that encourages your child to squeeze with their hands or toes is a sponge. Sponges of different sizes allow for your child to have a go at soaking up water and squeezing it back out. They could even have a go at using sponges in household tasks, such as helping clean surfaces when cooking together. Sponges and water play could also be a great basis for role-play activities. If you have an outdoor space, you could put some washing up liquid in the water and play car wash with your child’s bike or scooter.
Using a bucket of water and tools such as rollers and brushes is great fun! Your child could ‘paint’ outdoor buildings and equipment. This could be fences or walls in the garden, or the tiles around the bath. What's special about this activity is it combines both fine and gross motor movements. Holding onto the tools to make small movements with their hands (Fine) and using their full bodies to stretch, move, and reach up high (Gross).
Pom-poms are another resource that are super versatile for children who are developing their fine motor skills. They can be found in a variety of sizes, colours, and textures, making them an engaging resource for open-ended play.
Many activities can be established using pom-poms that suit children at a variety of points in their development and with a range of interests. A sorting game using different coloured pom-poms, for example. You can also involve the use of tongs, creating a way to practice both fine motor skills and decision making.
Pom-poms are a great collage material. If your child enjoys cutting, sticking, and making their own arrangements, pom-poms make a great addition to a craft box. They can double up as a creative play item too, for whatever your child interprets them to be. Perhaps a reindeer's nose on a Christmas card? A caterpillar’s head!
Pom-poms can also be used as a painting tool. Your child could dip different sized and textured pom-poms into the paint to make their own pictures. They could use different motions, such as dabbing or dragging to experiment with different effects. Painting with Pom-Poms is also an activity that focuses on children’s grip and is a nice alternative to paintbrushes.
Pom-poms can be used for tunnel games. Tunnels could be easily made by sticking cardboard tubes, such as toilet roll or kitchen roll tubes to a piece of cardboard. Involve your child in the process of making the tunnels, choosing where they may lead to, and the path that they could take. Use pom-poms to flick, push and roll through the tube tunnels, or even race them to see who can reach the end first!
Pom-poms can be a choking hazard though, so make sure activities are supervised.
What to do if you are worried about your child's fine motor skills
At My First Five Years, we always emphasise that each child follows their own unique developmental journey, with its own pace and flow. We emphasise that it is really important for your child to have lots of opportunities to practise and develop their gross motor skills through play first of all, before focus moves to their fine motor skills. Time building these strong foundations is invaluable.
The pace at which fine motor skills develop is individual, but some of the milestones children achieve follow a similar pattern of development as the muscle groups mature. For example, your child might take longer to learn how to hold and control writing tools, however we know that spending time developing the gross motor foundations for writing is key and this step cannot be successfully ‘jumped.’ All of a child’s development is entwined and by supporting your child with one aspect of their learning and development, you are always supporting them with many other areas. Lots of playful repetition and practice is the key. Your child might need to have a go at experiences and activities for longer, or in different ways before they develop their own precision and control .
Our My First Five Years app guides you through your child’s fine motor development milestones from birth to five, allowing you to tune in and celebrate the unique way your child navigates their pathway. There are lots of prompts and activities to give you confidence to support your child’s fine motor development at all steps of their journey.