What do stacking building blocks, eating with a spoon and putting on PJs at night have in common?

All these skills involve hand and finger movement. They require dexterity, precision and good eye-hand coordination. Their development starts during the first months after birth, with the baby's first attempts to grasp the rattle.

These are commonly known as fine motor skills or fine motor development.

Unlike gross motor skills, which involve the whole body (crawling, walking, jumping, etc.), fine motor skills involve only the muscles of the hands, fingers, wrists, and eyes. Both fine and gross motor skills are extremely important and have a huge impact on children’s health and development.

Why do fine movements matter so much?

"Skilled hands - smart heads" goes the Bulgarian saying, and early childhood specialists would definitely agree. Children who had good fine motor skills in kindergarten do better in school in subjects like math, reading and writing.

On the one hand, this is because motor exercises stimulate the same part of the brain that regulates learning skills. On the other hand, skills like holding a pen and controlling its movements are crucial for early school success. Writing skills aren’t acquired directly at school; they are a consequence of how fine motor skills have developed over the past 7 years. If the child’s hands aren’t used to “listening” to the child, then catching up at school will be much more difficult.

Besides school, fine motor skills are very important in everyday life, because they affect how quickly children learn self-care skills. This means, for example, being able to independently wash your hands, eat soup, put on socks, or tie long hair in a ponytail. When the everyday tasks related to dressing, feeding, toileting and hygiene are mastered, children gain confidence and parents gain free time.

That’s why children should be actively engaged in fine motor activities from an early age. Playing with playdough, cooking, stacking blocks, drawing and coloring, even gardening provide a good basis for their future at school. They develop the hands’ strength, stability, dexterity and coordination, which means that children have good control over their hands even if they are not in their field of vision.

Next we’ll pay closer look at fine motor skill development from 0 to 3. We will also discuss fun activities and games appropriate for each stage of development.

From 0 to 6 months

At the very beginning, babies barely control their movements. Their hands are clenched into fists and grasping is only a reflex.

This changes quickly over the next few months. By 3 months, babies can trace objects with their eyes and stretch out their hands in an attempt to catch something interesting. Holding the rattle is already a purposeful action. By the end of the 6th month, babies no longer just hold the rattle, but also shake it to make sounds and hit it against the table or floor.

Suitable activities:
Putting an object in your baby's hand will help them practice their grasp. At a later stage, show your baby an interesting object and let them try to reach it on their own, instead of handing it directly. It helps if the object is light and easy to grasp, such as a round or oval toy.

From 6 to 12 months

At this age, babies are able not only to grasp toys within their reach, but also to "explore" them. This means passing them from hand to hand, pulling, shaking, banging one against the other and putting them in their mouth. During this period, babies’ favorite activity becomes dropping things on the floor, over and over again. Although it’s not parents’ favorite thing, dropping stuff is actually very beneficial for babies because it develops hand coordination and teaches them that every action has a consequence.

By 9 months, most babies can clap their hands and play high-five. Around the 12th month, they begin to place two objects on top of each other in the first attempts to build a tower. Skills for self-feeding and cup drinking appear. The so-called “pincer grasp” develops, which is the ability to hold small items between the thumb and index finger.

Suitable activities:
Play hand games with your baby often. Great games are "blow a kiss", "patty cake" and "peekaboo". Teach them how to blow soap bubbles and point to their eyes, ears, nose, etc.

In addition to purees, offer your baby small and soft chunks of food (for example, chopped fruit or cooked vegetable) that they can chew with their gums. This is a great way to promote their pincer grasp and chewing skills. But be extra careful - choose pieces which are only soft and small enough, because of the risk of choking on solids.

From 1 to 2 years

At this age, fine motor skills continue to develop at a rapid pace. Children learn how to hold a pencil and scribble. They are able to assemble a jigsaw puzzle with several pieces and build 4 to 6-block towers. Other milestones are putting toys in and out of a box and throwing a large ball with 2 hands.

When it comes to feeding, children need less and less help. After 18 months, they can largely use a fork and spoon, although spilling is inevitable. It’s recommended that regular cups are used for drinking instead of sippy cups or straw cups.  

Suitable activities:
Allow your toddler to eat independently, despite the mess and the slower pace. The less often you put the spoon directly
in their mouth, the better. You will notice the positive effect not only on fine motor skills, but also on the amount of free time you have.

Show your toddler what to do with household items - soap, towels, toothbrush, etc. They will gradually gain experience and skill in using them. Now is the time to introduce children to drawing with pencils, crayons, paint, etc.

From 2 to 3 years

During this period, toddlers make great progress in terms of dexterity, drawing and self-care skills. They learn how to draw lines and circular shapes. The grip of the pencil is between the thumb, index and middle finger.

Some milestones for this age include playing with playdough, cutting with scissors, threading and turning book pages. Block towers rise to 10 stacked elements. At home, there are much fewer things out of reach, because children learn how to open doors with handles and doorknobs and how to remove lids off bottles and jars.

Self-care is another key milestone. Around the third birthday, children should be able to – almost independently – self-feed, put on and take off simple clothes and shoes, wash and wipe hands.

Suitable activities:
Provide appropriate tools to develop fine movements. These can be common household items like paper clips, straws and cotton or natural materials like sand, soil, chestnuts, leaves, twigs and pebbles. With them, children can practice squeezing, squeezing, pulling, piercing, twisting, rolling, pouring, etc. Playdough is a big favorite, together with regular dough, which you can use to bake delicious bread or cookies.

Here and here you can read more of our fun sensory play suggestions, including instructions on how make a sensory bin at home.

Simple and effective ideas for fine motor skill development

Finger game (no additional materials)
Source: Бобче Топче
Tracing with beans
Source: Kids Art Zone
Tearing and crumpling up of paper with fingers
Source: Каналът на логопеда


"Welcome, baby", published by UNICEF Bulgaria 2018









Cover photo by Stephen Andrews from Unsplash


"This publication was created with the financial support of the Active Citizens Fund Bulgaria under the Financial Mechanism of the European Economic Area. The entire responsibility for the content of this publication lies with the Health and Social Development Foundation and under no circumstances can it be assumed that this publication reflects the official opinion of the Financial Mechanism of the European Economic Area and the Operator of the Active Citizens Fund Bulgaria."