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Open Them, Shut Them: Strengthening Toddlers' Fine Motor Skills

Posted by on in Early Childhood
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Development progresses proximodistally, from the body core outward. Toddlers are newly gaining control over their arms, hands, and fingers. They have moved from palmar to pincer grasp and now have the ability to use their fingers with more precision.

We can provide activities to prepare little hands to someday play a musical instrument, fly across a computer keyboard, or perform delicate surgery! Exercising those small muscles are easily a part of everyday routines and play- the way it should be. As we interact with and observe toddlers, we can make the most of what they’re already doing and interested in.

tearing paper

Tear paper. Now you have two sets of fingers grasping and pulling! Provide a variety of papers, some thin and some thick. Magazine pages are easier to rip and a good choice for beginners. Tearing paper is a sensory activity that very young children enjoy. They will notice the different sounds the paper makes as they tear it fast or slow and usually stay engaged quite a while.


Turn book pages. Reading with children is always a favorite activity, but take time to make it one-on-one. The child will love the individual attention and you have the opportunity to encourage him to turn the pages on his own. He will grip the pages using those finger muscles. Start out with board books until this becomes easy. Then, graduate to books with regular pages. Don’t worry if he bends or wrinkles some pages in the process. It will be a reminder of learning taking place. Whenever I happen upon one of my own, grown children’s books, I cherish every fold and pucker.


Thread some beads. Provide a variety of large beads and thick string. Fat, dry noodles and sponges with holes in the middle work, as well. It gets pretty frustrating when the string end is limp or starts to fray, so be sure to wrap one end of the string with painter’s tape to make a needle. Picking up beads, directing a string into the middle, and pulling it through are all great exercises for precise movement and control.

dress up

Try on clothes. Providing lots of fun and interesting dress-up gear to put on and take off helps children sharpen those fine motor skills. Buttoning, fastening Velcro, and zipping give those little fingers a good workout!


Paint with fingers. Finger painting is always a toddler favorite. Even if given a brush to use, most of the time it will be abandoned in favor of hands and fingers. This is yet another sensory activity that is irresistible. Finger paint is cool and thick and can be moved around on slick paper easily. Even the clean-up process- washing with soap and using a paper towel- is part of the fine motor practice.


Use paste. When I started teaching (and also as a child myself), children were not using white glue or glue sticks. They used white school paste to put paper together. I believe there are still tactile and small motor benefits from using paste, especially for toddlers. It is thick and cool to the touch and usually has a pleasant smell. It is also non-toxic in the event of a taste-test. As a beginner, a toddler can learn to use his index finger to scoop up a lump of paste and spread it on paper. Then, he can pick up a piece of that torn paper to press over the paste. Sure, the end result will be lumpy and a little flaky once it dries. Some of the paper pieces may even drop off. But, a perfect product is not the point here. It’s the sensory and fine motor process that counts.

sand play

Scoop sand… or whatever. A media table filled with interesting substances begs to be explored. Any non-toxic material can be sifted, squeezed, poked, and scooped. Offer small cups with handles, spoons, and small toys to encourage grasping.


Pinch some playdough. Pressing, squeezing, and rolling playdough provides really good exercise for developing those small finger muscles. Offering simple objects to press and poke into the dough further enriches this activity. Offer some suggestions for play and toddlers will take it from there. I remember suggesting to my 18-month old grandson that we make eggs to put into an egg carton. We rolled eggs, put them into the compartments, took them out, smashed them into a big lump and did it again… and again, and again. Caregivers can also embed objects into the dough for the toddler to find and pull out.

Provide opportunities like these every day. Such sensory activities strengthen muscles, as well as important brain connections as children play. Re-think some of the other teacher-directed activities that are taking up valuable time, but have much less bang for the buck. (HINT: “Let’s all sit in this circle for another 15 minutes to do the calendar… again.”) Meet children where they play and where their interests are and watch development happen.

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Debra Pierce is professor of Early Childhood Education at Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana. Ivy Tech is the nation's largest singly accredited statewide community college systems, serving nearly 200,000 students annually.

Her professional background has always involved children, over the past 40 years, having been a primary grades teacher in the Chicago Public School system, a teacher of 3 and 4 year-olds in a NAEYC accredited preschool for 15 years, and a certified Parent Educator for the National Parents as Teachers Program.

Debra is a certified Professional Development Specialist for the Council for Professional Recognition. She has taught CDA courses to high school career/tech dual credit juniors and seniors in preparation for earning their CDA credentials. She also conducts CDA train-the-trainer events across the country and develops and teaches online CDA courses for several states, is a frequent presenter at national and state early childhood conferences, and is a Master Trainer for the states of Minnesota and Arizona. She was also awarded the NISOD Teaching Excellence Award by the University of Texas.

Debra is active in her community, supporting children's literacy and is on the board of directors of First Book in Indianapolis. Debra is a contributing author for Hamilton County Family Magazine and Indy's Child in Indianapolis.
She loves spending time with her two grandsons, Indy, who is 7 and Radley, 3.

Debra has spent the last 16 years dedicated to the success of those pursuing the CDA credential and is the author of The CDA Prep Guide: The Complete Review Manual for the Child Development Associate Credential, now in its third edition (Redleaf Press), the only publication of its kind. She hosts a website providing help and support to CDA candidates and those who train them at http://www.easycda.com
The comments and views expressed are not in collaboration or affiliation with The Council for Professional Recognition or Ivy Tech Community College.
Follow me on Twitter at /easycda

  • Rae Pica | @raepica1
    Rae Pica | @raepica1 Thursday, 02 March 2017

    Perfect timing, Debra! Next week I'm doing an interview on fine motor skills and when children should be able to work with pencils! Thanks for writing this!

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