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Play ideas to help develop fine motor skills in toddlers

Fine motor skills in toddlers

Toddlers work their little bodies hard each day. Arms, legs and body are all being used together to keep them upright, hold things and move around. The growth of these big muscle groups (gross motor skills) is important alongside the development of smaller muscles, in things like fingers, toes, tongue and mouth, these are know as their fine motor skills.

There are many everyday things your toddler might already be doing that are helping develop their fine motor skills. Things such as:

  • Putting on shoes
  • Pulling up a zip
  • Brushing hair
  • Turning door handles
  • Holding a fork or spoon
  • Clapping hands
  • Handling objects

Toddler holding spoon

Fine motor skill play ideas designed for toddlers

Toddler taste-safe play dough

Young children will naturally squeeze, shape, roll, knead and pinch play dough. All these movements work the small muscles in their hands and fingers, whilst they’re enjoying the sensory benefits too.

Easy taste-safe play dough recipe

Here is a simple recipe for making your own taste-safe play dough at home.

170g Plain flour
65g Table salt
2 x Cream of tartar sachets
400ml Warm water
2 tbsp Vegetable oil
Few drops of food colouring (optional)

How to make play dough:

  1. Mix all the dry ingredients in a saucepan.
  2. Add water and oil as you slowly heat the pan.
  3. Keep mixing until the dough forms a doughy lump, rather than a sticky mess.
  4. Scrape out onto greaseproof paper.
  5. Knead the dough for a few minutes.
  6. Separate the dough, if you want different colours.
  7. Add the food colouring (in small amounts).
  8. Keep kneading until the dough is smooth and springy (it shouldn’t stick to your hands).

Simple play dough set up

Keep things simple for yourself by presenting the play dough on a tray or mat. Add a few simple tools or objects like a small rolling pin, biscuit cutters, a teaspoon, cup or wooden block. Not only will handling these objects be helping your toddler refine their smaller movements, they will also be exploring, testing and familiarising themselves with how the objects behave with the play dough.

Toddler mashing play dough

Nature sensory dough

Add more sensory input by including flowers or leaves with the play dough. As with the tools and objects, children will be naturally curious, squidging the items into the dough, exploring how they feel together.

Threading activities for toddlers

If you have a hole punch, then pretty much whatever you can make a hole in can become a new threading material. Leaves are good for threading and can create wonderful natural bunting to decorate with afterwards. You could also try punching holes in a toilet roll tube and putting it with some paper straws.

Have a look around your home and outdoors for fairly small, lightweight objects with holes in. Cut toilet role tubes into smaller rings and pair with some rope for a larger threading activity. Go old school and grab some penne pasta or cereal and string. If you have any large buttons or toggles put them with some string. Dip the end of the thread into water based glue and leave to dry or wrap tape around it. This will make threading a little easier for your child. Cut holes in cardboard or scrapes of felt and put with some pipe cleaners.

Multipurpose toys like these fruits and vegetables have holes in them. The thick lengths of string that come with them have a wooden needle at one end and a toggle to stop things falling off the end.

Threading fruit toy

Colouring activities for toddlers

Simple colouring in is brilliant for developing toddlers grip, precision and strength in their hands and fingers.

Texture rubbings

You could also place flat and firm items under a sheet of paper and let your toddler discover them as they rub their crayons over the paper. Coins, buttons, leaves and chain necklaces are all good for making rubbings.

Wooden blocks for toddlers

Wooden blocks are such a great all-rounder for toddler’s development. As your baby picks up a block, moves it around in their hands and puts it down they are building strength, using hand-eye coordination and fine tuning their precision. Open-ended toys like blocks allow children to play how they want. There are no rules or specific actions to follow, meaning little ones can get stuck in.

Puzzles for toddlers

Chunky wooden puzzles are a great starting puzzle for younger children. The pieces are easier for them to grasp and manipulate. Rather than presenting a puzzle completed, place the pieces in a bowl or basket near the puzzle board. By displaying a completed puzzle we’re saying the job is already done.

Dig for the puzzle activity

Hide puzzle pieces in a shallow tub of shredded paper, oats, rice, flour or other dry sensory base. Then let your child explore, hunt them out and complete the puzzle.

Puzzle unwrapping

Wrapping chunkier puzzle pieces in tissue paper or foil can be a fun activity. As they unwrap, pull and tear the wrapping off each piece your child will be working their hands and having fun discovering the items inside.

Sticky puzzle

Using low-tack tape attach wooden puzzle pieces to a board, table or cabinet. Curious toddlers will love peeling the tape off and freeing the puzzle piece. The peeling of tape requires them to use their pincer grip.

Transferring activities for toddlers

Transferring activities, where objects are moved from one place to another, are great at helping toddlers work on their control, coordination, grasp and concentration. The objects you present and the tools with which they move the objects can be varied, providing they are safe and supervised. Here are some things you might already have to hand.

Scoop the oats into the bowl (for the hungry bears)

For an easier clean up we suggest placing everything in a large tray or on a sheet/mat, unless you don’t mind oats everywhere.

Scoop, spoon or small jug
Oats or cereal in a tub or bowl
Toy bears (optional)

You can swap out the oats for other dried items such as rice, beans, lentils or sand.

Toddler messy play

*Children under the age of 3 should always be supervised when handling play dough or other materials that can be broken up into small bits (dough, crayons, chalk, etc), regardless of whether they are taste-safe.

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