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It’s All In The Hands - Ways to Develop Fine Motor Skills

By Barbara Greenspan, OT


Think of all the things we use our hands for in the course of a day, an hour and even a minute! How do these tools we call “hands” become so skilled?


It is a long process…

Hand development really begins at the body (the core) and the shoulder. Way before voluntary movement of the hands happen, a baby needs a good, strong core (abdominal, back and shoulder muscles) for stability. Think of a tree-it has a strong trunk to hold and support the branches and that is how exactly how babies develop good hand function-by building their core muscles first!



The first 6 months of life


During the first 6 months of life and the hands are responding with reflex movements, not voluntary movement. When the baby’s palm is touched, they squeeze (so hard!) and when the back of the hand is touched, they open the hand. These are reflexes that naturally happen in the first few months of life. Some precursors for voluntary hand movement that occur during this time include: eye tracking (important for eye hand coordination), neck and head control, and core strength. These are important building blocks for future use of the hands.


eBeanstalk’s toys including the Rockin Aquarium Gym, the Suction Cup Zoo Mobile and Foot Rattles encourage swiping and help build strong shoulder muscles.


Swiping of objects is the first thing that a baby does when trying to reach for something and that swiping motion begins at the shoulder.


Bearing weight on the arms and hands is also important during this time. This develops core muscle strength as well as shoulder, arm and hand strength. Those are just some of the reasons we love when kids are placed on their stomachs for “tummy time”. Toys including the Tummy Play Trainer and Sassy Me in The Mirror are just a couple examples of toys to use while your baby is on his stomach to develop strong muscles that will later benefit his hands!


At 4-5 months old the baby begins to move one or two fingers independently of the others and voluntary control begins. Touch is still the primary information they use to respond and grasp for objects. Watch a baby at this age and you will notice they move their fingers in a scratching motion on mom or dad’s clothing. They are starting to learn how things feel through their tactile (touch) system. Now they are starting to include vision to direct their hand movements. This is the beginning of voluntary hand movement. When they are on their back they bring two hands to the middle of their body (middle) to hold an object with 2 hands and we love toys such as Tinkle, Crinkle and Squeak, the Whoozit and Mini Ribit Ball. These are examples of toys that encourage play with two hands together in the middle of the body (also known as “Midline”).



From 6-12 months


The digits begin to work independently and at around 7 months the thumb starts to work as a separate digit. The human thumb is the most useful of all the fingers because it opposes or touches the other fingers. Children first begin to pick up small objects by bringing their thumb to the side of their index finger and eventually bring the pad of the thumb to the pad of the index finger and then to the remaining digits.


At this age children start to bring toys together and bang them making beautiful music! At this point you can introduce them to musical at this time to encourage the arms and hands to come together. Singing songs that incorporate clapping and finger movements are great ways to get the hands and fingers moving during this time.


At around 10 or 11 months children discover their ability to release objects from their hands. They have a great time dropping things off their high chair and watching (and hearing) things fall to the floor. The thumb and digits all extend and they actually build the small muscles on the back of the hand when they release objects.



1 to 3 years


Banging is a big crowd pleaser for kids this age. We love toys such as Miracle Pounding and the Solid Drum for kids to hold the mallet in one hand and support the toy with the other hand. Doing two different tasks with each hand takes skill, but by this age kids are ready to start doing things that require more coordination with both hands.


Also, the child is using the pincer grasp (where the pad of the thumb meets the pad of the index finger). They can now judge the size and weight of an object and adjust their fingers accordingly. The thumb side of the hand is the side for manipulation and the small finger (pinky) side is used as a stabilizer. For developing this type of hand grasp we love toys like the Shape Sorter Gator, Nest and Stack Buckets and The Hungry Pelican.


As they get older, children can begin to participate in self-care skills such as feeding, dressing and washing themselves. All of these tasks build strong arms and hands and kids feel good about themselves when they can do things for themselves. Squeak E Mouse is a great toy to help a child learn the important skills associated with getting dressed.


As the child ages, they may begin to show interest in coloring and writing. At eBeanstalk we believe that children need the right size writing utensil to fit their small hands. Small, broken crayons are the best tools to use for writing and coloring because they put the hand in the “just right” position and build the right muscles for writing! Fabulous Finger Crayons and Do A Dot Markers are great for developing these muscles for writing. We also love easels including the Table Top Easel and the Easel for 2 because the wrist is in the best position for writing.


It is fun to fill those little hands with things to do! Remember, hand development begins at the core and shoulders and then moves down to the hand. Provide those little hands with lots of fun things to play with to help build strong muscles that manipulate well! You and your child will be thrilled when those little hands grow bigger and can do big jobs!


“To make a man happy fill his hands with work.” — Frederick E. Crane


If you liked this article, you may also want to read our other developmental articles:


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Learning to Read Starts Young Shari Harpaz, MS, CCC-SLP
It’s All In The Hands - Ways to Develop Fine Motor Skills Barbara Greenspan, OT
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Eye-Hand Coordination Barbara Greenspan, OT
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What to Expect During the Second Year of Your Baby's Life Barbara Greenspan, OT
What to Expect During the First Year of Your Baby's Life Deanie Barth, MSPT
Psychiatric Medication and Young Children: Is there too much pill popping? Andy Eig, PhD.
Exersaucers, Swings and Jumpers— A help or hindrance to development? Deanie Barth, MSPT
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