Before you know it, your toddler will be ready to write. But how do you help him gear up the fine motor skills that will help him grasp a pencil and form letters? The answer may surprise you: play.
As Circle of Moms members share, there’s no shortage of fun activities for toddlers that strengthen the small muscles in their hands, including kneading dough, cutting with scissors, and stringing beads on a shoelace.
Here's a roundup of fine motor games and activities for toddlers that require little more than some creativity with items you already have around the house, and an appetite for fun.
1. Picking Up the Pieces
To get your toddler to practice small, precise hand and finger movements, have him pick up and sort little items like beads, puzzle pieces, and dried beans, either with his fingers or tweezers, recommend Circle of Moms members Kathleen J. and Rebekah S.
MaryEllen, a Circle of Moms member who is also a teacher, says a favorite fine-motor skill activity is to hide coins or small objects in Play-Doh or silly putty and have children pick them out and them re-hide them for you to find.
2. Playing with Food
If you're worried that little items like coins could wind up in your toddler's mouth, embrace edibles! By this I mean play fine motor games that involve little pieces of food.
For example, Heidi B. puts chocolate chips into a cup and lets her son pull them out and sink them into the cookie dough, one by one.
Tracy L. picks up tips from her son’s daycare where, she reports, “they’ve done pudding art and [used] table syrup as glue [with] some type of cereal (oatmeal, Cheerios, Fruit Loops). Just tape a piece of construction paper to the highchair [eating tray].” While you can’t frame food used as art, Tracy says her son and his friends love this activity.
3. Outdoor Games
Rebekah S. reminds moms that children can have fun getting their hands dirty outdoors, too. For example toddlers can string a garland of Cheerios to make a bird feeder. Or kids can help hang laundry on the line. Pinching the clothes pins “really develops the small muscles."
Joslin B. recommends a game you may remember from your own childhood as “wheelbarrow.” In wheelbarrow you lift up your toddler’s feet and push him along as he walks on his hands. “It stretches the tendons in the hand,” she explains.
5. The Best Tools for Coloring
It may go without saying that what really gets your little one’s muscles ready to write is giving them something to make a mark with! But which tools are best?
Crayons are always toddler favorites, and you don’t have to worry if they break, says Bethany E. She recently noticed that her daughter, Charlotte, had broken some of her fat crayons into little pieces. “The grip she uses for them is very close to correct holding, and the unbroken ones she will grip with her fist. So I just broke all her crayons into little pieces, and now she has more crayons to share, and she is building up the muscles in her hand and arm to correctly hold her pens and pencils.”
Pamela B. recommends Crayola Beginnings triangular crayons and markers. “They are meant for little hands,” she says, noting that the Pip-Squeak markers are well-suited for her 29-month-old's small grasp.
Brittany D. is another fan of Crayola's products for toddlers. She floats the TaDoodles that are packaged in a boat in her daughter’s bath. As she shares, “She loves drawing on the sides of the bathtub now, and it wipes right off."
And Sini K. praises Prang soybean oil crayons. When her 15-month-old — who has been using the non-toxic crayons since he turned one — puts the crayons in his mouth, she takes comfort in the fact that they are “not that harmful compared to others in the market.”
One word of caution: as Circle of Moms member Alma S. points out, “before age five, kids' hands aren't really well-developed and good grasp is not established," so forcing the the issue can "make them hate writing." In other words, while you can get those mini-muscles moving during the toddler stage, you can’t rush teaching kids how to write. Practicing penmanship — at a table on paper — should only be done for a maximum of five minutes at a time. Better, says Alma, to begin with "basic Kindergarten fun tasks [and] crafts, and [to] have fun!”
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