Physical development

Fine motor skills

Learn more about fine motor skills as part of the early years foundation stage (EYFS) including advice from experts and suggested activities.

Why fine motor skills are important

Fine motor skills involve small muscles working with the brain and nervous system to control movements in areas such as the hands, fingers, lips, tongue and eyes. Developing fine motor skills helps children do things like eating, writing, manipulating objects and getting dressed.

A baby uses their fingers and thumbs to pick things up. They will also feel and taste objects with their mouth and lips. An older child will use their fine motor skills for actions like pulling up a zip or using scissors to cut up paper. These important skills will contribute to a child’s development and independence across all areas of learning.

Research shows that the development of fine motor skills depends on the development of gross motor skills and that a joined-up approach to physical development is important. Young children need many opportunities to develop fine motor skills alongside gross motor skills so they can become confident to explore the world around them.

From a very young age, children are exploring different materials. With these materials a child will naturally start to make marks. Babies might use their whole bodies to make marks with mud, paint or cornflour in a tuff tray, or with food at mealtimes. A toddler might splash in a puddle and notice the prints they make.

Mark making is an important experience for children because over time they can attribute meaning to their marks. Combined with a child’s developing dexterity, these marks become refined and deliberate, until the point at which the young child labels their marks, either as pictures or writing.

Video

In this video, an early years expert explains the importance of fine motor skills in the early years foundation stage framework. There are also some tips on how to support children in this area.

What the early years foundation stage (EYFS) framework says

Gross and fine motor experiences develop incrementally throughout early childhood, starting with sensory explorations and the development of a child’s strength, co-ordination and positional awareness through tummy time, crawling and play movement with both objects and adults.

Fine motor control and precision helps with hand-eye co-ordination which is later linked to early literacy. Repeated and varied opportunities to explore and play with small world activities, puzzles, arts and crafts and the practise of using small tools, with feedback and support from adults, allow children to develop proficiency, control and confidence.

Statutory framework for the early years foundation stage, page 9.

What this means in practice

You can help children develop fine motor skills by providing an environment, experiences and activities that encourage a joined-up approach to physical development.

Your environment should provide rich and varied opportunities for large and small movements. For babies this may involve providing materials that they can grasp, grip, bash, squash and poke such as crinkly paper, wooden spoons and stretchy fabric. For older children, provide activities that require small hand movements such as stirring a magic potion, pegging washing on a line or exploring wet and dry sand.

Provide interesting experiences which help children practice fine motor skills. Cooking, gardening, sewing, fixing and making things are all good examples of activities that involve using tools and small movements with accuracy and precision. The fine manipulative control skills developed in these activities will begin to provide the foundations for holding a pencil for drawing, mark-making and writing when children are developmentally ready.

You should make sure that every child is supported in developing their fine motor skills. When a child experiences difficulties, you can support them by making changes to materials or activities, or by giving gentle praise and encouragement.

Suggested activities

Weaving

You’ll need:

  • materials for weaving such as ribbon, threads, string, strips of fabric, plastic tags, wool, rafia, bead strings, natural materials, such as, twigs, leaves, lichen or seed heads
  • extra materials to thread through attaching with the strips such as beads, hoops, paper clips, buttons, discarded pieces from construction toys, toy wheels, paper or treasury tags, or wooden sticks
  • a mesh or a weaving frame, to move different materials in and out to make a weave

There are many cheap materials that can be used for the mesh, including drain mesh, rigid garden mesh, a discarded bicycle wheel or homemade frame either out of wood or sticks.

Weaving can be done outside and inside. Arrange the materials so that they invite children to get involved. Support their natural curiosity and gently suggest how they might manipulate the materials.

This activity will help them to grasp, develop their pincer grip and to manipulate different materials. Look for high levels of involvement and note each child’s dexterity, This will inform you as to whether the materials selected are suitable and offer a degree of challenge.

How this activity links to the other areas of learning

Describing the child’s actions will support widening vocabulary within a context that is meaningful (communication and language). Plenty of experience manipulating materials, creating weavings develops hand eye coordination for emerging reading and writing (literacy). There are opportunities for children to experience shape, pattern and quantities (mathematics). Making weavings in different materials develops a child’s self-expression and imagination. Over time they are more able to design with intent as their familiarisation with materials and how they can manipulate them becomes embedded (expressive arts and design). Large meshing and weaving frames offer children the opportunity to create together (personal, social and emotional development). Find images of weaving with different materials to display in the setting. These images can inspire and motivate as well as complement the children’s creations (understanding the world).

Cooking

You’ll need:

  • simple recipes
  • ingredients for your recipe
  • simple tools such as rolling pins, bowls, jugs and baking tins

Regularly involving young children in preparing and cooking food is a very motivating way of developing fine motor skills.

Choose simple recipes that involve combining ingredients and that use simple tools. Find out from children’s parents and carers what they like to prepare at home and make sure that the recipes you use reflect your setting’s diverse community.

Mixing, squeezing, pouring and spreading during cooking help to develop fine motor and hand-eye coordination skills. Rolling and flattening dough with the hands or with a rolling pin helps children practice using both hands in a coordinated way. Pouring ingredients into bowls and spooning batter into tins are good ways to practice hand-eye coordination.

For children who struggle to grasp and pour, provide kitchen utensils that are designed for ease of use.

How this activity links to the other areas of learning

Over time children are increasingly confident in talking about cooking using the correct vocabulary to describe ingredients and processes (communication and language). Cooking involves the understanding of mathematical concepts such as counting, weighing and understanding quantity (mathematics). Cooking relates to the children’s personal experiences (understanding the world). Cooking is a reflection of the diverse world and gives children the opportunity to make comparisons between different types of food.

Other activities

Easy cooking with kids from Cbeebies.

Making homemade playdough from the BBC’s Tiny Happy People.

Early Education has suggestions for outdoor mark-making activities.

What other nurseries and childminders are doing

“We try to make developing fine motor control interesting for children. An example is filling balloons with water overnight to make ice balloons. We peeled the rubber balloon off the frozen shape and put it on a big tray. Children had small pots of food colouring and plastic pipettes, small pots of salt with teaspoons, and other tools for exploring the ice. Children used a pincer grip to drip the food colouring over the ice balloons and to carefully spoon salt into the cracks that appeared. We noticed colourful patterns in the melting ice and showed children how to use the tools to chip and chisel holes and cracks. It was really motivating for children who might not choose activities that encouraged hand strength and control otherwise.”

Kate, Filton Avenue Nursery School, Bristol

Summary

  • Fine motor skills help children to navigate and explore the world with confidence and independence.
  • Fine motor skills depend on gross motor skills. You need a joined-up approach for developing whole body physicality and strength.
  • Rich outdoor and indoor environments will provide opportunities for developing fine motor skills.
  • Meaningful and real experiences like cooking are motivating for children and provide good opportunities for developing fine motor skills and coordination.

Next steps

  • Consider how providing small, natural materials for children to explore will support fine motor skills.
  • Explore how everyday routines and experiences in your setting such as preparing snacks or tidying up could support children to practise fine motor skills.
  • Review your curriculum to ensure you cover the requirements in the EYFS for this area of learning.