Tips for training toddler fine motor (hand) tasks

Importance of attention and motivation 

Toddlers with movement difficulties (developmental delay, joint hypermobility, low muscle tone, developmental coordination disorder, autism, Down's) may need dedicated time and support for learning new hand (fine motor) tasks. 

Poor fine motor development is often associated with low motivation and poor attention abilities, along with a tendency to avoid tasks that unfamiliar and appear to be difficult. 

So the vital, often missed, key to helping your toddler learn new skills is to pay attention to attention and motivation. You need to: 

  • Provide a social environment that holds your child's attention and encourages engagement.
  • Provide a physical  environment that is fairly distraction free.
  • Adapt the task to allow your toddler to succeed.

How the social environment enhances learning 

Toddlers who are motivated to take on new challenges, and have good attention and fine motor skills have learned to pay attention to the actions of  a social partner, are good at imitating actions, will follow instructions and also share their pleasure at achieving goals. 

When you and your toddler sit down together to engage in a new activity, your actions, suggestions and encouragement play an important role in helping your toddler to stay on task, persist in the face of failure, and try out new ways of achieving a goal.  

If your toddler has difficulties with attention, staying in place and engaging with new tasks, you may need to step back and spend some time working on developing his or her social engagement and joint attention abilities. 

Once your toddler has developed the ability to engage with you on simple tasks, then he or she is ready to start learning from training sessions for more complex tasks.  

Toddlers at risk for autism in particular may need extra time learning the basic joint attention skills important for learning fine motor tasks. 

Toddler's with a highly sensitive (fearful) temperament may have poor self-regulation and attention abilities, will often avoid unfamiliar tasks and may first need to learn to down-regulate fearful responses to novelty and challenge before engaging in more complex motor tasks. 

Mark, 18 months is at risk for autism

Mark at 18 months has started to show signs of poor social engagement and is lagging behind in the development of fine motor (hand) tasks. 

When I sit down opposite Mark and try to engage him in a block building task, he start to line the blocks up in a row, ignores me completely and definitely does not watch me when I build a tower. 

I need to get his attention and the easiest way to do this is to mirror his actions. So I get myself a set of blocks and copy Mark's actions. I also put my blocks in a row and push them forwards to imitate a train. 

Mark looks up from his game, looks at me and looks at my actions. I stop, look at him and comment on the game we are playing. 

Mark waves his hands vigorously, scattering his blocks in all directions, then looks at me. I do the same. I scatter the blocks, after which I build a tower with my blocks. 

Mark is interested, but not convinced. So he picks up a block and starts to bang it on the table.I wait until he stops, then I imitate his actions. 

He bangs the block three times and stops.  I do the same. We continue taking turns banging our blocks just 3 times for a while. Then I change the game and bang my block many times. Mark looks at me suspiciously. This is not right - I have changed the game. 

I bang the block many times again. Mark gets the idea and copies me. Next we engage in a rowdy game of banging our blocks at the same time. 

What has been achieved?

Mark has started to engage with me, he has also started to watch and copy my actions and maybe next time when I bring out the blocks he will be willing to copy me when I build a tower of blocks. 

How the physcal environment influences learning

A busy environment with lots of toys scattered around makes it difficult for your child to stay focused on you and the task at hand. So bring out only the toy or set of objects that you are going to play with. 

Letting your toddler sit in a feeding chair or at a table helps to keep the child in place. This is particularly important if your child tends to avoid unfamiliar or difficult tasks. 

Adapt the task so that your toddler succeeds

Remember that success breeds more success. Toddlers are very aware when they have achieved a goal and become motivated to try again. With repeated experience of success the toddlers sense of I-can-do (self-efficacy) and makes him or her more willing to take on new and challenging task. 

The trick is to find ways to make the task easier and then increase the complexity slowly so that the child can succeed each time. 

Andile learning to stack nesting cups

Andile, aged 20 months, is not interesting in building a tower with stacking cups.  When I bring out the full set of eight cups he waves his hands back and forth and scatters the cups in all directions.

I get the message. He has failed at this task before and is not interested in trying again.

So I take a different approach. We sit down at a small table opposite each other and I put just two cups on the table between us and hide a small toy under each cup. Andile lifts up the cup to expose the toy animal. He also spends some time inspecting and naming the animals. 

I suggest that it is his turn to hide the animals, which he does. 

Now it is my turn. I stack the two cups, hiding an animal under each cup. Andile watched me carefully and lifts the cups to find them. 

Next time I stack the cups, but do not hide the animals. Andile watches my actions carefully. He knocks down my tower. I suggest he builds a tower for me to knock down. I pass him the smaller cup which he puts in place. 

Time to fetch bring out another cup, which I hand to Andile and suggests he makes a taller tower, which he does and then gleefully knocks it over. 

Now it is time to let Andile play with the cups on his own.  He spends some time inserting them, sometimes getting the order right. Then he hides the animals under the cups again, and lastly spends a little time stacking the cups, mostly in the wrong order. 

During this exploratory play I do not interfere because I know that he is learning a great deal from this experience. Judging small differences in size takes time, as does understanding that the biggest green cup needs to go at the bottom followed by the red cup and so on.  

And finally he decides that the game is over and pushes the cups back to me and indicates that he wants to get down from the chair.

Steps to enhance task learning 

1 Sit opposite your toddler. If your toddler will stay in place and readily engage with you in new games you can sit on the floor. 

It is often helpful to let your toddler sit in a feeding chair, or at at a small table and chair,  especially if he or she tends to move away as soon as you try to engage in a new task.

T 2y 2m threading beads 3_1.jpg

2 Put the toy you are introducing to your toddler on the table and allow him to play with it in any way he/she chooses.  

3 Toddlers learn a great deal from watching what other people do, so your next step is to show the toddler the particular task you want to work on in this training session.

4 Then encourage the toddler to copy your actions. Sometimes the toddler will copy your actions, and at other times he may simply not be interested, or have other ideas. 

That is OK. Allow him to explore and experiment for a while. Then demonstrate the action you would like him to copy and see what happens. 

5 Change to another game as soon as your toddler looses interest or becomes too frustrated.