Toddlers develop hand skills by playing with toys, objects, and tools, and by doing everyday tasks such as brushing their teeth and taking off their shoes and socks. Activities such as painting, modelling with dough, building with bricks, cooking, and helping with household chores encourage toddlers to coordinate their hand and finger movements, which in turn forms the foundation for more advanced development.
The anatomy of the hand is complex, but its integrity is essential for everyday functioning and precision movement. Activities that exert pressure on the palms of the hands build muscle strength and endurance and lead on to greater flexibility of the fingers and thumb. A skilled pincer grip gives the toddler a more sophisticated ability to hold objects of different size and texture.
Fine finger skills develop gradually with practise and brain maturity. For example, the 18- month-old may be unable to fold paper but can tear it in half. The two-year-old may find it difficult do up buttons and zips but can peel off stickers. The three-year-old may be unable to cut with scissors but can draw horizontal and vertical lines. Left-handed toddlers may find it difficult to use right-handed tools, but they can cut along a straight line and hold a pencil with ease if given the appropriate tools.
If adults provide plenty of activities for hand and finger development, and support and encourage toddlers as they acquire new skills, they will develop essential precision skills for later activities such as holding a needle and writing.
As toddlers explore their environment and handle a variety of toys and tools that they can push, pull, and carry, their shoulder, arm and hand muscles grow strong. Even the process of opening doors, whisking an egg, emptying the washing machine, making music with instruments, and helping with everyday chores around the home or nursery, increases manual dexterity and control of the fingers.
The following activities are fun, and challenge toddlers to use their hands in various ways:
• Taking off shoes and socks.
• Pulling on ropes.
• Rolling, catching, and throwing a ball.
• Carrying buckets of sand or water from place to place.
• Climbing up ladders and nets and across monkey bars.
• Using spades, rakes and digging tools in a sand pit.
• Washing toys, chairs, tables, and the car with a sponge.
• Watering plants with a watering can.
• Pushing a toy wheelbarrow, trolley or pram.
• Painting the garden fence with water.
• Raking, sweeping, and collecting leaves, sticks, and pebbles.
• Squeezing play dough, toothpaste, sponges, and rubber balls.
• Mixing and sifting ingredients.
• Rolling, kneading, squashing, and cutting dough.
• Hammering activities.
Toddlers benefit from activities which encourage them to exert pressure on the palms such as crawling and creeping and activities such as climbing and squeezing, which stretch and extend the muscles of the hand. Given opportunities such as painting and drawing, they will gradually use their index fingers and thumbs in more controlled and complex ways.
Without well-developed hand and finger skills, toddlers may experience stress and frustration, poor self-esteem and delayed speech and language abilities when they go to school. However, if parents and practitioners provide plenty of opportunities for hand development, toddlers will build muscle strength and the endurance that they need for complex precision tasks such as writing.