Opening Doors, Literally: Your Toddler is Now Mastering His Fine Motor Skills and Dexterity

Opening Doors, Literally: Your Toddler is Now Mastering His Fine Motor Skills and Dexterity

Your child’s fine motor skills are continuing to grow–and this may have a huge benefit later in life! By 2-3 years old, he will have greatly improved his Small Muscle Movement and Dexterity and Hand-Eye Coordination. This is exciting, because his mastery of fine motor skills, increasing attention span, and general knowledge are stronger “predictors of later math, reading, and science scores than early math and reading scores alone.”1 The development of his fine motor and cognitive development skills are clearly connected.

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It was previously believed that these skills were developed separately within the cerebellum and basal ganglia for motor abilities and prefrontal cortex for cognition. However, new research has found that both regions are activated (or impaired) during certain motor or cognitive tasks.2 This is not surprising! Early learning is a complex process in which infants and toddlers continually experience and process new and related information and sensory input, which adds to their understanding of the world around them.3 So go ahead and support your child’s fine motor skills, it’ll make him smarter!

What kind of fine motor skills will your child be able to show at 2-3 years old? He will now have stronger small muscle strength and memory, as well as bilateral coordination, which lets him use both hands together to achieve a task.4 He will be able to open doors on his own, unscrew jars, fit together the pieces of a simple puzzle, zip a large zipper, and squish, poke, roll, and shape his craft dough.5

With his nimble fingers and growing small muscle strength, your child will now start to use and explore smaller and more complicated objects. His pincer (i.e. thumb and forefinger) grasp6 will have improved considerably, and using pencils, pens, and regular-sized crayons should no longer be much of a challenge. Using his pincer grasp will also allow him to wind up a moving toy or use small tongs to pick up objects and place them in a container. He will be able to use smaller blocks for construction, string large beads on a cord, arrange rubber ducks in a line along the bathtub, and use hand puppets to tell stories.5 He may enjoy new types of water play, such as pouring water from a small pitcher, using a turkey baster to splash water in the tub, or wetting and squeezing sponges.7

Partially due to his increased manual dexterity, your child will enjoy “reading” on his own. He can now hold a book properly, turn paper pages with great care, and even recognize some of the words on the pages, especially the ones used most often.8 Don’t forget that your child still needs the closeness and comfort of reading time with you, but giving him more independence in reading will keep him growing. Collecting read-along books, which have a recording to go along with the print copy, is a great way to let him practice his manual dexterity and early reading skills in an independent way.

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Play Tips:

Do you want to know how you can support your child’s development of these Small Muscle Movement and Dexterity skills at this age? It’s easy! Read on for some simple tips to incorporate into your daily play time together.

  1. Offer your child smaller objects to explore.5,8 Provide him with small building blocks, large pop beads, lacing cards with shoe string, small counting toys, hand puppets, puzzles, latch boards, and tweezers or small tongs (but still be on the lookout for choking hazards!). In addition, introduce flexible and textured materials that allow him to really work the material with his hands, such as wet sand or craft dough. All of these activities and tools will help build his dexterity.
  2. Continue singing fingerplay songs together.7 Music and singing will still be a favorite activity for your 2- to 3-year-old. By now, he will really enjoy participating in fingerplays, such as “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” and “Where is Thumbkin?” So, go on singing these fingerplays together because it will help build his Hand-Eye Coordination skills and support his love of music.
  3. Read, Read, Read! You are probably sick of hearing this by now, but reading with your child is one of the healthiest activities available. Improved fine motor skills, spatial orientation, and hand-eye coordination are just a few of the physical benefits. Reading with your child nourishes him in all developmental domains and prepares him for a world filled with words.
  4. Expand your child’s reach. Now that your child is no longer an infant, it is time to rethink what he should (and shouldn’t) be able to access. Taking child safety locks off the door handles to let him open cupboards and closets and explore these new spaces can be a really exciting adventure. In the kitchen, put a child-friendly step stool at the counter and ask him to help you seed watermelon or chop a soft fruit, such as pears, using a dull butter knife or a plastic knife. The more manual work you can involve your toddler in, the stronger his fine motor skills will become.

Developmental Milestones:

Has your baby achieved the following Small Muscle Movement and Dexterity developmental milestones yet? If yes, check off all the skill(s) she has already mastered to date using Playful Bee’s developmental milestones tracker. It’s absolutely FREE and easy to use, just click HERE!

  • Screws and unscrews jar lids or turns door handles.
  • Turns book pages one at a time.

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1Grissmer, David; Grimm, Kevin J.; Aiyer, Sophie M.; Murrah, William M.; and Steele, Joel S. (2010). Fine Motor Skills and Early Comprehension of the World: Two New School Readiness Indicators. Developmental Psychology, 46(5), 1008-1017. Retrieved on February 18, 2014, from

2Diamond, A. (2000). Close Interrelation of Motor Development and Cognitive Development and of the Cerebellum and Prefrontal Cortex. Child Development, 71: 44–56.

3Jenkins, Bill (2012). The Motor-Cognitive Connection: Early Fine Motor Skills as an Indicator of Future Success. Scientific Learning. Retrieved on February 18, 2014, from

4School Health. Importance of Bilateral Coordination in Young Children. School Health. Retrieved on February 14, 2014, from

5Maryland State Department of Education (2010). Healthy Beginnings: Supporting Development and Learning from Birth through Three Years of Age.

6Ferrell, Kay Alicyn (2011). Reach Out and Teach: Helping Your Child Who is Visually Impaired Learn and Grow, 2nd edNew York, NY: AFB Press.

7Early Steps: Louisiana’s Early Intervention System (2005). Louisiana’s Early Learning Guidelines and Program Standards: Birth through Three.

8Montana Early Childhood Project (2009). Montana’s Early Learning Guidelines for Infants and Toddlers.

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Education Team at Playful Bee
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