We’re talking about one of my favorite topics today: Fine motor skill!
If it doesn’t really sound exciting, I still ask you to keep reading. Because it is. I promise. And it’s an essential part of your child’s development – brain, body and spirit.
I’ll explain why I think it’s so important. While I won’t go too deep (I think), I totally understand if you want to skip that part. Just click here to directly skip to the list of toys.
For those who didn’t click: I’d like to show you why fine motor skill is so important to develop, train and explore and whether it does more to help the overall development of our children (Spoiler: it does a lot more).
What Is Fine Motor Skill And Why Do We Need It?
Fine motor skill is a subset of motor skill. So let’s talk about this first.
Motor skill is movement
According to Wikipedia, motor skill is ‘a learned ability to cause a predetermined movement outcome with maximum certainty’.
This means that motor skill is purposeful movement of our muscles. And, yes, we have to learn it. Because when we come to this world, we have no idea how any of our muscles work. And muscles are complicated. It takes us years to learn the basics and we can improve for our whole lives.
Fine motor skill is required for precise movements
Fine motor skill (or dexterity) is the coordination of small muscles, in movements—usually involving the synchronization of hands and fingers—with the eyes.
Fine motor skill is exactly what it says it is. It’s the little, precice movements. Picking something up, putting it exactly where you want it to go. It’s eating with a fork, drawing, using scissors, building a lego car and braiding your hair.
Often it is mistaken for using your hands and fingers just the right way. And yes, much of it is in your hands, but not everything. Because fine motor skills can affect all other body parts. It can be facial expression, clear speech, precise navigation through narrow isles in a store, or picking up a sock with your foot.
Fine motor skill has to be learned
It’s incredibly hard to move our limbs with millimeter precision. For us adults, it’s sometimes difficult to understand why eating with a spoon seems so hard, or why our kids still can’t get their buttons undone without help.
That kind of thinking is not fair. Because we parents have learned to use our muscles for two to four decades, depending on our age!
Babies can do absolutely nothing when they are born. They come into this world without any clue how their body works. They have no instruction manual, no online training, not even any words to ask or understand what they need to know. They have to figure it out and practice it on their own.
Many of the nerve connections in the brain have yet to be formed. And that can only happen through constant trying, experiencing and repetition. Therefore, the most important ingredients for learning fine motor skills are patience and time.
Fine motor skill helps developing other skills
Our brain doesn’t just control the motor skills. It controls all the other processes as well: Thinking, emotions, language, concentration, memory, creativity, mood and about a thousand other things.
And these different areas of the brain are closely connected and influence each other. This means that if you train the fine motor skills, other skills are also improved along the way:
Focus, memory, analytical thinking, problem-solving, social skills, imagination, coordination. Just to mention some of them.
These skills are all connected and develop together. If you train one of them, you train the others, too.
And of course, you also have a positive influence on the abilities that are directly related to fine motor skills. e.g. Balance, hand-eye-coordination or anything we associate with the term ‘sportiness’.
Fine motor skill also has great influence on social aspects. Because facial expressions and language, which are hardly possible without fine motor skills, form the basis for communication between us.
You can already see it in toddlers and preschool kids. Children who have physical problems with communicating are clearly at a disadvantage.
Fine motor skill is the basis for our survival in everyday life
What have you done in the last two hours? How much of that depends on fine motor skill?
Did you get dressed, have you done your make-up, did you cook, typed on a keyboard? Did you put things away, did some arts and crafts, play the piano or did you do your laundry? Have you written a shopping list, sent a text message, made a phone call, made coffee, locked a door?
Without fine motor skill, our everyday life simply does not work. And the better you are at it, the easier is … ultimately everything.
Even your child will have problems at a very early age if she can’t keep up with her peers when it comes to fine motor skills. At school at the latest, children have to be able to reliably and precisely hold a pen for writing and drawing, to put on their own clothes and to speak clearly.
Do you need extra toys for practicing fine motor skills?
No. Because the practice of fine motor skills can be integrated into everyday life. If you look at the individual tips in the list below, you will realize that practice is just part of your normal day.
You can also make toys yourself to help your child develop fine motor skills. You most likely already have most of the stuff you need for that. I’ll show you some of the things you can do in the list below.
Nobody has to spend money or buy new things for fine motor skill training.
However. There are a lot of great toys that are a lot of fun and at the same time also train fine motor skills. So if you are looking for toys or looking for a present, why not buy something that is also good for your kid’s development?
And so, finally, let’s talk about toys. Fun, child-friendly and fine-motor-skill-developing toys.
The best toys for toddlers and children up to five to improve and train the fine motor skill
Disclaimer: This article is not sponsored and represents my personal opinion. It does, however, contain partner links in text and pictures and therefore advertising!
I tried to organize the individual list items logically. I didn’t succeed. Which is because I have included individual toys in this list, as well as general toy groups, as well as do-it-yourself solutions.
So I fully admit that it is a jumbled mess that I hope you enjoy anyways because it was made with love.
Only so much: The order of the toys is not meant as any kind of rating.
1For the little ones: Encourage reaching out and grabbing things – from about 3-6 months
Babies start practicing their motor skills as soon as they are out of the womb. And you can help them playfully develop and get better every day. Or at least you can make them grab things that are not your hair or coffee cup.
Once they are about 3 months old, they become increasingly interested in the things around them. They’ll try to reach for and grab anything that is colorful, that is squeaky or rattles, anything that is easy to grip, not too heavy and not too big.
That means: rattles, rings, baby gyms, cuddly toys. Simple toys like classic oballs that you can get cheaply work just as well as slightly more complicated play equipment.
For example, this caterpillar puzzle from Lamaze is not only there to grab, but also consists of individual parts that can be pulled apart and put together.
Kitchen tools work just as well because babies are weird and like to play with things that are not toys at all. Just watch out for sharp edges and small parts. Babys like to gnaw and swallow things that are not meant to be swallowed.
In general: watch your baby and support what keeps him interested and what he wants to play with. That’s enough in the first few months. The kid is busy learning to move arms, legs, hands and feet in the desired direction.
2Stacking Toys – one year and older
- Stacking toys are fun and not only help to develop fine motor skills, but also creativity and imagination.
- Stacking toys can be played alone or together with siblings, parents, friends, grandparents.
- Stacking toys stay relevant for a long time. Depending on what game you choose, they won’t stop being interesting until your kid is four or five years old. That’s a lot of playing time.
- Stacking toys are incredibly versatile and they come in many different variations.
- Stacking toys are easy to make yourself. Just collect some stones, find some food containers, books, pasta or anything stackable and you’re good to go. If you want to buy them, many aren’t very expensive (depending on the toy you choose, obviously).
- Very important: Stacking games are ideal for training fine motor skills. They are available in different levels of difficulty so that your child can continue practicing.
I like combining stacking games with an element of balance, but that’s just me. My top 3 stacking games are (beware! Amazon advertising): Click on image for Link.
3Building Blocks – 18 months and older
Yes, I know, technically, building blocks are a subset of stacking toys. But since they are so well-known, popular and so useful for fine motor skills, I have listed them here as an extra bullet. Also because our grand-grand-grand parents probably already played with them. That has to account for something.
This really goes back to the roots of playing. Because there have always been building blocks.
And it’s just fun. You can build with your children and replicate things they see every day. From houses to furniture to animals. There are no limits to the imagination here.
Building blocks are a great learning toy to have. They train fine motor skills, creativity, analytical thinking, strategic thinking, familiarize children with the basic laws of physics and improve concentration. They can also be the basis for conversation and improve language, speech and vocabulary.
In addition, they are super versatile, can be used for several generations and are relatively cheap to buy. And best of all, like all the toys in this list, they do not need batteries.
They are available in different shapes, sizes and colors. You can buy them in different materials: wood, plastic, cardboard.
4Lego Duplo – two years and older
If I had to say one negative thing about building blocks, it would be this: building with building blocks can sometimes be frustrating for toddlers because the lovingly stacked structures often collapse at the slightest touch.
It’s fun for some kids, and they build with joy just to tear everything down. But some children get frustrated and lose their desire to build. Especially the kids who are not yet dexterity experts and a little clumsy.
Lego Duplo is ideal for those kids. Because Lego Duplo is not only endlessly versatile, but it also holds together beautifully once you have built something.
I probably don’t have to explain to anyone what exactly Lego Duplo is. I’ll do it anyway: It’s the big brother of Lego and consists of plastic blocks that are big enough for small kids to play with. Children as young as two or three years will love playing with Lego Duplo.
The rectangular building blocks all fit seamlessly together and the possibilities are endless. But this is not the end of the game. Because there are plenty of additional figures, animals, buildings, ideas, even a real electric railroad.
The advantages of Lego Duplo:
- Open world with many different themes from knights to princesses, from animals to fairies.
- Helps to develop fine motor skills, creativity, imagination, concentration.
- Endlessly expandable.
- Stays relevant for many years.
- Suitable for one or more players.
5Hubelino – three years and older
I’ll try to be brief here because I’ve already written a detailed article about this system. Especially about the fact that I consider it one of the best toys for toddlers.
Hubelino combines the world of Lego Duplo and all its advantages and possibilities with a marble run and all the fun that comes with it. In my view, there are not many toys that are as versatile and as fun for the whole family.
Because in this case, one plus one is actually a lot more than two. The world that opens up once you combine Lego Duplo and Hubelino is just amazing. And it can be enjoyed for many years.
I’d also classify this as a learning toy. The children will have to use their hands, their imagination, their creativity, their analytical thinking, their problem solution, their concentration and a lot more.
I’ll go a lot more in depth in this article about the Hubelino system. You’ll find a lot of pictures and explanations what exactly Hubelino does.
6Marble Runs – three years and older
Marble runs are available in endless variations and for all possible ages. Some are better suited for practicing fine motor skills for toddlers, some are complex strategic toys for teenagers.
If you are specifically looking for a way to help develop fine motor skills, be sure to look for a run where the child has to do more than throw a marble in and watch it run.
Look for something that needs to be built. Look for systems that are modular and consist of building blocks or elements.
There are too many systems to mention them all. But if you’re looking for quality and organic materials, then try the marble runs from Hape. They are easy to build but can get quite complex as you add more blocks and as your child gets older.
Do-it-yourself marble run
With a bit of creativity and time, you can also build your own marble run. It’s not that complicated.
You can use empty toilet paper rolls and paper towel rolls, or sliced swimming noodles, pipes, anything that comes in tube form.
Then you just have to fix the whole thing to a board, to the wall or just to any surface with an incline and you can start playing with a few marbles.
You probably won’t win a design award, but you’ll have fun building it and fun playing with it. Give it a try!
7Magnetic Tiles – three years and older
Magnetic tiles, like Lego, are a variation (or progression) of the classic building blocks. Just like Legos, magnetic tiles also have a firm connection once you’ve put them together. This means you can build relatively solid structures.
As you probably have guessed from the name, the connections, in this case, are magnetic.
Depending on the system, the magnetic components come in different shapes and can be assembled into completely different structures, machines, things.
Playing with magnetic tiles practices creativity, concentration and, of course, fine motor skills.
And these magnetic modules are really fun. I caught myself building things with them instead of cleaning quite a few times. While my daughter was in preschool…
When you purchase the tiles, keep an eye on the size of the individual elements. There are larger tiles for smaller children and smaller tiles for older children. The larger parts are easier to build with, while the smaller parts are more suitable for more complex structures and will stay interesting for a longer time.
8Eichhorn Constructor – three years and older
Construction toys – and especially Eichhorn Constructor – are more complex and require a lot more fine motor skill than simple blocks or Lego Duplo.
Because the children don’t just use their hands to build. They use their hands to hold tools, which they use to build. And this is a lot more complicated than it sounds.
The principle of the toy is straightforward. With the help of simple tools, wooden elements are assembled and used to build all sorts of things. Depending on the age, more or less complex and large buildings and vehicles are created. From very simple cars to very complex wind turbines.
My daughter loves the Constructor system. The parts are high quality, it is a lot of fun and you can be very creative.
Even small hands can screw, build and help to create complex machines. We started early with this system. My daughter saw it in a toy store and fell in love. At the age of two and a half, she got it for Christmas and immediately started to work.
She’s been playing with it regularly ever since. Sometimes alone, sometimes with us parents or with other kids. Sometimes we follow the instructions, sometimes we don’t. She’s three and a half years old right now and still too young to follow the instructions on her own.
We love this system, which incidentally, without anyone noticing, effectively trains the fine motor skills. Many different movements and hand movements have to be performed here. Screw, turn, stick, hold, pull, push, but not too tight!
Kids learn quickly to be very precise with this toy.
I really recommend Eichhorn Constructor if you have children between the ages of 2 and 6.
The do-it-yourself alternative is, I believe, obvious. Just send the child with Mom or Dad to the garage, the basement, the workshop and use the tools you have at home.
Screw, hammer, saw, cut, build with your children. Build birdhouses, repair chairs and let the little ones help, participate and create themselves age appropriately.
This not only strengthens the fine motor skills but also creativity, the self-confidence and it teaches the children to use tools safely.
Obviously: Real tools aren’t toys. Do not leave your children unattended and teach them to use tools safely.
9Lacing – two years and older
Threading games are awesome. Many children love them, they don’t make a mess, they are quite portable and there’s no problem if you lose a few parts. You can combine different games and after the ‘work’ is done – depending on the game – you get a colorful piece of jewelry.
And it practices the fine motor skills.
I’m pretty sure I don’t have to say much more than that. Try it, it’s fun.
This is one of the things you really don’t have to buy if you don’t want to. Because most people have things to thread at home.
For smaller children from about 2 years: Large wooden beads and laces.
For older children from 3 to 4 years: buttons, thread and darning needle.
For those who like it a little more fancy: Go into the forest and collect chestnuts, acorns, beechnuts, and drill holes.
10Puzzles – 12 months and older
Why the puzzles are so often forgotten in these lists is beyond me. Because puzzles are awesome! They can be easy or difficult. They are available for all ages. They are one of the simplest yet most versatile educational toys because they cover pretty much all areas of the brain where connections need to be made:
Fine motor skills, concentration, memory, creativity, analytical thinking, strategic thinking, problem-solving, patience …
Seriously. Puzzles are awesome. If you have a kid who enjoys puzzles, then I highly recommend that you support it.
You can start small with wooden puzzles that have only 2 or 3 parts. Then work your way over peg puzzles, frame puzzles, real jigsaw puzzles from 10 over 20 over 50 up to 1000 pieces.
(Do you realize how much I love puzzles myself?)
Making recommendations here is a bit silly because there are just so many different puzzles. So I’ll just link you the 3 puzzles my daughter has played the most with (click on picture for the link).
11Shape Sorting – two years and older
Shape sorting is something that primarily teaches shapes and colors. But usually, this is done by placing the different shapes in slots that are shaped exactly like the little blocks. And for that – you guessed it – fine motor skills are essential.
Which means you get three learning experiences for the price of one!
Jokes aside. I really love those shape sorting toys because while they are educational, most kids simply love them.
The most common form of this toy is probably the cube which most of us know from our youth. There are differently shaped blocks, holes where they fit in and you can open it to get everything out.
It’s a great and simple toy for children from one and a half years, as it stimulates the fine motor skills, the kids learn to recognize and name the different shapes, and if the blocks come in different colors, you have that element as well. Easy and good.
As the children grow older, there are sorting toys that can be used to create mosaic-like images with differently colored pins or plugs. These are also really fun and can be played e together with parents and siblings, or they can be a single player activity.
In addition to the fine motor skills, these games also practice creativity, imagination and focus.
But there are plenty of other sorting or pinning games. Take a look around what’s currently being offered.
Do-It-Yourself Shape Sorting
For creative people: Get a floral foam brick from the garden center or hardware store. Provide different kinds of pasta (dried, not cooked) and let your kid stick it into the foam. You can create a lot of cool pictures that way, especially when the kid is a little older.
For Montessori lovers: Collect natural materials in the forest such as bits of wood, chestnuts, tree bark … Drill a hole through them and get yourself a twig or a wooden stick that fits through the holes. Then you can put the plug elements on the stick. Let the kid sort them by size, color or shape.
For talented people: Rebuild one of the linked wooden toys. It’s not that complicated if you have some tools and a bit of old wood lying around.
For future accountants: Get a piggy bank and ask Grandpa for some change. Not much sorting, but getting the coins into the slit takes quite a bit of fine motor skill. Tell Grandpa that toddlers have to practice a lot.
12Bead mazes – 2 or 3 years and older
I’m going to be honest. I don’t like bead mazes. They are big, bulky, impossible to stack, my child managed to destroy quite a few of them, and somehow they aren’t interesting for more than a couple of minutes.
So. Here they are.
Bead mazes are available in various levels of difficulty and help develop fine motor skills, hand-eye coordination, and dexterity. The child is required to push beads from one end of one of the rollercosters to the other end, usually by hand.
And that’s about it.
But! There is a light at the end of the bead maze tunnel.
In the last years, an alternative appeared. The principle of the toy is basically the same, but it looks more beautiful, is better to store and I, very subjectively, like it a lot better.
I introduce: The Magnetic Bead Maze.
In this magnetic labyrinth, a bead runs behind plexiglass. The bead can be moved with a magnetic pen through the glass. That is fun. At least for some children – mine loses interest pretty quickly.
The mazes are available in different designs, sizes and difficulties.
If you and your child like this kind of game, then there are certainly worse ways to train the fine motor skills. You notice, I find it difficult to really be enthusiastic. I’m sorry.
13Activity Cube – 2 or 3 years and older
Activity cubes are probably the master class of toys that practice fine motor skills. Because they combine several different toys in only one big toy. They are available from very small to very large, for very small and slightly larger children.
It’s been about two years since we got our activity cube from Grandma and Grandpa. Our daughter still plays with it almost every day. If you want to keep yours as long as we kept ours, I recommend getting one that is bigger and sturdier and has room to grow.
Look for activities for small children like different colors, sorting, just moving things, and also activities for older kids, like numbers and letters, puzzles or more complex sorting games.
The advantages of activity cubes are:
- Combines several toys in one
- Promotes fine motor skills, concentration and usually also has other educational toys about shapes, colors, numbers, letters…
- It’s fun for kids
- Looks nice and decorative
- Replaces many individual toys and thus reduces chaos in children’s rooms and living rooms
14Musical Instruments – two years and older
Musical instruments are one of the topics that are often forgotten when we talk about fine motor skills.
Overall, musical instruments are pretty much one of the best things you can do to your kid. Music strengthens concentration, motor skills, analytical thinking, logical thinking. There are studies that show that music also stimulates mathematical and language skills.
In addition, playing music, experiencing it together with friends or family strengthens relationships and forms memories that last a lifetime.
Therefore, I advocate for musical instruments! Small, big, loud, quiet, they come in so many kinds, sizes, difficulties, and they never stop being interesting.
It would go too far here to introduce all available musical instruments with their advantages, disadvantages and possibilities. Therefore, I limit myself to the 2 instruments that I currently most often play with my own daughter (3 years).
Xylophone – because you just need one
I would really recommend you to take one, where you can remove the plates. Then you have an integrated puzzle game right away. And it’s more interesting for the child.
I also recommend to not buy a toy, but a real instrument for children. I know that these are a little more expensive. But the difference is worth it.
Djembe – feel the rhythm
You also need some kind of drum. You just do. We decided to go for an African djembe because it’s easy and intuitive to play with, they have one in preschool as well, and because it’s fun for Mom, too.
Djembes are available for a reasonable price in different sizes, depending on the age of your child. Like the xylophone linked above, these drums are real instruments (albeit for children).
Quite a few music schools or child education centers are offering African drum lessons for children. When the kids are a bit older, they can learn the ‘correct’ basics of drumming there.
Drumming is not only a very good workout for just about every part of the brain, it’s also a kind of meditation for stress relief and emotional balance. Mental health is an important issue for me. It’s never too early to teach your children age-appropriate tools to deal with life and all the baggage that comes with it.
15General Sorting – 18 months and older
And then we come back to the basics. To the simple games that children – especially small children – love. These games captivate, engage and inspire.
In this case, we’re talking about sorting. The general kind, not the shape sorting kind we already talked about. You will be surprised how much fun this simple activity will be for the little ones and how long they can be entertained.
And here you really do not need to buy any toy. Sorting requires only two bowls (if you’re brave, then one plus the floor) and stuff you can sort:
Noodles, dry beans and lentils, buttons, paper clips, berries, Smarties …
Since this is a game that can be fun starting at 18 months, I would like to point out the suffocation risk. Do not leave your children alone with small parts that can be swallowed.
16Drawing, Crafting, Chores
Honestly? If you regularly draw, do handicrafts or otherwise are creative with your children, then you do not really need extra toys to train fine motor skills.
Because while coloring, drawing and crafting (and eating and brushing your teeth and collecting stones and folding socks) you train the fine motor skills easily and without noticing it. Because holding pens or cutting things doesn’t work without fine motor skills.
Which means: Draw with your children, build something with your children, do things with your children. Encourage your children to practice things that are difficult for them, that are challenging.
Drawing pictures is hard. Cutting a shape with scissors is super-hard. They won’t be successful for the first, fifth and maybe even tenth time. But eventually, they’ll get better, and eventually, they’ll be good at it. And then they can be proud of themselves.
Because you have to learn fine motor skills. There’s no way around it.
Be confident in your child and let them do things even if they seem a little too young for them. Let them put on their own pants, cut with a knife (under supervision!), do their laces. There are a million ways to practice fine motor skills in everyday life. Often the only thing you need is a bit of patience (or a lot of it).
And now I wish you a lot of fun playing, practicing and fine-motor-skilling.
Thank you for reading, for tolerating my butchering of the English language and for being patient with me.
If you want to read more about toys, come here and stay for a while. I’ve done a lot of research, testing and reviews on the German part of this website and will translate a lot more content in the future.
If you are interested in a particular topic, let me know. I am always available for conversations via the comment function or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All the best