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Toddler development - motor skills

7-minute read

Children grow and develop fast during their toddler years. They start exploring their world more independently. Their coordination improves, and they begin doing more things for themselves. There are many ways in which you can help your toddler develop both their fine and gross motor (movement) skills.

What are motor skills?

Children develop 2 types of motor (movement) skills:

  1. fine motor skills
  2. gross motor skills

Fine motor skills involve using your hands and fingers to control small objects.

Gross motor skills involve using the large muscles in your body to make large movements.

Fine motor skills

Fine motor skills engage the small muscles in the hands and fingers so your child can:

  • hold
  • grasp
  • grip
  • pinch

Examples of fine motor skills are:

Children develop fine motor skills so they can learn how to look after themselves. These skills help them to eventually learn to write.

Fine motor skills are important. Evidence suggests there's a link between fine motor skills development and language, literacy and brain development.

Other examples of fine motor skills include:

  • clapping hands
  • cleaning teeth
  • picking up and putting objects down
  • putting on shoes
  • rolling playdough
  • shaking musical instruments

At what age will my child develop fine motor skills?

While all children develop at their own pace, they do reach some milestones within certain age ranges.

Babies start to grasp objects using their hands (but not necessarily their thumbs) between 5 and 6 months old. They usually start to play with hand-held toys between 6 and 12 months.

By 18 months, most toddlers will attempt more complex skills. These may include:

From 2 years old, toddlers' fine motor skills become more sophisticated. They may start to show an interest in:

  • scribbling
  • drawing
  • trying to write

Between 2 and 3 years old, they might be able to turn doorknobs and screw jar lids.

By 5 years old, your child might show a preference for one hand over the other.

How can I help my child improve their fine motor skills?

You can help your child grow and practise their newfound skills through play and activities.

  • Paint, draw, glue and cut (with safety scissors).
  • Pick up objects with tongs or toy tweezers.
  • Play with blocks, Lego or do puzzles together.
  • Roll playdough into shapes and cut with cookie cutters.
  • Sand play using spades and buckets.
  • Stacking cups or containers so they can pop the smaller ones into the larger ones. They can also use them to fill with water and practise pouring.
  • Thread beads.

Gross motor skills

Gross motor skills involve the movement of the larger muscles in their arms, legs, and torso, such as:

You might notice that as your toddler builds their gross motor skills, they don't like to keep still.

When will my child develop gross motor skills?

Like fine motor skills, kids start developing gross motor skills when they're small babies. Even in their first 2 months, babies will kick their legs and wave their arms around.

At 6 to 8 months old, your baby should be able to roll, reach and sit independently (if only briefly).

Between 12 and 18 months, most babies are walking.

By 2 years old, toddlers can typically:

  • jump over small objects
  • throw a small ball or object
  • walk up and down stairs

Between 2 and 3 years, kids are capable of more complex movements such as:

  • climbing stairs without holding the railing
  • running faster
  • avoiding obstacles

At 3 to 5 years old, movement may progress to:

  • climbing on play equipment
  • walking on a balance beam

How can I help my child improve their gross motor skills?

Give your child the space to safely explore their environment and practise their gross motor skills.

You can expect a few falls and bumps. They'll likely be testing their physical limits to know how far they can run, climb, and jump. You can:

  • blow and chase bubbles outside
  • dance to music at home
  • encourage them to 'help' with everyday tasks, such as gardening or hanging clothes on the line
  • throw a large ball to them, and have them throw it back
  • visit playgrounds, parks, and the beach
  • wheel, push or ride on large toy

Try to limit screen time, as this can inhibit movement and physical play.

When to seek help

It’s normal for children to take different amounts of time to reach different milestones. However, if you feel like your child's motor skills aren't developing well, seek advice. See your doctor or child health nurse if your 2 or 3-year-old:

  • can't run
  • can't walk up and down stairs, even with help
  • has difficulty using small objects, like a crayon
  • doesn't scribble or try to draw
  • loses the physical skills they had before

Where can I get more information and support?

For resources on helping your child’s motor skills develop, you can visit the Learning Potential website.

You can call Parentline in your state or territory for advice and information:

Speak to a maternal child health nurse

Call Pregnancy, Birth and Baby to speak to a maternal child health nurse on 1800 882 436 or video call. Available 7am to midnight (AET), 7 days a week.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: July 2023

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