Enabling Environments: Collections - Fine by me!

This first in a two-part series looking at resources for developing children's fine motor control starts with the under-threes. Nicole Weinstein reports.

Babies love to suck their hands and grab their toes. They pick up objects and mouth them, absorbing as much information about them as they can. They point, grasp, poke and clap. And, as their fine motor skills develop, they are able to pick up small things like peas from a plate, purposely release objects from their grip and throw objects around. Early years settings can do much to boost babies' and young children's manipulative development by providing a wide selection of sensory-rich resources that the child will be motivated to handle.


The development of a child's fine motor skills is a gradual process. The child will need to master the skill of using their hands and fingers to get through daily life - to feed themselves, pour drinks, dress themselves, use scissors and to write.

Early years consultant Penny Tassoni says, 'At first, babies have no control over their hand and arm movements. Hands and feet are sources of fascination and comfort to young babies, who stare and play with them. By six months, however, most babies are able to use both hands to hold and grasp objects. At a year old, the bones in their wrists and hands will have begun to harden, which allows them greater control and movement. They begin to take delight in picking up small objects, using their fingers to point and deliberately bashing together two objects.'

Another feature is repetitive play, which Piaget referred to as 'mastery play'. Penny explains, 'Babies and toddlers repeat movements over and over again, which helps to strengthen the muscles. By two years old, most children have developed a range of manipulative skills. They can turn pages in books, make marks on paper and put together a simple jigsaw.'


Treasure basket play, where a baby sits unaided and reaches into a basket to explore the textures, tastes, shapes and sizes of a selection of mostly natural objects, is widely used in nurseries. This type of activity not only stimulates the child's senses on all levels, it also gives the child the opportunity to strengthen their muscles and bones as they repeatedly pick up and drop the objects.

Penny says that alongside treasure basket play, practitioners need to ensure that there are a range of stimulating resources across the nursery that are of 'sufficient sensory interest' for the baby or toddler to want to pick them up and play with. However, she continues, 'Just one treasure basket is not enough, especially for young children who are in nursery for the majority of the day. Provide wooden toys, rattles, things they can twist and turn. And don't forget that babies need sufficient opportunities to touch the food that they are eating.'

Skills such as posting objects through holes and slots, squeezing, grabbing, threading objects and manipulating different fastenings are 'all skills that children master as part of their fine motor development' and are part of a child's journey towards writing, explains Peter Ellse, director of Cosy Direct.


Here is a selection of resources to include in your core collection of baby and toddler toys that are useful for developing fine motor control:

  • Provide opportunities for children to practise 'posting' and stacking. Most children at two are able to place objects one on top of another. Try the Baby Posting Pots, £49.95; the Wooden Stacking Pyramids, £34.95; or the Discovery Sorting Box, £31.95, all from www.tts-group.co.uk, or the Mini Pistachio Stacking Hoops, £25, from www.playtoz.co.uk. The Collections of Poles and Rings, £33.50, and the Collection of Shapes that Stack, £11.50, from www.earlyexcellence.com, will also appeal to young children. Try the Turn and Sort shape sorter, £14.99, from www.earlyyears.co.uk, or the Twist and Turnables, £9.99, and the Pot of Nuts and Bolts, £6.99, both from www.reflectionsonlearning.co.uk. Outdoors, provide funnels, guttering and tubes for children to pour water through or post things.
  • Allowing toddlers to manipulate different malleable and sensory materials with their hands will develop their finger strength and hand-eye co-ordination. Use playdough, sand, water, mud and cornflour or try Cosy Direct's Rainbow Swamp Gel, £10.99; a 3.5kg bag of Jelly Crystals, £13.99; a 3.5kg bag of cornflour, £8.75; along with value sacks of flour, salt and a 660g jar of cream of tartar for making playdough. Use them with the Wooden Dough Tool Set, £9.25; the set of four Garlic Press, £6.99; the set of 50 Pipettes, £1.95, or the set of three Turkey Basters, £3.50 all from Cosy Direct on 01332 370152.
  • To encourage children to use the pincer movement, try placing images into the Explorer Board, £28.95 from www.tts-group.co.uk and getting children to lift the pieces with the pegs to reveal what's underneath. Get the children to pick up small objects with the giant Gator Grabber Tweezers, £9.75, or outdoors try the Grabber Set of two, £9.99; the Easy Squeeze Syphon, £5.25, or the Six Monster Pegs, £3.80, all from Cosy Direct. Or let children try out the Water Pump, £8.99, from www.reflectionsonlearning.co.uk
  • Lacing cards, threading activities and hiding small items such as sequins in a sand tray are useful for developing the pincer grip. Try the Threading and Weaving Pre-writing Skills pack, £11.99, or the Value Ribbons Pack of six ribbons, £14.99, and the Garden Weaving Mesh, £9.95, from Cosy Direct. Also, the Posting Lock Boxes, £84.95, from www.tts-group.co.uk, featuring different catches and latches for opening, are great for fine motor skills. Then, there's the Lacing Apple and Cheese, £5.99, from www.reflectionsonlearning.co.uk.
  • There are various activities that contribute to strengthening fine motor movements. Look out for sponges and materials that provide some resistance, such as dough or squeezy balls, and tongs and water spray bottles.
  • Babies enjoy exploring paint with their fingers and as their grasp develops using mark-making tools such as chunky brushes, markers and chalks. Mark-making on a large scale continues to be important as children gradually refine their marks from a large to a small scale as their fine motor skills and control develop. Exploring making marks and practising pre-handwriting patterns in a range of materials and situations - in sand, shaving foam, glitter, cornflour - with sticks and ribbons in the air, with large chalks, brushes and rollers, with water on the ground, prepares children for more formal letter formation. Try the 20-piece set of Brushes and Mark Makers, £15; Brush Painters, set of eight, £8; Set of Four Paint Squirt bottles, £1.75, and the Giant Art Canvas, from £19.99, all from Cosy Direct.


Sue Gasgoyne, director of Play to Z, observes baby Robyn at home as part of a research project on fine motor development.

She says, 'I first observed Robyn at six months old, when she used her fingertips and nails to feel the different objects in the treasure basket. This has continued throughout her play and when this creates different sounds, she pauses as if registering the different sound made.

'The appeal of the objects compels Robyn to extend her arms and fingers to reach her chosen object. When a tin keeps slipping from her grip, she uses her feet, mouth and forearms to manoeuvre it.

'At seven to eight months, her urge to reach a particular object results in her rolling onto her tummy, then manoeuvring her whole body towards it. The appeal of the objects is a driver to reach, roll, move and lift so she can explore with fingers and mouth. This helps develop her gross motor skills and core strength in tandem with fine motor skills.

'Grasping a small metal bowl with all the fingers on her right hand, she uses her left hand to manoeuvre the bowl to her mouth and strokes the metal with her tongue and lips. On a separate occasion, she notices a small wooden camel and grasps its leg to lift it from the basket. She transfers the object between hands, then uses both hands to manoeuvre and rotate its tail, humps, legs and head into her mouth, as if trying to understand what the shape is like and checking to see if each body part tastes the same.'

Robyn was playing with the Large Treasure Basket - 10 months plus, £110, from www.playtoz.co.uk.


Penny Tassoni recommends:

Mini Artists My first Brushes, £6, from www.elc.co.uk. She says, 'This set contains three brushes and three stampers with chunky handles. The set of stampers are fantastic in dough and I would recommend them for two-year-olds and up, not the suggested 18 months.'

Crayola Beginnings Tadoodles First Marks. She says, 'These animal marker pens are shaped for a child's first palm grasp and they get the hand in good neutral position. They don't have lids on, so you don't need to worry about putting the lids on each time. You just hit them and off you go - and they don't dry out. They are good for two- and three-year-olds.'

www.amazon.co.uk/ Crayola-Beginnings-Tadoodles-First-Colours/dp/B000QUIHT0


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