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Ages & Stages

Hand and Finger Skills of Your Preschooler

During their preschool-age years, your child is now better able to control small muscles and movements in their hands and fingers. Here's what you can expect as they develop new skills.

Your 3-year-old child

At 3 years old, your child is developing both the muscular control and the concentration they need to master many precision finger and hand movements. You'll notice that now they can move each of her fingers independently or together. This means that instead of grasping their crayon in their fist they can hold it like an adult, with thumb on one side and fingers on the other. Now they will be able to trace a square, copy a circle or scribble freely.

Because their spatial awareness is better developed, they're more sensitive to the relationships among objects. They'll position their toys with care during play and control the way they hold utensils and tools to perform specific tasks. This increased sensitivity and control will allow them to build a tower of nine or more cubes, pour water from a pitcher into a cup (using two hands), unbutton clothes, possibly put large buttons into buttonholes and use a fork and feed themself independently, spilling only occasionally.

At this age, your child is also extremely interested in discovering what they can do with tools such as scissors and with materials such as clay, paint, paper and crayons. They have the skill to manipulate these objects and experiment with them to make other things. At first, they'll play randomly with craft materials, perhaps identifying the end product only after it's completed.

Looking at their scribbles, they might decide they look like a dog. But soon this will change, and they'll decide what they want to make before starting to work on it. This change in approach will motivate them to develop even more precision in moving and using their hands.

Some quiet-time activities that can help improve your 3-year-old child's hand abilities:

  • Building with blocks

  • Solving simple jigsaw puzzles (four or five large pieces)

  • Playing with pegboards

  • Stringing large wooden beads

  • Coloring with crayons or chalk

  • Building sandcastles

  • Pouring water into containers of various sizes

  • Dressing and undressing dolls in clothing with large zippers, snaps and laces

You can encourage your child to use their hands by teaching them to use certain adult tools. They'll be thrilled to progress to a real screwdriver, a lightweight hammer, an eggbeater or gardening tools. You'll need to supervise closely, of course, but if you let them help as you work, you may be surprised by how much of the job they can do themself.

Your 4 to 5-year-old child

Your 4-year-old's coordination and ability with their hands is almost fully developed. As a result, they're becoming able to take care of themself. They now can brush their teeth (still with your help) and get dressed with little assistance, and he may even be able to tie their shoes.

Notice how they use their hands with far more care and attention when drawing. They'll decide in advance what they want to create and then create it. Their figures may or may not have a body, and the legs may be sticking out of the head, but they'll have eyes, a nose, and a mouth and, most important to your child, the drawing is a person to them.

Because of this growing hand control, arts and crafts in general are becoming more exciting.

At this age, some of their favorite activities may include:

  • Writing and drawing, holding the paper with one hand and the pencil or crayon with the other

  • Tracing and copying geometric patterns, such as stars or diamonds

  • Card and board games

  • Painting with a brush and finger painting

  • Clay modeling

  • Cutting (using safety scissors) and pasting

  • Building complex structures with many blocks

These kinds of activities will let your child use and improve many of their emerging skills, and they'll also discover the fun of creating. In addition, because of their success with these activities, their self-esteem will grow.

You may even notice budding talents, but at this age it's not advisable to push your child in any one direction. Provide a broad range of opportunities to exercise all their abilities. They'll take the direction they enjoy most.

More information

Last Updated
Adapted from Caring for Your Baby and Young Child: Birth to Age Five 7th edition (Copyright © 2019 American Academy of Pediatrics)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
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