Babies are born with barely enough control of their muscles to suck, and spend most of their childhood developing control over their muscles, also known as motor skills. People can learn new motor skills at any time of their lives, but young children learn more quickly and easily than they will learn later.
Motor skills are divided into the categories gross and fine. Gross motor control uses the large muscles, while fine motor control is the control of small, precise movements, such as playing an instrument, singing, eye movement, drawing or coloring.
Parents can start to help their children develop their gross motor control when they are very young. All of the ages below are general guidelines, not any standard of how a child should develop. Children are unique individuals, they develop different skills at different times, and it’s normal.
1 – 3 Months
With baby lying on their back, gently move their legs in a bicycling or crawling motion. This gives their muscles exercise, so stop as soon as it quits being fun for them. Those muscles will tire easily at this age. You can also do rhythmic movements of their arms, as if they were crawling, using dumbbells, or other exercises.
Fine motor activities for this age are letting them practice grasping your fingers. As they get better at this game, offer a finger near to their hands, so they can practice their eye-hand coordination as they reach for it.
Spending some time on their tummies every day will help them exercise their neck and shoulder muscles. Tummy time should start brief, 3 to 5 minutes at a time, 3 or 4 times a day. As they grow, they can spend more time in each session, and handle more sessions, as long as they enjoy it.
3 – 6 Months
Around this time, most babies can support some of their weight while you hold them upright, practicing to stand up. Move them up and down to music (make it a slower beat for this), to exercise the legs. Babies love to bounce themselves, they just need some help at this age.
When baby can sit propped up, play catch with a plushie ball, by rolling it into their lap, not too quickly. Practice clutching at it will improve fine motor development and hand-eye coordination. It may take a while for baby to get the idea of rolling it back to you, and longer for them to develop any skill at it, but they will.
Play tug-of-war with your baby. With a toy that’s easy for them to grip, pull it away to the limit of their reach, and let them pull it back. You can also use your finger instead of a toy.
6 – 12 Months
When baby is having some tummy time, put toys just a little bit too far away for them to reach. The squirming that they’ll do to get the toy is a precursor to crawling. It’s certainly time to baby-proof your home.
Try to keep bouncer or child seat time to a minimum. Kids like them, but they’re not getting much chance for exercise in them.
Blow up a couple of balloons and make a game of batting them back and forth between you two. Be sure to get rid of the balloons afterward, because they’re a choking hazard.
Set up a beanbag toss with a laundry basket and rolled socks.
Toddler-sized crayons and coloring books. Of course, the crayons must be kept in a safe place while you’re not supervising, because walls are tempting.
When they’re old enough, giving them finger food helps them to develop fine finger control and hand-eye coordination.
Teach your child to dance. Moving to music is wonderful fun, and there is no ‘too young’ to it. There is no need to teach them specific steps or motions, they’ll make their own up with a bit of encouragement.
Pre-school and Onward
Encourage crafts, like beading, making things from popsicle sticks, knitting, or embroidery, as soon as you can trust them to use the tools carefully.
Encourage them to learn an instrument. Making music is a skill that offers many benefits throughout life beyond the fine finger control that it teaches.
Children want to learn and develop skills, and will show a surprising amount of patience as they work on this. What they need most from their parents is guidance, showing them what skills to work on. Keeping it fun while they develop early skills will give them a great start at their life.