There’s a whole lot of learning and development going on in toddlerhood — in ways visible and invisible to the eye. And, of course, as caregivers we always want to help our little ones learn the skills they need to thrive in preschool and beyond.

Ask any parent, teacher or caregiver of a toddler and they’re likely to say something along the lines of, “They barely sit still these days!” It often seems youngsters between the ages of approximately one and three are constantly on the move, from the moment they open their eyes in the morning until their head hits the pillow at night — besides the nap in between, of course.

This movement isn’t only crucial for burning off energy and allowing toddlers to explore the world around them; children this age are actually hard at work developing fine and gross motor skills.

Let’s take a closer look at the difference between fine and gross motor skills and how we can help nurture both these skills in toddlers.

Fine Motor Skills: What They Are & Why They’re Important

Fine motor skills, as the name suggests, focus on small movements within wrists, hands and fingers. Some key terms to associate with fine motor skills are control and accuracy.

According to the experts Healthline, here are some examples of fine motor milestones specific to toddlers:

  • Eating with a spoon (ages 1-2)
  • Holding a drawing utensil between thumb and fingertips (ages 1-2)
  • Building a tower of blocks (ages 1-2)
  • Turing book pages one at a time (ages 1-2)
  • Scribbling on paper (ages 1-2)
  • Washing their own hands (ages 2 to 3)
  • Operating a zipper (ages 2 to 3)
  • Turning a doorknob (ages 2 to 3)
  • Putting on and taking off container lids (ages 2 to 3)
  • Stringing beads onto yarn (ages 2 to 3)

Keep in mind the exact age at which a toddler reaches a fine motor milestone will vary; these are guidelines, not hard-and-fast rules.

What parents and teachers can do to help children get comfortable with these tasks is help them practice — and, even better, use games and activities to encourage practice. Building blocks and a wide variety of art supplies are the perfect starter toolkit for practicing many of these vital skills.

As Parenting Magazine recommends, this is the time to focus on process over product. Instead of asking, “What is it?” or trying to get toddlers to build/create toward a specific goal, let the exploration be the lesson. All the while, kiddos are building muscle strength and becoming more familiar with many fine movements they’ll need throughout life.

Gross Motor Skills: What They Are & Why They’re Important

Gross motor skills focus on the large muscles of the body we need to move — arms, legs and torso. The best way to reinforce these skills is to practice… and practice… and practice.

Here are a few typical gross motor skills for toddlers, outlined by Tinkergarten:

  • Ages 18-24 months: Toddlers learn to run, jump, skip, walk well, climb (stairs, ladders, playground equipment) and dance.
  • Ages 24-36 months: Toddlers improve coordination, play games incorporating multiple gross motor skills (like running, kicking and climbing), move in various directions (forward and backward, rotating, in lines, etc.)
  • Ages 3-4 years: Kids can run faster, switch directions more smoothly, utilize pedal toys, hop, balance, toss objects at targets, catch at near distances

The best way to encourage toddlers to keep trying and building upon their gross motor skills is to get moving. There are almost endless opportunities to build large muscles while having tons of fun: dancing to a favorite song, clambering over playground equipment, riding a tricycle, crawling through a tunnel, practicing balance, tossing items into a laundry basket, walking along a tape line and running an obstacle course, to name just a few.

What fine and gross motor skills have in common is that they’re both vitally important in toddler development, so look for activities and games that’ll encourage development of small and large muscle groups alike.