Sugar Aunts: What Toddlers Need Before They Can "Do It Myself!"

What Toddlers Need Before They Can "Do It Myself!"

Before a child can use fine motor tools (hair brush, toothbrush, pencil, spoon, fork, knife, scissors...) independently, there are certain physical, cognitive, and emotional prerequisites that must fall into place.

"I do it MYSELF!"  

It's something that every Toddler has said.  Or yelled. At the top of their lungs. 

As Mom, you might be patiently waiting for your little one to finish buckling their seat belt on their own, so happy that they are finally showing independence and an ability to take care of one small act during their day. 

Or, you might be toe-tapping, leg-jiggling frustrated as you wait for the thousandth time as they try to button up their coat and the seconds click by toward lateness for an appointment.

Either way, independence in Toddler-dom typically is a natural development of self-awareness and self-control.  A child becomes more aware of the skills that they are developing and that they can assert their own independence. 

But, before these areas of independence arise, there are certain prerequisites that need to be in place. Using tools in self-feeding, brushing one's own teeth, using a knife, crayon, pencil, or other tool requires development in a few areas.  
Prerequisites that are necessary for kids (or adults!) to effectively and efficiently use tools in fine motor and self-care tasks, like scissor use, handwriting, hair brushing, self-feeding, tooth brushing, and more.  From an Occupational Therapist.


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Prerequisites needed for using a fork, spoon, toothbrush, hair brush, pencil, and other fine motor tools:



  • Posture- When using a tool like a fork, pencil, scissors, toothbrush, paint brush, knife...postural control is essential.  Like anything else, it all starts at the center and at the body.  You can's use your hands in fine motor play activities if your upper body is slumped or slouched.  If postural support is the issue, work on getting into a better sitting position. Speak to an Occupational Therapist for individualized assessment and recommendations.                   
  • For using tools, a child needs prehension of grasp, including grasp, release, and the ability to stabilize their arm and write while moving the hand.  Sometimes a pinch or required muscle movement is too much for an unstable arm/wrist and that required muscle effort makes the upper body slouch.  Start over with posturing is this happens.
  • Hand dominance.  A true hand dominance doesn't typically become established until 5-6 years.  And that is a good thing!  A child's body is developing strength, balance, muscle tone, and sensorimotor abilities at an even and symmetrical rate in the early years.  We want that to happen!  If a very strong preference of dominance is noticed at an early age, ask your pediatrician or occupational therapist for assessment of asymmetry or delay.
  • Cognitive prerequisites- Appropriate ability to follow simple directions is a must in order for use of tools in typical ways.  Sure, a fork makes a great hair brush.  A spoon is an excellent drumstick. But, inappropriate use of utensils can be dangerous.
  • Attentional Prerequisites- Appropriate attention span is needed for using tools in functional tasks.
  • Constructive play- What? A child needs to play in order to use a pencil? Yep!  Building with blocks, combining toys, and pretending provides the base of fine motor development, skilled use, strength, imagination, and creativity that is needed to problem solve and use tools appropriately.
  • Eye Hand Coordination- More play!  Catch a ball and use crayons to establish the base of hand eye coordination needed for skilled maneuvering of tools to the mouth, paper, hair, or teeth.
  • Somatosensory Experience- Playing and experiencing the senses in typical every day activities are essential for the child to build on their awareness of textures, weights, manipulating objects, and sizes.
Given all of these areas that a child must have in place before showing success with tools in functional tasks, it's important to work on certain areas.

Prerequisites that are necessary for kids (or adults!) to effectively and efficiently use tools in fine motor and self-care tasks, like scissor use, handwriting, hair brushing, self-feeding, tooth brushing, and more.  From an Occupational Therapist.

Practice Scooping and Tool Use in Fun Ways



Provide opportunities to use tools like spoons in scooping items.  These black beans are a great way to practice tool use and all of the skills needed in managing tools.  See the bottom of this post for more ideas.

Be sure to provide your little one with lots of opportunities to use tools in activities and play!

Related activities that you will love for teaching kids to use tools:

Scooping Dyed Alphabet pasta
Learning Resources Handy Scoopers are colorful and bright and a great way to practice the prerequisites for tool use in many ways.

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