How to Hold a Spoon and Fork

How to hold a fork and spoon

Teaching a child how to hold a spoon and scoop food requires several motor skills that must be developed before a toddler can use utensils themselves. Even older children struggle with holding a spoon and scooping food to feed themselves. Here, we’re covering sensory motor skills needed to hold a spoon, fork, knife, and other utensils. You’ll also find some creative activities and play ideas to develop the underlying skills that play into using utensils.

How to hold a fork and spoon
How to hold a fork and spoon with efficient grasp patterns.

Note that these strategies and skill areas are needed across the lifespan when it comes to self-feeding. Older children and even adults who may have had a physical or cognitive impairment can benefit from addressing the underlying skill areas needed for using utensils. No matter the age, noting how an individual holds a spoon and fork is part of a comprehensive feeding evaluation.

how to hold spoon and fork

Before we get to the skills in play when holding a spoon or using a fork, let’s cover the specifics on how to hold these utensils. Why? Because often, we see older children who hold a spoon with a gross grasp or hold a fork with the whole hand. These grasp patterns can impact functional performance, but can also be a cause of concern for parents.

Note that the way an individual holds a spoon or holds a fork can differ when adaptive equipment for eating is used.

How to hold a spoon
How to hold a spoon.

how to hold a spoon

To hold a spoon, one needs to grasp the utensil with their dominant hand. The spoon is placed along the lateral edge of the middle finger or pad of the middle finger. The pointer or index finger typically rests over the top of the neck of the spoon, and guides movements when scooping. The thumb rests and stabilizes the flat handle of the spoon on the top, above the pointer finger in a modified lateral key grasp. The scoop of the spoon is pointing out toward the direction the thumb points, and the handle is above the thumb web space. In this position, one can scoop with refined movements and graded precision using the pad of the thumb on the flat part of the spoon handle. When the spoon is properly placed in the hand, the wrist is slightly pronated and slightly flexed.

You can see from the image below that there are many different grasp patterns used when holding a spoon, which progress as the child develops more refined fine motor skills. The most efficient grasp pattern is the “adult grip”, however, the other grasp patterns are typically part of a progression as the toddler or young child gains experience with eating with a spoon.

Using a spoon is likely one of the first functional tools that a small child has experience with, and while messy eating will ensue, it is important to allow the baby or toddler experience with holding and manipulating a spoon, even if they are not getting actual food into their mouth at first.

Grasp patterns for holding a spoon
Grasp patterns for holding a spoon.
No source was found for this image, may be subject to copyright

Inefficient grasp on a spoon- When the handle end of the spoon is UNDER the thumb web space, the grasp moves into a poor position for function and accuracy of scooping. In this case, the hand moves into a gross grasp pattern, and in order to gain motor control with graded precision, the elbow tends to pop out as the shoulder abducts. In this poor functional grasp pattern, you’ll see the wrist fully supinated.

Activities to move from an inefficient grasp pattern to an efficient grasp pattern include PLAY:

How to hold a fork
How to hold a fork.

how to hold a fork

Next, let’s cover the proper grasp pattern required to effectively hold a fork. Note that there are different ways to hold a fork, depending on location, no one way of these different style being better or worse for functional performance to hold and use a fork to stab and eat food.

To hold a fork, the fork is held in the dominant hand much like a pencil is held. The thumb stabilizes the narrow part of the fork handle, or the neck of the fork. This area is located above the prongs, or tines of the fork. The neck of the fork rests on the lateral side of the middle finger or the pad of the middle finger.

Like holding a spoon, the end of the fork is above the back of the hand, and not under the thumb web space into the palm.

The wrist of the hand should be slightly pronated and slightly flexed.

Note that when holding a fork to scoop food, a different grasp pattern is used than when using a fork to stab food, and still another grasp pattern is used to stabilize food when using a knife to cut.

To stab food with a fork, the fork rotates in the hand and skills of in-hand manipulation are used.

To stabilize food with a fork, in order to hold food stabile so a knife can cut the food item, the fork continues to rotate within the hand using in-hand manipulation, but the addition of finger isolation of the index finger is used to hold the fork steady.

Inefficient grasp on a fork– When the end of the fork handle is under the palm, the hand tends to pull into a gross grasp on the fork, which is a more primitive grasp pattern, and is less functional for refined and graded movements. Similar to the motions used with a spoon held in this manner, a fork held in a gross grasp will include elbow and shoulder.

Much like using a spoon, progression from inefficient grasp patterns on a fork is developmental and requires practice. Allowing kids to use and hold a fork with verbal and visual prompts is helpful. Other fine motor and eye-hand coordination tasks will support development from inefficient grasp patterns when holding a fork to more efficient and refined motor skills:

Prerequisites to hold a spoon and fork

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

These self-care skills include many of the same sensory motor components, so in this blog post, we’re covering primarily the skills needed to hold a spoon and fork.

Toddlers and young preschoolers that sit at the table, probably have taken notice of how adults and older children at the table eat. This is actually part of the developmental process. When sitting at a table, a baby and toddler is observing and noticing how older siblings and parents use forks to stab food, spoons to scoop, and knives to cut.

Toddlers often want to take part in the action!

Using a spoon and fork during the Toddler years is a natural development of self-awareness and self-control.  Using utensils is part of that progression of feeding developmental milestones that children go through. A child becomes more aware of the skills that they are developing and that they can assert their own independence. 

Likewise, using a spoon to eat at first can lead to messy eating with young children, and that’s totally normally, developmentally.

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. 

Speaking of using crayons to develop motor skills, these crayons for toddlers support fine motor development and coordination skills through play.


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.

This post contains affiliate links.

Skills Needed to Hold a spoon and fork

When you take a look at the motor breakdown of using a spoon and fork, there are several components you’ll see in action:

  • Posture
  • Grasp Development
  • Hand Preference
  • Cognition
  • Attention
  • Eye-hand coordination
  • Somatosensory experience
  • And even play!

Let’s cover each of these areas needed to hold a spoon and fork in more detail:

  • 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.                   
  • Grasp Development- For using tools, a child needs prehension skills and  precision skills, 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. This blog post covers more on attention needed during meals.
  • Constructive play– What? A child needs functional 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.

Below, you’ll find a great printable resource that covers all of these skill areas that are needed for using a spoon and fork. This is a great handout to use especially when working with families of young children who are learning to hold a spoon and fork.

You can enter your email address into the form below and access this printable handout, or The OT Toolbox Member’s Club members can log into their accounts and access the handout in the Educational Handouts Toolbox area.

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.

Scooping food with a spoon

Teaching kids how to hold a spoon is the first step, but then actually scooping food, getting the food to the mouth, clearing the food from the spoon, and then repeating the process is part of the functional task of eating.

Remember that eating is a developmental process, and that this is another occupation in which practice is key to functional performance!

To improve use with a spoon and fork (and then spoon, fork, and knife!), it’s important to have various opportunities for practice.

Provide opportunities to use tools like spoons in scooping items.  You’ll find more information on the topic of scooping in our blog post on scooping and pouring.

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:

  • Sight Word Scoop– this scooping activity encourages users to develop the eye-hand coordination needed to use a spoon to scoop an object in a liquid, much like scooping the remaining cereals in a bowl of milk, or scooping food from a soup broth.
  • Toddler Visual Motor Scoop (Ping Pong balls)– This activity is another great way to teach toddlers to use a spoon, using a large and bright object with high visual contrast.
  • Invitation to Scoop and Pour– In this activity users can use a spoon with graded precision and refined movements to scoop grains of corn which can be a great way to practice motor skills to hold a spoon.
  • Field Corn Sensory Bin– Another activity using spoons to scoop field corn, this activity offers proprioceptive feedback through the joints and muscles of the hand, wrist, elbow, and shoulder.
  • Moon Dough Scooping– In this activity, users use a spoon to scoop and pick up a moist and dry material. This can be a great way to practice using a spoon with different materials.
  • Scooping Ice– Using a spoon to pick up ice is a fun way to practice using a spoon with a different material that also offers precision and refinement in using a spoon or scoop.
  • Relaxing Lavender Water Bin– Kids love this sensory bin, but therapists love the functionality! Use a spoon to pick up small items in a liquid, developing eye-hand coordination skills with sensory benefits.
  • Invitation to Scoop, Pour, Transfer Nuts– Use a spoon to pick up nuts with a fun sensory activity that offers feedback with movement.
  • Scooping Dyed Alphabet pasta– Kids can pick up dry pasta with a spoon and practice motor skills.
  • (Amazon affiliate link) Learning Resources Handy Scoopers are colorful and bright and a great way to practice the prerequisites for tool use in many ways.
How to hold a fork and spoon handout
Get this free handout on skills needed to hold a fork and spoon below or in The OT Toolbox Member’s Club

Free Handout- Skills Needed to Hold a Spoon and Fork

Want a printable handout of the skills kids need to hold a spoon and fork? Working with families on teaching kids how to hold a fork and spoon and need actionable tips and strategies in a handout format?

You can enter your email address into the form below and access this printable handout, or The OT Toolbox Member’s Club members can log into their accounts and access the handout in the Educational Handouts Toolbox area.

Free Handout: Using a Spoon and Fork

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    Colleen Beck, OTR/L is an occupational therapist with 20+ years experience, graduating from the University of Pittsburgh in 2000. Colleen created The OT Toolbox to inspire therapists, teachers, and parents with easy and fun tools to help children thrive. As the creator, author, and owner of the website and its social media channels, Colleen strives to empower those serving kids of all levels and needs. Want to collaborate? Send an email to

    Zipper Pull Craft

    When kids are learning to manage a zipper, it can be frustrating if fine motor skills or visual motor skills are delayed. Even children who are developing fine motor and visual motor skill work at an age-appropriate level can have difficulty with using a zipper. When kids learn to zipper up a coat or jacket, children can have difficulty with all of the steps that go into zippering. Using a zipper pull on a coat zipper can be a helpful tool in independence. 

    You will find more information about teaching kids how to zipper here on The OT Toolbox. In fact, zippering is an important part of self-dressing and functional independence that toddlers can begin with. 

    Make this DIY zipper pull craft to help kids learn how to zipper their own coat or jacket, while working on fine motor skills and self-dressing skills in kids.
    When small children are able to pull up their zipper or pull down their zipper, they can feel a sense of self-confidence that makes them want to try harder to work on the skills involved in zippering: engaging the zipper into the zipper chamber, holding both sides of the zipper in a coordinated way, and holding down the edge of the coat while pulling up the zipper pull. 
    Other children who are more challenged with physical abilities benefit from a zipper pull. 

    Try this DIY zipper pull craft that is not only functional, it’s also fun to create! It’s a real fine motor power-craft for kids. 

    Click here to see the directions to make this craft over on our guest post at Craft Project Ideas!
    Make this DIY zipper pull craft to help kids learn how to zipper their own coat or jacket, while working on fine motor skills and self-dressing skills in kids. This fine motor craft is great for teaching kids how to zipper!

    Looking for more ways to teach kids how to zipper? Try these ideas:

     Teach kids how to use a zipper and Help kids learn how to zipper clothing using recycled materials that you probably have in your house. This activity works on all of the individual skills needed for the motor planning of zippering a zipper and uses just a ribbon and plastic bread ties.

    The Ultimate Guide to Independence with Clothing Fasteners

    If you’ve been following the Functional Skills for Kids series this year, then you know the wealth of information that has been shared.  Each month, the team of OT and PT bloggers have broken down a functional task into it’s development, necessary components, and strategies for increasing independence.  This month brings buttons, snaps, buckles, and the ultimate guide to independence with clothing fasteners.  
    Check out the links below to find everything you need to help kids with management of clothing fasteners with increased independence.  From pincer grasp to shoulder girdle stabilization and sensory processing to visual motor skills, children have a lot of precursors to master before they can independently put on their jacket or managing their clothing in the school bathroom.  


    The Ultimate Guide to Independence with Clothing Fasteners

     Functional Skills for Kids series
     Functional Skills for Kids and a guide to independence with clothing fasteners.

    Clothing Fasteners and Sensory Processing Issues

    Sensory processing affects everything we do.  From movement and learning on down to the tiniest snaps and buttons that adorn our clothing.  Many times, children with problems with sensory processing skills have difficulty with manipulating clothing fasteners. 

    Here, you will find sensory-related issues that may impact a child’s ability to fasten and manipulate clothing fasteners, strategies that can help with independence in addressing sensory processing issues, and sensory-friendly clothing fastener solutions. 

    Clothing fasteners and sensory processing issues can affect buttons, snaps, buckles, and zippers.

    Clothing fasteners and sensory processing issues


    Clothing Fasteners and Sensory Issues

    Today in the Functional Skills for Kids series, ten Occupational Therapist and Physical Therapist bloggers are sharing everything there is to know about manipulating buttons, snaps, zippers, and buckles.  

    The child with sensory processing issues may experience patterns of behavior related to many skills needed for managing clothing fasteners. In turn, a difficulty in movement, reactions, balance, and posture can interfere with managing buttons, zippers, snaps, and buckles.   Clumsy fine motor skills may present during manipulation of clothing fasteners.  

    There are many other issues that present with sensory processing problems that may present during management of clothing fasteners:

    Clothing fasteners and sensory processing issues


    Vestibular Sensory and clothing fasteners:

    Poor bilateral coordination– Children with poor sensory processing often times present with bilateral coordination difficulties. Gross motor tasks and coordinated use of the hands in fine motor tasks at midline appear to be clumsy.  Managing buttons, snaps, and zippers are difficult when asking these children to use their hands together. Tasks such as buttoning and zipping require one hand to perform a precision task while the other hand assists.  These types of skills challenge the child with poor bilateral coordination.  While children with poor bilateral coordination may not have a clear established dominant hand, it can be difficult to manipulate buttons when one hand is not defined as the “skilled” hand. 

    Difficulty with movement– Children with unmet sensory needs can present as fidgety and uncoordinated, making clothing fastener management quite difficult. 

    Low Muscle Tone– Children with sensory processing difficulties quite often present with low tone. Weakness in the arms, shoulder girdle, and core can prompt the child to stabilize on table surfaces or with accommodating positioning.  These issues along with tone and strength weaknesses in the hands then prevents the child from manipulating clothing fasteners or enduring the length of a buttoning/zippering/etc task.  Fatigue can limit training sessions or prevent the child from completing clothing fastener tasks in an efficient manner

    Poor motor planning (dyspraxia)–  A vestibular dysfunction can result in poor motor planning with the child having trouble in planning out the sequence of buttoning and unbuttoning clothing, or engaging a zipper into the chamber, then pulling up the pull. It can be difficult for these children to generalize what they have practice on a dressing board to clothing on the body.  Likewise, generalizing skills they have practiced with one sweater (and one size buttons/clothing material/ button hole opening/etc) to another sweater or one zipper to another zipper can be difficult.

    Proprioceptive Issues and clothing fasteners:

    Seek sensory feedback– Children who present with proprioceptive dysfunction may seek out sensory feedback.  Snaps or zippers can be a source of sensory feedback in an inefficient manner.

    Inefficient body awareness– See below.

    Inefficient grading of movement– Managing clothing fasteners can be difficult for the child who has trouble grading the amount of movement needed for positioning their arms and maintaining position while fastening clothing.  These children might grip the zipper pull too lightly or too tightly making fastening a zipper difficult.  Buttons might pull off of clothing when the child with grading issues attempts to button or unbutton clothing. 

    Poor motor planning (dyspraxia)– See below

    Tactile Sensory Needs and clothing fasteners:

    Hypersensitive to touch (Tactile Defensiveness)– The child with tactile defensiveness may have trouble manipulating clothing fasteners.  Certain clothing materials can be offensive to children with tactile defensiveness.  The texture of a zipper or Velcro can cause an adverse reaction.  Stiff collars or zippers, belts, and rough clothing textures and fasteners can cause a negative reaction from the child who is hypersensitive to touch.  These children may prefer clothing without fasteners or refuse to wear coats or jackets with these offensive fasteners.  

    Hyposensitivity or an under-responsiveness to touch– The child with hyposensitivity to touch may present during an attempt to complete clothing fasteners.  These children may fail to realize that they have omitted buttons or snaps on their clothing.  

    Poor tactile discrimination– Children who have difficulty with discriminating touch have difficulty manipulating items and using their hands without looking at what their hands are doing.  These children may be unable to perform the steps of buttoning and unbuttoning, zippering, and snapping clothing fasteners without visual cues.  They might perform these tasks in peculiar manners with inefficient grasps.   These children may seem to touch their clothing fasteners excessively, such as run their fingers up and down the zipper.  They enjoy the sensory feedback from running their hands over clothing fasteners.  

    Poor tactile perception–  The child with poor tactile perception  will have trouble with perceiving the location of button holes without visually looking at the fasteners.  They will have trouble identifying the two sides of a zipper by touch.

    Poor body awareness–  Children with sensory processing issues often times have trouble with body awareness.  They have difficulty knowing where their body is in space and how to move it in order to perform tasks.  Moving the arms in order to perform fine motor tasks such as buttoning and unbuttoning a sweater can be quite difficult.  

    Poor motor planning (dyspraxia)–  Sensory processing issues may present with resulting dyspraxia or motor planning difficulties.  These kids have trouble organizing and following through with the movement needed to perform tasks such as buttoning and zippering.  These children will have trouble with precision of fine motor manipulation, making engaging a zipper and buttoning and unbuttoning very difficult. 

    Visual Spatial Processing and clothing fasteners:

    Difficulty seeing with eyes working as a “team”, particularly when managing fasteners on the body.

    Difficulty shifting gaze from different planes when managing fasteners on the body.

    Confuse or mis-align buttons to button holes. May present with increased difficulty when managing buttons on the body.

    Difficulty with sequential tasks in buttoning or zipper management.

    Looking at all of these different areas, it is easy to see why the child with sensory processing issues has trouble with managing clothing fasteners!

    Many children have several of the above issues that present as a result of sensory concerns.  Bilateral coordination or low tone concerns may be accompanied by evidence of poor sensory processing.  Observations of issues described above may be part of the explanation for difficulty with fine motor manipulation, but it is important to note that every child is different and what is described here may not be the entire story.  Strategies and descriptions here will not explain every issue with clothing fasteners when sensory issues are present.

    So, what is to be done to help kids with building independence and carrying over skills to allow kids to independently managing buttons, zippers, snaps, and buckles on their clothing?

    RELATED READ: Zipper Activities for Kids

    Sensory Strategies for clothing fasteners:

    Some children with tactile discrimination difficulties have trouble processing the the spatial or temporal information gathered through touch during tasks such as managing clothing fasteners. Intervention for tactile dysfunction can be done along with intervention for dyspraxia.  Deep pressure, activities that provide tactile sensation with temporal and spatial qualities, brushing the skin, using vibrating stimulation to the skin, and tactile play activities can help with discrimination needed for clothing fasteners.  

    Sensory needs may benefit from heavy input through the hands, strengthening, positioning, visual and verbal cues, practicing fastener management on the body, and practicing fasteners while seated or standing. 

    Sensory Strategies to Help Kids with Clothing Fasteners

    Affiliate links are included in this post. 

    Clothing fasteners and sensory processing issues

    Provide vibrating tactile sensory input with this Orbeez foot spa.  Typically, this toy is used with water beads for a sensory play activity.  We filled ours with crafting pom poms in various sizes and textures.  The vibrating bottom provides a vibratory tactile sensation, which is perfect for the hands. We explored the textures of the crafting pom poms as the foot spa vibrated and shook the pom poms.  Add additional components to this activity with small hidden toys that allow for visual discrimination, tactile perception, and awareness of body movements. 

    Clothing fasteners and sensory processing issues using vibrating tactile sensory tools

    More sensory strategies that can help with independence in clothing fasteners:

    • A weighted weighted blanket can be a source of heavy input for proprioception needs.  
    • Outline the button holes with a dark color thread or marker for easy visual perception.
    • Deep pressure through the hands is a technique that sometimes helps when manipulating clothing fasteners.  
    • Try using fingerless gloves in stretch material when practicing clothing fasteners.  The fingers are able to manipulate the buttons or zippers and the hand and joints receive deep pressure and warmth.
    Clothing fasteners and sensory processing issues using fingerless gloves
    Clothing fasteners and sensory processing issues using fingerless gloves
    Clothing fasteners and sensory processing issues using fingerless gloves

    Functional Skills for Kids

    As an Occupational Therapist, function is the number one goal for working with clients. Whether in the school, clinic, acute setting, or home, all goals of an Occupational Therapist revolve and are based on functional skills. 

    One thing about occupational therapy professionals is that we love to be creative. I love to use my experience and knowledge to come up with creative ways to meet common goal areas. Take a look around this site and you will find everything from DIY pencil grips to a “egg-cellent” way to work on shoe tying.

    Be sure to check out this massive shoe tying resource, too.

    Whether there is a diagnosis or not, a developmental delay or not, or just an area of weakness or strength…Kids can build on their strengths to modify, adapt, and address goal areas with one thing in mind: Functional Independence.
    This is a place to guide you to areas of functional skill with hopes to bring kids closer to confidence and independence.

    This is the place where you will find all of activities designed to promote functional skills of kids. From handwriting to scissor skills, to dressing, and self-care:  click around to find a lot of ideas to build independence, adapt, accommodate, and modify functional skills.

    Functional Skills for Kids and independence in kids for self-care tasks like dressing, feeding, clothing fasteners, and more.
    This post contains affiliate links.


    Functional Skills for Kids and Childhood Independence

    Functional Skills for Kids series by Occupational Therapist and Physical Therapist bloggers

    Handwriting Functional Skills

    Scissor Skills

    Self-Dressing Skills

    Shoe Tying



    Toys to Help Kids Learn to Dress Themselves

    Potty Training

    Kids Cooking Tasks



    Functional Skills for Kids and independence in kids for self-care tasks like dressing, feeding, clothing fasteners, and more.


    You’ll love these resources on helping kids thrive in all aspects of theri occupational performance:

    the handwriting book The OT Toolbox
    The Handwriting Book is a resource for meeting the needs of every individual when it comes to all aspects of handwriting.
    The Toilet training Book, a developmental look at potty training from the OT and PT perspectives
    The Toilet Training Book is a developmental look at potty training from the perspectives of occupational therapy and physical therapy practitioners.
    scissor skills book
    The Scissor Skills Book teaches all aspects of cutting with scissors, from form to function.

    Independence with Dressing Skills

    dressing skills for occupational therapy

    Here we are covering dressing skills that are used in occupational therapy dressing interventions, as well as dressing skills for preschoolers and all ages, specifically the underlying fine motor skills needed for dressing skills.

    Dressing skills

    “I can do it myself!”  

    It’s a phrase that most parents hear at one time or another as their child begins to develop the skills needed for independence in self-care.  Sometimes, however, there are factors that interfere with appropriate development of function.  

    Parents may wonder when their child will begin to pull on their shirt or don shoes and socks with independence.   The ability to dress one’s self with independence requires the development of many fine motor skills.

    This month in the Functional Skills for Kids series, we are exploring Dressing as an activity of daily living. Stop by to see all of the posts in the series here.

    Fine motor skills needed for independence with dressing. Kids and parents will like these ideas to build independence. Part of the Functional Skills for kids series by Occupational Therapy and Physical Therapy bloggers.

    Dressing Skills that Require Fine Motor Skills

    Pulling on socks, managing buckles, and tugging on a hat.  There are many portions of self-dressing that require fine motor skill development;

    • Pulling socks off requires a pinch grip, strength in the hands, and bilateral coordination.
    • Putting socks on requires arch development, opposition of the thumb, intrinsic hand strength, bilateral coordination, wrist extension and ulnar deviation.
    • Pulling pants up requires eye-hand coordination, bilateral coordination, and wrist and hand stability.
    • Fastening snaps and pulling up zippers on pants (Clothing fasteners will be addressed in another month’s topic)
    • Donning and doffing undergarments requires pinch grasp
    • Threading a belt through belt loops requires bilateral coordination, prehension grasp, pincer/tripod/functional grasp and wrist positioning
    • Fastening a belt buckle requires tripod grasp and bilateral coordination, hand dominance or preference, extended wrist and ulnar deviation.
    • Donning and doffing a shirt requires bilateral coordination, crossing midline, extrinsic and intrinsic muscle strength of the hands, and forearm supination and pronation.
    • Donning an doffing a coat requires bilateral coordination, crossing midline, extrinsic and intrinsic muscle strength of the hands, and forearm supination and pronation.
    • Clothing fasteners such as buttons, zippers, snaps, buckles, and ties require intrinsic and extrinsic muscle strength, prehension grasp, in-hand manipulation, hand preference and bilateral control and eye-hand coordination.
    • Pulling on boots requires a hook grasp of the hand, strength, and proximal stability.
    • Donning a winter cap requires precision grasp, bilateral coordination, and motor planning.
    If it seems as though every step of dressing requires fine motor skill development, that is because it’s true!  Each step of each dressing task requires many fine motor skills.
    Fine motor skills needed for independence with dressing. Kids and parents will like these ideas to build independence. Part of the Functional Skills for kids series by Occupational Therapy and Physical Therapy bloggers.

    Fine Motor Manipulation Skills that are Necessary Independent Dressing

    Let’s break down these fine motor skills a bit to see how they are helping a child complete tasks independently.  
    Fine Motor Skills Needed in Dressing: 
    1. Extrinsic Muscle Strength: The extrinsic muscles move the fingers and thumb in full flexion and extension.  They enable a power grasp on functional items. The extrinsic muscles are essential for cohesive work alongside the intrinsic muscles of the hands during dynamic grasp patterns.
    2. Intrinsic Muscle Strength: The intrinsics allow us to use graded movements, shape the arches of the hands, and enable dexterity and precision.  They control the flexion and extension of the Metacarpophalandeal joints and power movements such as finger adduction, finger abduction, thumb abduction, thumb adduction, thumb flexion and thumb opposition.
    3. Prehension: There are three types of prehension grasps-static grips, gravity dependent grips, and dynamic grips. 
    4. In-Hand Manipulation: This fine motor skill typically develops around two years of age.  Between 2-3 the child progresses in palm-finger translation and shift.  However, at this age, they may prefer to manipulate objects between two hands instead of within one.  Read more about in-hand manipulation skills here.
    5. Hand Preference and Bilateral Control: From the age of 2-3, a child will switch hands to avoid crossing the midline,  They may show use of a preferred hand, but it may switch between activities.
    6. Eye-Hand Coordination:  Eye-Hand Coordination is accuracy of reach and control of the arm in space, guided by vision.  During dressing tasks or any functional skill, the reach should be accurate and controlled, and directed by the shoulder’s stability and mobility.  In reaching for items, the hands and eyes should work together with smooth visual tracking of the hand and with the eyes guiding the hand. 
    7. Precision of Release: There should not be immature releasing patterns noted during dressing tasks.  These might include flinging or dropping objects.  Rather, the child should be able to release items while their arm is positioned in space and with controlled motions.  Read more about precision of release.
    8. Motor Planning: During functional tasks, there should be coordinated movements with appropriate positioning and posturing.  Read more about motor planning here
    9. Separation of the Two Sides of the Hand: Separation of the two sides of the hand allows for stability and power with precision of the thumb, pointer finger, and middle finger. 
    Fine motor skills needed for independence with dressing. Kids and parents will like these ideas to build independence. Part of the Functional Skills for kids series by Occupational Therapy and Physical Therapy bloggers.


    Biomechanical Postural Control in self-dressing

    Before the fine motor skills can be used in functional tasks, such as dressing, there are biomechanical skills that are prerequisite.  
    These are proximal stability skills that enable distal precision and control.
    • Postural Control– Proximal to the arm is the upper body.  Postural instability will effect the use of the forearm, wrist, hand, and fingers and complicate the motor planning and use of the hands in functional reach.  When we reach with two hands, we shift our weight and move our body’s center of gravity.  Without dynamic control of one’s posture, shifts in weight will result in over or under reach of distal motions.
    • Shoulder stability with motion– Fine motor use of the hands requires stability of the shoulder joint.  The joint needs to maintain stability even during motion and in all planes for controlled arm positioning.
    • Control of the forearm– The arm between the elbow and wrist moves in supinated and pronated motions.  Supination is essential for many precision tasks and allows us to see what our fingers are doing in tool or fastener use.  Pronation is typically used for power grasps and hook grasps in functional tasks.
    • Wrist Position–  A functional wrist position is essential for precision grasp and manipulation. Extension of the wrist controls the length of the finger flexor muscles to an optimal position for grasp and precision.  Positioning the wrist in 40 degrees of wrist extension allows for efficient muscle function.  The wrist also moves with radial and ulnar deviation.  A position of 15 degrees of ulnar deviation promotes stability and force in the ulnar side of the hand.
    • Palmer Arches- While palmer arch development is a component of fine motor skill development in itself, it is also a proximal stability source for precision of the distal fingers.  Appropriate arch development provides positioning and stability to allow for fine motor dexterity of the fingers.  
    Fine motor skills needed for independence with dressing. Kids and parents will like these ideas to build independence. Part of the Functional Skills for kids series by Occupational Therapy and Physical Therapy bloggers.


    Tips to Promote Independence in Dressing Skills

    When fine motor skills are the problem area behind decreased independence in self-dressing, it is helpful to build individual skills.  
    Children should be provided with many repetitions of self-care skills in environments where dressing tasks are happening naturally. 
    • Dressing practice happens at the beginning and end of the day but there are many opportunities for working on the fine motor skills needed in dressing tasks.  
    • Donning shoes and socks can happen before going outdoors and when coming into the home.
    • Toileting is a way to practice lower body clothing management throughout the day.  
    • Children can further build independence with dressing through pretend play by using dress-up clothes.  
    • Repetition can be a strategy for increasing opportunities for practice.  
    • Provide various dress-up clothes in different social roles for many ways to practice dressing skills. 
    • Encourage role play as a technique to build fine motor skills in dressing: Children can dress a baby doll.
    • Provide alternate opportunities to practice fine motor skills needed for dressing such as toys to help kids practice dressing skills.
    Fine motor skills needed for independence with dressing. Kids and parents will like these ideas to build independence.
    Develop fine motor skills needed for functional tasks with these activities:

    Colleen Beck, OTR/L is an occupational therapist with 20+ years experience, graduating from the University of Pittsburgh in 2000. Colleen created The OT Toolbox to inspire therapists, teachers, and parents with easy and fun tools to help children thrive. As the creator, author, and owner of the website and its social media channels, Colleen strives to empower those serving kids of all levels and needs. Want to collaborate? Send an email to

    Teach Buttoning Skills with Heart Buttons

    Teaching kids functional skills like how to button their coat happens naturally during a day’s progression.  You help your Toddler or Preschooler into their coat before an outing and sneak in a few verbal cues while you show them how to slip the button through the button hole.  Then, before you blink your eyes, they are saying “I do it, Mommy!” and your little one is on their way to independence. This would be a great addition to a Valentine’s Day theme in occupational therapy.
    NOW, I am a huge supporter of teaching kids to do things like buttoning and shoe tying in a natural setting, with real buttons and shoe laces and on their body.  BUT, sometimes a child just needs a fun way to practice the skills that make up the task of buttoning a button.  Other times, it’s just fun to practice buttoning so that kids can show off what they can do and get a little boost of self confidence.  
    This Buttoning Skills Activity is easy to put together, fun to do, and a creative way to practice buttoning.  Before you know it, your little “do it myself”-er will be buttoning their pajamas up in a flash.  For now, we play our way to independence!
    Teach kids how to button with this easy DIY buttoning teaching tool for fine motor practice and play, with hearts. Perfect for Valentine's Day

    Teach Kids Buttoning Skills with a DIY dressing board

    This post contains affiliate links.
    So, we’ve practiced buttoning with egg cartons and tissue paper.  Today, I’ve got a new idea for you.  We used Foam Hearts to practice precision in fine motor skills while working on the motor control and dexterity needed for buttoning.  This was such a fun activity for my preschooler to do.  She can button large buttons on her body at this point, so it wasn’t hard for her to practice these motor skills.  BUT, adding the novel component of flimsy fabric and fragile paper made her practice the fine motor control that she needs for buttoning small buttons and many fine motor tasks.
    To make a DIY heart button activity, you’ll need just a few items.
    Heavy Cardstock
    Embroidary Thread
    (we received ours from
    Teach kids how to button with this easy DIY buttoning teaching tool for fine motor practice and play, with hearts. Perfect for Valentine's Day
    This is an easy project to throw together, and equally adaptable to your child’s age and fine motor needs.  We made out Buttons with Foam Hearts, but for a child who needs more help with buttoning skills or has weaker fine motor control, use cardboard or plastic buttons.  
    Sew the foam hearts/buttons along the edge of a piece of felt.  We used a thicker felt sheet for more control.  A thinner piece of felt would be more like fabric of clothing, so if you are working on certain aspects of buttoning, like controlling the material with two hands in a coordinated manner, you can make your buttoning project with fabric or thinner felt.
    Use a cross-stitch pattern to simply sew the Foam Hearts
    in an “x”.  This is a great real-life skill activity for older kids.  Threading a the large needle is a nice fine motor task and the project is so simple that it’s a great beginner sewing activity for kids. 
    Fold the felt over and add snips for button holes and you have a nice portable practice activity!
    We practiced buttoning with the felt a few times and then added another way to practice.  I marked button holes on a sheet of thick Cardstock
    .  After cutting the holes with scissors, my preschooler practiced pulling the foam buttons through the holes.  Using paper to practice is a real workout for little fingers as the paper will tear with too much force.  The point for this part of the activity is to practice pushing the button through the hole and pulling it out.  The paper is a great reminder that the button slides through the button hole easily when both hands are working together in a coordinated manner. 
    TIP: Snip the cardstock or Stiff Felt Sheet
    button holes just a bit longer than you think you need to for kids who are working on buttoning skills. You can also cut the hole wider for easier buttoning.  This is one way to grade the activity for kids who need help learning how to button their clothes.


    Teach kids how to button with this easy DIY buttoning teaching tool for fine motor practice and play, with hearts. Perfect for Valentine's Day
    More ways to teach kids buttoning skills using this DIY button project:
    1. Lay the fabric on the child’s lap as a beginner task.  This is a good way for the child to see what they are doing as their hands are working together on the buttons.
    2. NEXT, lay the fabric on the child’s lap, BUT position it so that it would be if the child were buttoning a coat on their body.  Make sure the buttons are on the child’s lap and not on their truck for easier accessibility and success.
    3. THEN, position the buttoning activity up higher on the child’s trunk to simulate buttoning a shirt or coat on the child.
    4. Finally, move on to teaching buttoning with real-life articles of clothing.  
    Be sure to provide real clothing items along the way of teaching buttoning skills, while adding in fun motor planning activities like this DIY Button activity or our egg carton buttoning activity.  Learning through play in creative ways is fun!
    This post is part of the Activities for Kids blog hop. This month, each blogger is posting about hearts.  Stop by to see what our friends have come up with:
    FREE Number Bingo // The STEM Laboratory
    Heart Match Up Activity // Frogs, Snails and Puppy
    Dog Tails
    Counting Roses // Best Toys 4 Toddlers
    Love Bug Clock // Fairy Poppins
    Heart Wreath // Powerful Mothering
    Magic Heart Sight Words // Playdough to
    Valentine Numbers and Counting Hearts // Play and Learn Everyday
    I Spy Valentine’s Day Heart Bottle// The Pleasantest Thing
    Color Sorting Hearts // Modern Preschool
    Candy Heart Addition Cards // The Kindergarten
    Teach kids how to button with this easy DIY buttoning teaching tool for fine motor practice and play, with hearts. Perfect for Valentine's Day
    MORE fine motor activities that we love and you will too:
    Neat Pincer Grasp Fine Motor Activity Buttoning Tips and Tricks

    Colleen Beck, OTR/L is an occupational therapist with 20+ years experience, graduating from the University of Pittsburgh in 2000. Colleen created The OT Toolbox to inspire therapists, teachers, and parents with easy and fun tools to help children thrive. As the creator, author, and owner of the website and its social media channels, Colleen strives to empower those serving kids of all levels and needs. Want to collaborate? Send an email to

    Toys to Help with Getting Dressed Independence

    Looking for toys to support kids in self-care, especially in independence with self-dressing skills? These occupational therapy toys are fun ways to build skills in self care! 

    Toys for Teaching Dressing Skills

    Teaching children to get dressed on their own can be a tricky subject.  Kids do many milestones at different ages and teaching independence skills can be frustrating.  Teaching kids to get dressed depends on many small splinter skills that make up the end result of clothing on, fasteners done, and child ready to go for the day.  Learning to get dressed takes time and it depends on the development of fine and gross motor skills, visual-motor skills, and even self-confidence.  Children may reach some milestones ahead of “schedule” and require more time or practice to reach others.  It is important to remember that every child is different. 

    We are sharing some approximate self-care milestones in dressing for kids and toys that can help with this skill.

    Ages of typical development for children in getting dressed. Developmental milestones for independence.



    Childhood Milestones for Getting Dressed

    One year old: 

    • Takes off socks
    • Helps with pushing arms through sleeves
    Eighteen months:
    • Removes shoes
    Two years old:
    • Helps with pushing down pants
    • Helps with pulling on socks
    • Pushes arms through sleeves once shirt is over head
    • Removes hats
    • Assists with pants by pushing legs into pants
    • Unbuttons large buttons
    Two-and-a-half years old:
    • Attempts buttons
    • Able to pull on an open front shirt or jacket with assistance
    • Removes open front shirt/coat (without fasteners)
    Three years old:
    • Puts socks and shoes on 
    • Able to pull on a shirt correclty
    • Able to put on shoes (may be wrong feet)
    • Able to put on socks (may be incorrectly oriented)
    • Able to pull up a zipper if engaged
    • Able to button large buttons
    Three-and-a-half years old:
    • Able to unzip a jacket
    • Able to unbuckle a buckle
    • Able to pull shirt on and orient clothing (front to back correctly)
    • Takes off shirt and pants
    Four years old:
    • Buttons coat or shirt
    • Able to put socks on with correct orientation
    • Able to intiiate zipper by inserting one side into the zipper carriage
    Five years old:
    • Put shoes on correct feet
    • Dresses independently
    Six years old
    • Zips/unzips independently
    • Ties shoes
    Seven years old:
    • Chooses clothing appropriate to the weather


    Toys for helping kids learn to get dressed:

    gift guide toys for helping kids to learn to dress themselves independently



    When a child needs to work on some skills for their independence, toys can be the way to go!  These toys are great for developing independence in dressing skills.  This post contains affiliate links.  See our full disclosure here.

    Small World Toys Learning – Before and After is great for kids who need to gain insight into concepts of before and after.  You can not put your shoes on before you put your socks on.  Cognitive concepts can be tricky for children to understand if auditory processing of these ideas are difficult.

    Books about learning to get dressed:

    Let’s Get Dressed Learning Book is a fun book for the smallest children.  This book will introduce terms and language needed for independence in getting dresses.

    “Ella Sarah Gets Dressed” is a fun book to read for getting dressed ideas.

    Toys to work on clothing fasteners:


    Working on buttons, snaps, and other fasteners is great for practicing on boards, books, and dolls.  However, it is often difficult for children to relate the skills they learn on these tools to real clothing that is ON their bodies.  Manipulating clothing and fasteners is actually OPPOSITE movement patterns when fastening these same fasteners on the body verses on a board or doll that the child is looking at.  This Special Needs Sensory Activity Apron (Children & Adult Sizes) solves that issue as the child can manage the clothing fasteners right on their lap.  This is so great for children with motor planning difficulties.  You cold also use a Montessori Buttoning Frame with Large Buttons Dressing Frame and lay it right on the child’s lap.

    Childrens Factory Manual Dexterity Vests – Button-Zipper Combo Vest is a good way to practice buttons and zippers right on the child.


    Sometimes managing a zipper can be difficult because grasping the zipper is ineffective or clumsy.  A large zipper pull can make managing the zipper on clothing or a backpack much easier.  
    These 4 pcs Large Flowers Zipper Pull / Zip pull Charms for Jacket Backpack Bag Pendant are great for flower lovers, or maybe your child would rather have cool toy story zipper pulls.

    More fine motor practice can be done with the Buckle Toy “Bentley” Caterpillar. I actually love this for the Toddler age set who LOVE to buckle car seats, high chairs, and all things buckles.  This cute little caterpillar also works on numbers for pre-math learning, too.

    Practice basic clothing fastener skills like buttons, zippers, snaps, and ties with the Melissa & Doug Basic Skills Board.  The bright colors are fun and will get little fingers moving on clothing fasteners.  Learning to Get Dressed Monkey is a fun toy for clothing fasteners.

    Responsibility Chart for Getting Dressed:

     I Can Do It! Reward and Responsibility Chart is a great idea for kids that need a little motivation to be independent.  Making the morning routine smoother can make a big difference in independence.  Older kids may benefit from this chart for self-confidence or working on responsibilities. 

    Shoe Tying Gifts:

    Melissa & Doug Deluxe Wood Lacing Sneaker is a fun toy for shoe tying practice. The big, chunky shoe makes it fun.  Sometimes different colored shoe laces help when a child is learning to tie shoes.  I love these Easy Tie Shoelaces that come in two different colors.

    More developmental gift guides you may be interested in: