Fun & Games: Building Your Child’s Fine Motor Skills

By Delia Albert
A child drawing on a piece of paper

“Playtime” is just another phrase for “learning time.” When children engage in their favorite activities, they are actually building the foundation for many life skills, including those needed to become great writers. How can you help build your child’s fine motor skills?

Although teaching children to write may seem daunting, incorporating playtime activities can go a long way. Watching children reach these milestones can be even more exciting when they are having fun in the process.

How Playtime can Improve Your Child’s Fine Motor Skills

Kourtney Robinson, a kindergarten teacher at Myra Terwilliger Elementary School, said toddlers that mold Play-Doh and maneuver objects like bottle caps are improving their hand-eye coordination, a crucial skill when learning to copy information from the board.

Play doh amazon image

If a child has poor motor skills in general, Robinson encourages tracing activities. Children can use their fingers in a bucket of sand or shaving cream.

“It’s more fun to play with the squishy materials,” Robinson said.

Between ages 2 and 4, children can use crayons to draw pictures, getting accustomed to gripping writing utensils. Technique isn’t important at this stage, so parents shouldn’t be hard on their children, Robinson added.

Eventually parents can teach their children to make an “OK” sign with their hands before beginning to write. Students should put their pointer and thumb finger on the pencil, then rest the other three. This grip is correct for most people, but it doesn’t work for everyone, noted Robinson.

She has noticed that lack of exposure is the most common problem among her students. She recommends starting at a basic level by engaging children though drawing.

Developing Hand Dominance

Barbara Finch, the lead occupational therapist at Fundamental Therapy Solutions, said children can usually hold a pencil around age 1 and develop hand dominance around age 3—but what if the child doesn’t show a preference?

The signs of a child’s preferred hand can be linked with their eye dominance and preferred foot, she said. By paying careful attention to these preferences, parents can help choose the correct hand.

Children may have difficulty crossing the midline (writing with the dominant hand without changing when reaching the middle of the page). Some children even lean their bodies to one side to compensate, Finch said.

After determining hand dominance, children should work to develop adequate strength in their hands. Playing with LEGO construction pieces is a great way to build hand strength and visual motor skills, Finch suggested.

If children are still struggling, Finch recommends seeing a handwriting tutor or occupational therapist. A specialist can get to the root of the problem and teach parents how to ease their child’s anxieties. Finch said most doctors know to refer parents to these specialists when a child needs more attention in this area.

It’s Fun to Practice!

Try these activities to strengthen hand muscles and improve fine motor skills:

  • Using a plant sprayer, encourage children to water plants around the house.
  • Create bracelets or necklaces to engage your children’s pointer and thumb fingers. Start with big beads and work up to smaller beads to make the task more challenging.
  • Have children trace over letters on a chalkboard with a paintbrush and water.
  • Using grapes and toothpicks, teach children how to construct three-dimensional shapes. (Marshmallows work for this also.)
  • Write letters on clothespins and let children practice making words. (Provide a template where children can clamp letters.)
  • Using pipe cleaners and a colander, demonstrate how to thread pipe cleaners through the holes.

Tips for Lefties

  • Make sure children are using the correct utensils. Some teachers give left-handed children scissors intended for right-handed students. The child’s difficulty may be fixed simply by providing the right tools.
  • Left-handed children often write letters and numerals reversed. Teaching children how to think left to right will prevent them from getting confused and frustrated.

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