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Handwriting Skills Part 2: Fine Motor


By Noémie von Kaenel, OTS and Bearfoot OT


Fine motor skills include the things we do with our hands - writing, buttoning, zipping, cutting, putting beads on a string, eating, and on and on! But there are a LOT of components under the big ol’ umbrella of fine motor that make little hands work efficiently.


Foundational fine motor skills needed for handwriting include:

  • Hand strength

  • Palmar arches

  • Thumb opposition

  • Separation of the hand

  • In hand manipulation

  • Grasping


Basically, before we skip to “write your alphabet” or “5 paragraph essay, please” we need to make sure that your kid’s hands are READY for the task.


Because if they’re not?


Then kids will figure out ways to compensate for missing pieces by holding their pencil in a funky way or gripping the marker as their life depends on it.


Or you might get a kid that refuses to write at all because it’s so hard for them.


Our job as grown-ups is to understand and nurture the underlying fine motor components our kids need to write. Using a developmental bottom-up approach helps to comprehensively support the growth of higher-level skills.


And yep! We mean writing.


Hand Strength

Before a writing tool is in your child’s hand, you want to make sure your child’s hands are strong enough to hold it. Do they have the muscles and endurance in those lil’ hands to stabilize and manipulate the writing utensil with control and precision?


If your kid has decreased hand strength, you might see:

  • Use of whole arm movements to guide the pencil

  • Poor endurance for fine motor tasks

  • Items falling out of your child’s hands during fine motor task

  • A collapsed webspace (their thumb sticking to their hand rather than using it to oppose the rest of the hand)

To build strength, think about using materials or toys with resistance.


Think about strong verbs here - push, pull, stretch, hold, carry, press!


Here are some activities you can do to strengthen your child’s hands.

  • Play with Playdough, slime, or clay by hiding small items in it and have them search and take them out (Even better: have them pinch the items out with tweezers or tongs)

  • Make bread and have them knead the dough

  • Have your child’s chores be to water the plants at home with a squirt/spray bottle

  • Have your child hole punch anything and everything: paper, construction paper, laminated paper, felt, cardboard, pipe cleaners

  • Play with legos/building toys



Hand Arches

Strengthening your kid’s hands will also help strengthen their hand arches. We need strong arches for handwriting when grasping the writing utensil and building endurance for fine motor tasks. The arches also help with discriminating things in our hands, which helps fine motor control and developing automaticity instead of having to rely on vision. As a test, have your child close their eyes and put some items in your child’s hands then ask them to describe to you what is in their hand.


This photo depicts the 3 main hand arches.


Activities to strengthen hand arches:

  • Crumple a piece of paper with just one hand and throw it in the recycling bin

  • Have a bead in your palm and try to bring it to your fingertips

  • Work on grasping items and playing with them in your palms like marbles, beads, small toys

  • Holding eating utensils⁹ (This helps kids manipulate a writing-like utensil in their hand and practice their grip)


Thumb Opposition

Thumb opposition is our ability to bring our thumb to touch the top of our other fingers by bringing it forward and across the other fingers. Think of making an “OK” sign with your fingers. This skill is needed for establishing strong open web space when holding the writing utensil. This is the space between your fingertips and your palm that allows your child’s fingers to control the pencil rather than their wrist or arm.


Activities to strengthen thumb opposition

  • Play Thumbs Up

  • Play thumb wars

  • Practice touching each fingertip to your thumb on both hands

  • Have your child pop the bubble wrap of packages by pressing it between thumb and index fingers

  • Play “Breaking the O” - Make the “OK” sign (shown in image below) and link your and your child’s index and thumb finger making a linked chain and pull either side while trying to keep a nice circle/”O” shape



Functional Separation of the Hand

Hand separation is probably not what you think. There are two sides of the hand - the skilled side (thumb, index, and middle fingers) and the stability side (ring finger and pinky).


We use the skilled side to do more precise actions - picking up something small, holding onto a zipper, peeling a sticker off, holding a pencil. We use the stability side of our hand when we need some oomph to the movement.


We need separation between these two sides for writing because if we don’t, then the whole hand is involved in the action. Our kids’ hands get so tired of writing with their whole hands. When we have a functional separation between the two sides, we can use more smooth, precise, and controlled movements from the skilled side only.


OTs sometimes recommend placing a small item like a bead or a coin under your kid’s pinky and ring fingers. You can also pretend that your ring finger and pinky are taped down onto your palm and are “stuck” there when you write.



Here are some activities you can do at home to improve the separation of the two sides of the hand. The trick is to encourage the “skilled side” of the hand to work by using small tools like clothespins or tongs.

  • Play games or have chores with clothespins

  • Hang up your drying clothes on clothespins

  • Matching clothespin colors to a color wheel

  • Make a garden with clothespin labels and have them place them

  • Hide items in playdough/dirt/sand and have your child pick them up with small tongs

  • Have your child practice buttoning


In-Hand Manipulation

In-hand manipulation is the adjustment or movement of an object within one hand. It is important for handwriting because it allows your child to move and position their pencil with one hand only, or for flipping the pencil to the use the eraser


This appears more natural around 4 years old but is refined around 6 years old.


  • “Wiggle up and down the pencil” - this activity also increases hand strength. Think of a worm wiggling from the eraser side of the pencil down to the lead tip. You can also practice on a toothbrush or an eating utensil.

  • Playing card games

  • Counting money or picking up coins and moving them from your fingers to your palm, and then back out again

  • Tennis ball video

  • In hand manipulation and hand control, hand strengthening

And just about when you were ready to quit......we are FINALLY talking about the darn pencil!!


Check out this infographic for pencil grasp development:



Observations to make with your child’s grasp:

  • Is your child using their whole hand to move and grip the pencil?

  • How many fingers does your child use to hold the writing utensil?

  • Is your child tiring easily from the grasp? Does it look like they’re holding on for dear life?

  • How is your child’s webspace? Are their fingers and thumb touching at the tip when making an “O” from an “OK” sign?

  • What’s going on with their thumb? Wrapping around?


If your child is ready to hold and use a writing utensil, here are some things to try to improve their grasp!


Practice drawing and coloring with different types of writing utensils. Start with larger diameter tools and then progress to smaller diameter tools when they’re ready.

Here are some options for writing utensils in order of easiest to hardest to grasp

If pencil grasp continues to be difficult for your child, you can try adapted writing utensils or pencil grips such as


Love research?


Us too. Welcome to the nerd party.


References

  1. Beck, C., Chuan, C., Cooley, T., Drobnjak, L., Greutman, H., Geffron, C., Kiley, C., Meadows, An., Rice, M., Spencer, J., (2017) The Handwriting Book. OT Toolkit’s The Functional Skills for Kids Pediatric Therapist Team.

  2. Case-Smith, J. & O’Brien, J.C. (2015). Occupational Therapy For Children And Adolescents. 7th Ed. Elsevier and Mosby Publishing.

  3. Collette, D., Anson, K., Halabi, N., Schlierman, A., & Suriner, A. (2017). Handwriting and common core state standards: Teacher, occupational therapist, and administrator perceptions from new york state public schools. The American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 71(6), 1-9. doi:http://dx.doi.org.dominican.idm.oclc.org/10.5014/ajot.2017.021808

  4. Feder, K., Majnemer, A., & Synnes, A., (2000). Handwriting: Current trends in occupational therapy practice. The Canadian Journal of Occupational Therapy, 67(3), 197-204. doi:http://dx.doi.org.dominican.idm.oclc.org/10.1177/000841740006700313

  5. DOI: 10.1177/000841740006700313

  6. Grace, N., Enticott, P. G., Johnson, B. P., & Rinehart, N. J. (2017). Do handwriting difficulties correlate with core symptomology, motor proficiency and attentional behaviours? Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 47(4), 1006-1017. doi:http://dx.doi.org.dominican.idm.oclc.org/10.1007/s10803-016-3019-7

  7. Harrington, R., & Hill, J., (2018). Handwriting and Fine Motor Skills. The Sensory Project Podcast. Season 1, Episode 17

  8. Zwicker, J. G. (2006). Effectiveness of occupational therapy in remediating handwriting difficulties in primary students: Cognitive versus multisensory interventions (Order No. MR14673). Available from Nursing & Allied Health Database. (304984389). Retrieved from https://dominican.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://www-proquest-com.dominican.idm.oclc.org/dissertations-theses/effectiveness-occupational-therapy-remediating/docview/304984389/se-2?accountid=25281

  9. Handwriting without Tears Website and free resources, Retrieved from<https://www.lwtears.com/programs/distance-learning/families/packets>

  10. American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) (n.d.) Handwriting. Retrieved from <https://www.aota.org/About-Occupational-Therapy/Patients-Clients/ChildrenAndYouth/Schools/Handwriting.aspx>



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