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:
Separation of the hand
In hand manipulation
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.
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
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 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 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
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
Us too. Welcome to the nerd party.
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