Find the FUN in Fine Motor!

Why do we need fine motor skills?

Fine motor skills are achieved when children learn to use their smaller muscles, like muscles in the hands, fingers and wrists with precision and coordination. Fine motor skills are essential for performing everyday skills such as:

Self-care tasks: brushing teeth, tying shoelaces, manipulating buttons/fasteners/zips/velcro on clothing, using cutlery, household chores and toileting.

Academic skills: pencil skills (for handwriting, drawing and colouring), cutting and pasting, and using a ruler/protractor/compass.

Leisure activities: puzzles, playing musical instruments, model making, construction games, Lego, jewellery-making, and navigating computers/PlayStation consoles.

Without the ability to complete these everyday tasks, a child’s self-esteem can suffer, and it may impact negatively on their academic performance.

What are the building blocks needed for fine motor skills?

Eye-hand coordination: the ability to process information received from the eyes to control, guide and direct the hands in the performance of a task such as handwriting.

Hand and finger strength: having the necessary strength to perform controlled movements against resistance.

Hand dominance: the consistent use of one (usually the same) hand for performing tasks which allows refined skills to develop. It is usually established by the age of 4 years.

Hand division: using just the thumb, index and middle finger for manipulation, leaving the fourth and little finger tucked into the palm in order to provide stability for the other 3 fingers.

Postural control: when the bigger muscles of the shoulder girdle and trunk are strong and stable, this frees up the smaller muscles of the arms and hands to move freely in a controlled manner.

What are some of the fine motor difficulties that my child may experience?

  • Difficulties with their pencil grip.
  • Struggling with drawing, colouring or writing skills. Their work may be messy, and it may take them a long time to complete their tasks.
  • Tiring easily when engaged in fine motor tasks.
  • Having difficulty when using scissors and their work may be choppy. 
  • Struggling with placing and positioning of the pencil in their hand.
  • Difficulty performing precise manipulation tasks (such as doing up buttons, threading, or tying shoelaces).
  • Disliking precise hand eye coordination tasks (e.g. construction, arts and crafts).
  • Have difficulty performing age appropriate self-care tasks independently (such as dressing), especially when using fasteners such as zippers, shoelaces and buttons.
  • Having difficulties with pencil control, resulting in wobbly letters and numbers.
  • Pressing too hard when handwriting.

What are some other related difficulties?

Behaviour: children may avoid or refuse to participate in fine motor tasks, and they may become easily frustrated.

Self-esteem: their self esteem may be low when they compare their own skills to those of their same aged peers.

Academic performance: it may impact on the ease with which a student is able to complete academic tasks. For example: a child may be very skilled verbally but may have difficulty showing this on paper (i.e. writing, drawing or colouring).

What are some activities that I can do at home to help develop fine motor skills?

Shoulder strengthening ideas

  • Climbing playground equipment such as monkey bars, ladders and ropes.
  • Wheelbarrow walks.
  • Yoga poses.
  • Drawing, writing or colouring on a vertical surface.
  • Balloon volleyball (trying to keep the balloon overhead).
  • Playing catch with a large exercise ball.
  • Animal walks such as crab walks, donkey kicks and bear walks.

In-hand manipulation activity ideas

  • String beads holding 2 or 3 beads within the palm.
  • Pegboard games holding 2 or 3 pegs within the hand.
  • Pick up a small object with fingers (such as a bead or coin) and “hide” it in your hand.  Then pick up another and another. 
  • Connect 4 game: hold a few tokens at a time within the palm while placing tokens in the slots.
  • Place coins in a Piggy Bank starting with a few coins in the palm.
  • Twist open or closed lids on small bottles or toothpaste tube held within the palm of the hand.

Eye-hand coordination activity ideas

  • Lacing boards.
  • Threading – make a necklace by threading cooked pasta or beads.
  • Building structures using raisins and toothpicks, pipe cleaners or straws.
  • Using tweezers to sort out small objects such as different coloured beads into different cups.
  • Hammering golf tees into a polystyrene board.

Fun ways to practice drawing

  • Drawing on a chalkboard, a white board, an easel or on the ground outside.
  • Drawing with various items such as crayons, markers, pencils, paint, chalk, etc. 
  • Drawing shapes with a highlighter for your child to trace over.
  • Make shapes with sticks (toothpicks, ice-cream sticks etc.) for child to trace beside.
  • Have your child use various materials (toothpicks, ice-cream sticks, Wikki Stix, etc.) to make shapes.
  • Half-to-Whole drawings: draw half of a simple picture such as a pizza, house, person etc. and the child draws the other half.
  • Connect-the-Dots activities.
  • Mazes: trace the way out first with your finger, then with a pencil or crayon.
  • Create simple drawings by putting 2 to 3 shapes together to make common objects.  For examples, a circle and stick to make a flower, a triangle and a square make a house.

Fun ways to practice letter formations

  • Using shaving foam on a mirror.
  • Drawing letters with chalk or whiteboard markers, turning them into “rainbow” letters by tracing over them in different colours.
  • Making letters out of dough.
  • Tracing letters in sand.
  • Pre-write letters on paper and have the child trace over them with glue (squeeze bottle type).
  • Forming letters by gluing beans, rice, seeds, etc. on paper.
  • Write letters with a vibrating pen; this additional sensory input will enhance the child’s memory for letter formation.
  • Write letters in the air with the pointer finger and make use of large arm movements. 
  • Write letters on your child’s back and see if they can guess what letter it is.
  • Write letters on paper that is placed over a textured surface, such as sandpaper.  The tactile feedback from the bumpy surface will enhance the child’s memory for correct letter formation.

Improving handwriting strategies

  • Highlight the left margin to increase the child’s awareness of where to begin sentences.
  • Highlight the right margin to increase the child’s awareness of where the line ends, especially if they tend to cram in words at the ends of the lines.
  • Have the child use their index finger, an ice-cream stick or place a small dot sticker after each word as a spacer.
  • To increase awareness, challenge your child to read sentences that don’t have spaces in between words.  Have them rewrite the sentences correctly.
  • For b/d, teach child to “make your bed” by forming 2 thumbs up, touching knuckles together, the left hand forms a ‘b’, the right hand forms a ‘d’.
  • Have the child compete against themselves to beat their time on writing or copying a passage.  See if they can get it done as quickly and legibly as possible. They can then go back and correct their mistakes.

Muscle strengthening strategies

  • Use plasticine (modelling clay) to make a little bird and roll small balls between your fingers to form “eggs”.
  • Watering plants with a water sprayer.
  • Pulling apart resistive toys such as Lego, pop beads. 
  • Craft activities that require using bottles to squeeze: glue, glitter glue, paint, etc.
  • Place clothespins around an index card or paper plate: encourage using only one hand to position/reposition the card or plate.
  • Tearing paper and using the pieces to create a picture such as a flower. 
  • Making things using old boxes, egg cartons, wool, paper and sticky tape.
  • Prick holes in polystyrene trays using a toothpick to form a picture.

Written By: Kris-Ann Hey (Occupational Therapist)

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