What I Wish Every Parent Knew: Fine Motor Skills

This entry is part 2 of 4 in the series What I Wish Every Parent Knew

Fine motor skill development is the ‘meat and potatoes’ of Occupational Therapy and the number one reason for referral.

Generally, “fine motor” refers to the refined skills of the hands and fingers.  It encompasses the use of different tools in daily life (eating utensils, writing utensils, keyboard, etc.) and basically anything that you do with your hands.  Occupational Therapists (OTs) are experts in fine motor skills and can observe anyone in action and assess specific component skills and performance (actually doing the skill) to give targeted strategies.

The best approach for parents is to ensure children have rich opportunities to develop fine motor skills including:

  • IMG_4830Foundational core strength playful activities
  • Playing with toys that require some manipulation – Lego, Polly Pockets, dolls and accessories, puzzles, pegboards, blocks, piggy banks, musical instruments, balls and beanbags, board games, etc.
  • Playing with craft supplies with the focus on experience rather than end product
  • Play doh – kids of all ages love to play with play doh (and it’s easy to make yourself!)
  • Using scissors (with supervision depending on age)
  • Helping out around the house – give your children a small part of everyday chores like spraying and wiping the windows, matching socks, pushing a broom, helping with cooking, etc.
  • Doing things for themselves – give them time dress themselves, brush their teeth, cut their toast, pour their milk, zip their coats, etc.  Avoid fostering “learned helplessness” by rushing through these learning opportunities!

Many parents and preschool educators make the mistake of thinking that the earlier they start practicing pencils and letters, the better.  In fact, the typical child’s hand has adequate development to use a pencil by about age 5 ½, which is more or less after Christmas of the kindergarten year.  Before this, if a child does a lot of pencil/paper work (or markers, crayons, etc.), they usually use maladaptive stabilization of the writing utensil, resulting in a non-functional pencil grasp that compromises speed and legibility as they get older, and can even result in pain and arthritis.  If this sounds dire, it’s because it is! 

After screening hundreds of kindergarten kids I can assure you that the majority of kids are entering kindergarten without age-appropriate fine motor development and/or using non-functional pencil grasps, which can be a hard habit to break!  On the contrary, by providing good opportunities for fine motor development, not rushing pencils, and learning about letters in non-pencil ways, a child will have the underlying hand and thumb strength and stability necessary for a functional age-appropriate grasp when they do start using pencils in kindergarten.

This leads me to the number one front-line defense strategy that will benefit every child: using a slanted or vertical surface in play.

When you use a slanted or vertical surface, the hand goes into a functional position and actually “turns on” the hand and thumb muscles.  Using a slanted or vertical surface is an easy low-tech way to make play developmentally-appropriate and to promote fine motor skills.  Slanted or vertical surfaces include standing easels, tabletop easels, a wall, fridge or white board, bath tub wall, and even lying on tummy propped on elbows.  There are many fun ways to use these in play:

  • pretty baby girl painting in white studioUse window crayons to draw on the windows and walls then have your child wipe it clean with a damp cloth or baby wipe. Trust me – they come off!
  • Use painters tape to make a road or train tracks on the wall then drive cars and trains along them.  Let your kids draw a scene using washable crayons.  My kids also love to draw water slides then take their gazillion figurines on them!
  • Magnets, gel gems and window clings from the dollar store
  • Traditional chalk board
  • Old fashioned Lite brite
  • Use dry erase markers on a white board or tinfoil taped to the fridge or wall!
  • Paint outdoor walls or trees with water or washable paint if you’re feeling adventurous.
  • Save big boxes then colour, paint or decorate with stickers to make a cool fort
  • Use magnets, puzzles, sand or sugar trays, bingo dabbers, etc. to learn letter names and sounds without focusing on how to form letters.
  • Put the iPad in a stand

You can sometimes find table top easels or slant boards at retail stores, or you can order from local manufacturer KJ Laser out of Sherwood Park. I used these plexiglass slant boards to prepare a video tutorial on why and how to use a slant board.

These daily activities do not require you to spend loads of time, money and effort! Look around your playroom, and think about your daily routine.

Where can you give your child an opportunity for fine motor development today?

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Found in Back to School, Kids

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  • paula schuck Jun 24, 2014, 5:48 pm

    I had a meeting once with my daughter’s OT consultant and she said just have her print with paper leaning on a binder. It creates a slant for her arm. Her hand fatigues easily. She’s a lefty and she also gets frustrated and that can be a behaviour problem then. I thought that was a smart way to handle the issue without causing a big expensive deal.