This is one time of year that our phones are ringing a little more than usual. Summer is over and the kiddos are settling in at school. It’s parent conference time, which tends to expose concerns that often result in OT referrals. Challenges with fine motor skills are routinely pointed out in these conferences. Observable areas of handwriting, cutting and coloring are present throughout the school day, making it easy to notice who is struggling and who isn’t.
The truth is, fine motor skills develop as the result of a number of different sensations and skills working together. Step one is to identify which pieces are lagging behind. Step two is creating activities to strengthen and develop these weaker areas. Step three is watching fine motor skills improve! Here’s how to get past some little fine motor bumps in the road that your child might be experiencing.
Fine motor skills are built on a platform of:
- Good trunk control: the body core (aka stomach, back and sides) has to be the steady base for the arms and hands to coordinate controlled actions.
Try this: Sit up tall and raise your arms up toward the sky. Notice how this feels. Now slouch down in your chair, relaxing your trunk and try raising your arms up again. Feel a difference?
- Good feedback from skin, muscle and joints: allows for fine tuning motor actions and making precise adjustments.
Here’s another experiment: Try holding a pencil with gloves on. Without the ability to ‘feel’ your pencil, it’s harder to hold and control!
- Strength in the arms and hands
- Good coordination between eyes and hands (visual motor coordination): essential for skilled fine motor tasks like using scissors or writing your name on a line.
How do we support these skills? We play at the park!
Rarely do people think that there is a connection between park play and developing fine motor skills. The mindset of many is that strengthening fine motor skills means sitting at a table with a pencil and paper. We urge you to begin thinking outside of the box, and even more specifically, thinking outdoors! There are so many opportunities for building skills needed for school outside, and the best part is the kids have a blast while we disguise this practice as FUN!
Focusing on activities that build strong trunk muscles, balance, visual motor skills, hand and arm strength, tactile discrimination, and the ability to use just the right amount of pressure are primary essentials. Here are a few ideas of ways to work on these areas at the park:
- Building a strong core: swings, slide, climbing – you can’t go wrong with any of these!
- Balance: walk along a curb, climb on rocks or traverse across a wiggly bridge
- Visual motor activity: swing while catching and throwing a bean bag
- Hand and arm strength: climbing structures, use a rope to climb a slide, monkey bars
- Tactile discrimination: play with different textures like sand, dirt, mud, sticks and grass, find an object hidden in the sand with eyes closed
- Controlling hand pressure: play with sand toys and buckets, learn how much force is needed to dig and how to precisely place a shovel of sand in a bucket or have a twig stand on end in the sand
For more specific fine motor skill ideas, check out our post and cute videos of our park play kiddos working on fine motor skills HERE.
During school activities, it is important to make sure that your child is positioned in a way that creates a strong, stable base for fine motor coordination. When sitting at a table, make sure the child is sitting well supported in the chair with both feet flat on the floor. The child’s hips and knees should be at 90-degree angles, trunk and head upright, and non-dominant hand stabilizing the paper. If you find that your child’s feet are unable to touch the ground, place a box, step stool or other appropriately sized and sturdy object under your child’s feet to achieve these angles.The child’s dominant wrist should be at about a 30-degree extended angle when writing, rather than flexed or hooked inward.
Helpful Tools and Strategies
(Heads up! We have included some affiliate links ahead to share some of our tried and true therapy supports and tools! By purchasing through these links, we get a tiny (but hugely appreciated) proceed that keeps our website up and running! Thank you!)
While your child is developing the foundation skills for fine motor control, we can recommend these helpful tools to make school activities easier. If your child is currently seeing an occupational therapist, it will be beneficial to consult with him/her to identify individualized supports based on your child’s unique needs. Here are some general tools and strategies that can help:
- Pencil grips – There are a variety of pencil grips that help position fingers for optimal muscle control and endurance, resulting in more skilled movements. Below are a few of the more popular styles and brands, kid tested and therapist approved!
- Slant board – Slant boards assist in the ideal positioning of the wrist for increased ease of finger movements.
Try this: pinch your index and thumb together. With your wrist slightly extended, bring your ‘pinch’ forward and back ward, in a thread the needle sort of motion. Notice how this feels and the ease of movement. Now try this same motion, but with your wrist flexed inward. Notice a difference? Think about working on a skilled fine motor activity in each position. Which would be easier and require less effort?
- Vibrating pens – Vibration can be a great way to increase sensation in the hand! Increasing awareness leads to better control.
- The Fine Motor Olympics by Marcia P. Bridgeman, OTR/L – A great collection of super fun activities for developing coordination in the hand and fingers.
- Wedge cushion – for a child who tends to slouch or struggles to sit up straight, a wedge cushion can help while working to improve core stability. The tilts the pelvis to promote a more upright posture. Notice how difficult it is to maintain visual attention to an activity while in a slouched position! Even harder is trying to copy from the board or watch the teacher demonstrate instructions!
- Change body positions during fine motor activities – Tape paper to the wall or write on a vertical surface to naturally adjust wrist position. This also changes the visual field that the child is working in. Try having the child lay on his tummy, propping upper body on forearms. This visually directs the child to the activity while working on developing shoulder stability, leading to improvements in refined fine motor control!
If a child’s platform for fine motor skills is not in place yet, drilling the child with pencil and paper is going to be a slow, frustrating process for both the child and the parent! It’s more fun and effective to play at the park and develop those foundation skills first! If the child is struggling with fine motor activities in school, focus on areas of core strength, balance, visual motor skills, hand and arm strength, tactile discrimination, and the ability to grade force to build successes and feelings of confidence! Your local occupational therapist is also a great resource to identify specific challenge areas and provide an individualized treatment plan based on your child’s needs.