Step 2: Build Strength with Fine Motor Skills!
This is Part 2 of our pre-writing series: “Building Blocks for Success”. If you missed the first blog on Thinking Big with Gross Motor Skills, check that out before reading on! After children develop the needed strength and stability in their large muscle groups, we can start to refine those movements. “Step 1” focused on gross motor activities involving:
- Body awareness & motor planning
- Crossing midline
- Core strength & shoulder stability
This blog is designed to help you build strength with a few suggestions on ways to improve fine motor skills as the second step towards pre-writing! Fine motor skills refer to smaller movements, typically produced via use of one’s hands. We are going to focus on three key areas in this blog:
- Strengthening hand muscles
- Establishing hand dominance
- Development of functional grasps
In our pre-writing journey, once larger muscle groups are strengthened, we can start targeting the smaller muscles of the hand! There are 30+! Children require strength and endurance in their hand muscles to participate in the many tasks. Think about it! Can you imagine many tasks you do on a daily basis that don’t require the use of your hands? From brushing one’s teeth, eating breakfast, and getting dressed to packing a bag, coloring, playing with toys, or completing school work – it all requires hand strength! Below are some of my favorite ways to build strength and endurance in fine motor skills. The work is disguised as play!
Tongs & Tweezers
- There are tons of ways to use tongs or tweezers in play! These are probably my favorite pre-writing tool! Simply Special Ed has these great Fine Motor Centers that include tong activities as well as eleven other great ways to work on fine motor skills in the classroom! Be creative with the kinds of tongs you use. Keep it fresh! Kitchen/salad tongs [like those pictured above] require more strength than eyebrow tweezers, but less precision. There are commercially-made fine motor tweezers like these (affiliate link), but binder clips, clothes pins, or other household materials work just as well! Check out these letter clip cards as a fun way to incorporate clothes pins for fine motor strength into academic tasks! As seen in the picture below, I like to throw in tweezers (affiliate link) to any game by making my own rules! These can be used with any age! In the picture below, we are playing a game my students love called Chomping Charlie (affiliate link). The game doesn’t come with tweezers, but for an added challenge, I had students pick up the acorns with tweezers, pass them to their non-dominant hand, and feed them to Charlie.
Play Dough & Putty
- Kids love play dough! I always find it to be a crowd-pleaser. Making your own play dough incorporates several other fine motor skills in the process! But if you don’t have time or materials to do so, any kind of “dough” will do! To target hand strength specifically, I tend to use resistive putties. Most recently, I have been loving the “Hot Head” variety of Crazy Aaron’s Thinking Putty®(affiliate link)! It gets more resistive the more you use it! I like to hide small items in the putty so students have something to “dig” for. Try using letter beads that spell words or having a specific number of items hidden so students know when they are finished. I also enjoy having students write in play dough [rather than on paper] or using the play dough to form letters [for younger learners]. Check out Taylor’s blog on 5 Ways to Utilize Play Dough for some more ideas! She includes some great hand strengthening pre-writing warm ups!
In addition to overall hand/grip strength, being able to move and control items within the hand is an important fine motor skill. For those of you familiar with occupational therapy “lingo”, the term “in-hand manipulation skills” may ring a bell. Developing these intrinsic muscles of the hand will support functional fine motor skills and dexterity as well as an efficient pencil grasp. Separating the two sides of the hand [thumb vs. pinky side] is another important prerequisite to a functional pencil grasp. Surprisingly, the ulnar [pinky finger] side of the hand is the strong side. However, our precision and accuracy come from the radial [thumb/index finger] side of the hand. This is why some students hold their pencils, or other utensils, with a fisted grasp at first. While developmentally appropriate, eventually, we want our kids to progress from this inefficient grass to a more precise one. You can see why developing all these small hand muscles is a necessary pre-writing milestone! Below are some ideas for activities to build skills required for mature grasp patterns.
Pincer Grasp Activities
- We typically think of this early-developing grasp when babies start to finger feed small foods. I think of Cheerios! While this grasp can develop as early as 9 months of age, children can work on refining and strengthening it for years and years to come! Activities that target this strengthening skill the best are those in which a child has to use only their thumb and index finger to complete the task. Small items work best! I like to use rubber bands. Things like geoboards work well! Covering a toy with rubber bands and have the child “save” the animal is always fun! Simply Special Ed’s Fine Motor Centers mentioned above include activities with a Montessori hole puncher, but you can also use thumb tacks to really encourage that tip-to-tip grasp! The “stick it” fine motor center also works on this with peeling stickers! Lastly, some of my older students love to make pearler bead designs [seen below]. It is a great way to work on visual perceptual and assembly skills with a great fine motor challenge!
Styluses with Technology
- If your child uses a tablet frequently, it may seem challenging to work on a variety of fine motor strengthening tasks. While they are likely developing finger isolation [the ability to isolate their index finger to touch things on the screen], touch screens don’t allow for much further fine motor development. But wait! You can sneak in some pencil grasp practice by using a stylus with the iPad [or even a phone]. There are a variety of different styles out there, so find one that works best for your child! I like to use the Write Right stylus (affiliate link) because it encourages a proper grasp by only working on the screen if a finger is in the correct spot! It promotes a tripod grasp! Remember: your child can still be in the “pre-writing” phase and using a stylus on an iPad to make selections, scroll on YouTube, etc. They don’t need to be forming letters like in the example below! You can also make your own stylus at home by smoothly putting some tin foil on the eraser side of a pencil!
2 Handed Skills
We use both of our hands for most tasks. In occupational therapy terms, we call this “bilateral [2 handed] coordination”. For most tasks that require two hands, we establish one hand as the “worker” hand, and the other as the “helper” hand. For example, when opening a jar, one hand [your dominant, worker hand] is turning and removing the lid while the other [non-dominant, helper hand] is stabilizing the jar. Hand dominance is not typically established, at least not completely, until after 6 years of age. However, establishing a “helper” and a “worker” hand [whatever that hand may be] for specific tasks is still important. Below are some ideas to work towards a hand dominance! Check out the first pre-writing blog of this series for crossing midline ideas as well! They help support establishing a hand dominance. All of these skills are critical in the pre-writing phase before a child begins to write.
- This activity is an oldie, but a goodie! Turn a tennis ball into a “mouth” [see below] by cutting a slit in it. I like to add eyes for fun! Students feed Mr. Mouth until he is full. To upgrade this activity, try to incorporate some in hand manipulation skills. Students can hold beads or other small items in their dominant hand, then shimmy them up to their finger tips [think putting change in a vending machine] to feed to Mr. Mouth one at a time. This targets the in-hand manipulation skills discussed above. The “helper hand” is getting a lot of good strengthening practice by squeezing the ball to open the mouth in this example. Try switching hands as well! Another way to add some fine motor strengthening to this task is to have the child make the food that they are feeding Mr. Mouth. Ripping and crumpling paper into small balls works on a variety of fine motor and bilateral coordination skills! What other paper ripping crafts or activities can you think of? The possibilities are endless!
- Crafts are a great way to work on two handed skills! Almost all craft-based activities require two hands. Think about opening a marker or glue stick, cutting with scissors or coloring/painting while stabilizing the paper/material with your “helper hand”. Simply Special Ed has a variety of visual crafts for each month of the year! These are a great way to engage students in fine motor tasks using different materials! For example, I LOVE one of the visual crafts in the September set that involves cutting an apple with a knife, painting, stamping and gluing! What a great, multi-sensory way to target a ton of functional fine motor skills! Another common material I like to use in crafts and other activities is masking or washi tape (affiliate link)! Children need to use a good pincer (index to thumb) grasp with both hands to tear the tape. Those two fingers are really isolated [just like when writing!], and the hands need to work together while completing different/opposite movements. One hand moves towards you, while the other moves away to successfully rip the tape!
In summary, there are a lot of muscles that need to strengthen and develop in order for our students to have age appropriate fine motor skills. As we talked about in Part 1 of this series, a house cannot be built without a firm foundation, and that is why it is so important to start building these foundational pre-writing skills! First, think big with gross motor skills, and then build strength with fine motor skills. Embedding these tasks in play-based activities that are geared towards your child’s interests will make developing the pre-writing simple. It can also be so fun! Lastly, we can all learn from one another. So, reach out to your school’s occupational therapist, or other teachers or parents in your lives to bounce creative ideas off one another! You may be surprised what fun activities you invent together! Please share them with the Simply Special Ed community either in the comments or on Facebook!