“Way before we put a pencil in a child’s hand and ask him to write, we need to have a foundation of fine motor skills.”
I could tell right away that while I thought I had said something simple, it was time to slow down and elaborate.
“What does that look like?” What are fine motor skills?” came the inevitable questions from the audience.
The idea that writing is not an independent performance task was somewhat new. The implication that poor pencil grasp could be prevented and remediated with something other than more writing was almost startling.
We have to get away from the idea that early education is a series of boxes to be checked, and recognize the real needs of the whole child and they ways they are wired to learn and grow.
The pencil grasp, and the accompanying skill of writing is important. But while it is easily recognized as an academic-centered performance task, it is actually just one part of a larger set of fine motor skills. Children need — and are in fact, driven to — develop control over their hands and fingers. They WANT to use them. Little ones are notorious for having their hands in and on EVERYTHING.
But they may not always WANT to write. It’s hard. Particularly for those who have underdeveloped fine motor skills and strength. So jumping straight into writing without preparing that foundation is a recipe for frustration and failure. To treat that frustration with more writing is counterproductive. We can set children up for success by recognizing the full scope of fine motor development and offering opportunities for authentic, motivating, play-based experiences.
I’m not alone in my concern that a lack of hands-on play — something beyond swiping and tapping — is causing young children to struggle with fine motor tasks.
So how do we give kids the fine motor experiences they need? Well, in short, let them get hands-on with the world.
But to be more specific, here’s a huge list of some of my favorite ideas for helping kids to get hands-on with fine motor development.
Use Small Tools
Kids won’t be able to resist grabbing eyedroppers and putting their fingers to use with this activity from Toddler Approved! or picking up tweezers to explore something like this from Teaching 2 and 3 Year-Olds.
Keeping kids away from a hole-punch once they’ve discovered it? Forget about it! This can be a challenging tool, but once kids are ready for it, they won’t want to stop! Check out these activities from Teach Mama and Reading Confetti. (Both have the added benefit of some awesome math work!)
Building strength and control in little fingers isn’t just about the pinching motion, but also the strength that comes in stretching and pulling. Use rubber bands to build your own finger gym! Try this simple rubber band game or this boredom buster from Hands On As We Grow. Or encourage some creativity with this unique peg board from Crayon Box Chronicles.
Fill the Holes
Flip a colander upside down and you have a workout ready to go. And little ones can’t resist it! You can use all kinds of things for kids to get working. Try this, this, this, or this. (See? All kinds of things!)
String It Up
Threading is excellent practice both for finger dexterity and also hand-eye coordination. Whether you thread beads (with this tip!), straws, pool noodles, a giant box, or lacing cards, your kids get loads of benefits.
Two Words: Play. Dough.
Playdough (or Play-doh, or Play dough…) is one of the most inviting ways for kids to build fine motor skills. They squeeze, roll, press, poke, and pinch. It’s like a boot camp workout. But much more enjoyable. Check out how Asia Citro (from Fun at Home with Kids) introduces playdough to toddlers. (She has a bazillion awesome recipes for playdough too!)
I’ve used this basic recipe for years (thought I do like to spice it up or go with a smoother option now and then). You can add a variety of tools to challenge your kids to engage in different skills as I share in this guest post for Modern Parents Messy Kids.
Any time a child picks up a small piece of something and sticks it to another surface, she’s doing some awesome fine motor work. Try something simple like a button collage, a color wheel collage, or a huge contact paper collage.
Squeeze It In
Build strong hands and fingers with this awesome list of 17 squeezing activities from Teaching 2 and 3 Year Olds. And just try to keep them from squeezing a spray bottle set up in a sensory table like this. You can also just let them spray water into your shower or bathtub. (Pro Tip: Test out your spray bottle before setting it up in a child’s activity. Some are more child-friendly than others.)
Little hands love to use scissors, and it’s a great workout. Try out something like this cutting tray from Mama, Papa, Bubba or this awesome cutting bowl from No Time for Flash Cards to invite your children to literally cut it out. (I stack my cutting bowl two deep — one to hold things they can cut and the other to catch the scraps as they work.)
Combine Writing with Sensory
Salt is cheap, but makes for a rich sensory experience that will get kids excited about using tools and shaping letters. Try this DIY Salt Tray and Alphabet Cards from This Mumma’s Life, or go totally simple like I did with just a grungy old baking sheet and container of salt from the pantry. Your kids get the same benefit!
Try other sensory media like Vaseline or shaving cream.
Ready to Write?
When you’re ready to start focusing on the pencil grasp, here are some important things to keep in mind.
And here’s a video I made in answer to a reader’s question about how to make handwriting practice more fun and playful.
A Few More Things…
There are plenty of ways that children are building their fine motor skills in other self-directed play opportunities. Simply driving a car around on a mat builds fine motor skills as they hold on as well as eye-hand coordination as they follow the road way. Dressing up sometimes requires closing fasteners like buttons, snaps, and hooks. Playing in the sand box, cooking in the kitchen, or picking up rocks on the beach all give plenty of opportunities to put those hands and fingers to work. Recognize that there are opportunities all around for getting kids hands-on.
Remember that this list of activities isn’t a procedural map. Children need to continue to build fine motor skills, even if they are already writing. Writing isn’t the end-all be-all. Kids — strike that, HUMANS — benefit from dexterous fine motor control. A pencil grip is simply one part of a larger set of fine motor skills. And children, as whole-body-and-soul humans need opportunities to develop the full breadth of fine motor skills.
What ways do you notice children working on their fine motor skills?
Want to read more about the importance of building a foundation for early learning? Read more here.