I recently had the opportunity to speak at the 2014 annual state conference for the Occupational Therapy Association of California (OTAC). It was SO FUN! I spent 80 minutes presenting to OT students on the topic of “How to Turn Household Items Into Fine Motor Treatment Tools”. Pretty perfect considering I tend to post lots of fine motor activities you can do using household items here on Mama OT, right?!
During my session, I introduced to the students the idea that there are 5 things we need to keep in mind when working on fine motor skills.
I feel like this is the type of information that shouldn’t just be exclusive to (future) occupational therapists. We need EVERYONE to know about this — parents, grandparents, caregivers, daycare providers, teachers, and more. Anyone who works with kids! The more who know about it, the more our children can benefit.
I’m not saying everyone needs to try and act like an OT when doing fine motor activities with kids. That is neither realistic nor appropriate. I’m just saying there are some tips to keep in mind when choosing fine motor activities to do with kids, and I think people will find these tips helpful. So, if it’s okay with you, I’d like to share with you what I shared with our next generation of pediatric OTs… (This post contains affiliate links, see my full disclosure here.)
5 Things to Keep in Mind When Working on Fine Motor Skills:
1. Incorporate challenges to the muscles in the trunk (hips, tummy, back, sides, neck), upper extremities (shoulders, arms), and weight bearing in the hands during fine motor treatment.
For therapists, this means we need to not just have kids sit and complete fine motor activities the entire session. We know from studying human development and kinesiology that we need proximal stability for distal mobility. In everyday terms, that means we need a stable base of support in the trunk in order to develop skilled and fluid use of the arms, hands, and fingers. If our base of support is unsteady due to muscle weakness or postural instability, then that impacts our ability to accurately use our hands and fingers in a skilled manner. For many kids, an unsteady base can actually impact their ability to focus and pay attention during seated tasks such as reading and writing, too. Hmmm. Additionally, weight bearing in the hands during activities like crawling helps develop the muscles in the hands (the palmar arches) responsible for in-hand manipulation skills and dissociation of the two sides of the hand (what’s that and how can you help develop it?). These hand skills are important for everyday childhood activities such as coloring, cutting, writing, manipulating fasteners, and twisting open containers (like a tube of toothpaste or a twist-top glue stick).
For parents, teachers, and others who work with kids, this means we need to not forget the importance of good ol’ fashioned PLAY! Yes, concentration and the ability to focus on tabletop activities are important. But not at the cost of the development of gross motor skills, core strength, postural stability, all of which are needed for higher level fine motor development.
Here are some fun play-based ways to promote challenges to the muscles in the trunk, upper extremities, and weight bearing in the hands:
- Create an obstacle course that involves activities like climbing, crawling, rolling, jumping, throwing, and/or sliding
- Do animal walks such as bear walks, crab walks, snake crawls (on the belly), giraffe walks (on tippy toes with arms up high), or frog jumps
- Pretend to fly like superman to a really fun place like Disneyland or Grandma’s house (laying on tummy with arms and legs straight and raised off the floor for 10+ seconds)
- Play on a scooter board, and get your wheels turning with these great ideas for 10 activities to do on a scooterboard (from Therapy Fun Zone) and get even more fun and creative ideas from this post with 10 awesome scooter activities for kids (from The Inspired Treehouse).
- Practice yoga poses for core strength, balance, and motor planning, such as those found in these kid-friendly yoga cards (which I totally use in therapy, by the way)
- Play on a therapy ball, either in sitting (with support and supervision for safety, as seen in this post on Mama OT) or on the tummy (as demonstrated in this post on Therapy Fun Zone) for activities such as beanbag toss, puzzles, and more
- Lay on tummy while completing activities such as reading, coloring, or doing puzzles
2. Perfect grasp isn’t everything!
Yes, how kids use their fingers to grasp objects is important. But we need to also think about the other motor components of fine motor skills and/or in the specific goals being addressed in therapy.
This can include additional skills such as crossing midline, intentionally releasing objects while using hand-eye coordination, isolating the index finger, supinating the forearms (palms up), in-hand manipulation (being able to rotate and manipulate small items using coordinated movements of only one hand), bilateral coordination, dissociation of the two sides of the hand, rhythmic movements during fine motor activities (such as coloring, cutting, or dribbling a ball), tactile discrimination (being able to distinguish the different properties of an object through the sense of touch), development of hand preference and eventually hand dominance, motor planning, hand strength, motor control, and grading of force (using the “just right” amount of force during motor tasks).
See? There’s more to fine motor development than just working on grasp!
3. Be able to tie your fine motor treatment activities into the goals being addressed or the skills you are trying to develop.
For therapists, this means it’s important we don’t just just do random fine motor activities because they’re fun or creative. We need to have a reason behind what we’re doing and be able to justify it!
For teachers, parents, and other grown-ups who work with kids, this means there is value in thinking about what types of skills, in general, your fine motor activities are related to (such as cutting, learning to do fasteners, sequencing fine motor tasks, learning to use two hands together, etc.). Thinking about this might make you realize that you may need to tweak your activity or choose a different one altogether. Or maybe thinking about this shows you that you are on the right track and should run with it. Way to go!
4. Choose fine motor activities that build off of the child’s current abilities so you can provide the “just-right” challenge.
It can be so tempting to choose fine motor activities and crafts for kids because they look AMAZING on Pinterest, right? But the cuteness factor doesn’t always mean it will be the perfect activity for YOUR kids. Think about what the kids you work with or care for are currently capable of. Think about what’s easy for them, what they’ve already mastered. And then think about what kind of activity or skill might be slightly harder than what they can currently do. What will challenge them a little bit while still allowing them to be successful. What will stretch them and encourage them to ask for help without causing them to shut down in frustration. And then…do THAT. This is what therapists refer to as the “just-right” challenge.
The great thing about many fine motor activities and crafts is that you can usually adjust (or “grade”) the difficulty level of the activity by changing things such as the way you give instructions (verbal instructions, visual model to work from, demonstration, etc.), how prepared the materials are in advance, and what parts of the activity you provide help on. So keep that in mind when browsing and pinning in order to provide maximum developmental benefit to your kiddo(s).
5. Just because an activity USES fine motor skills doesn’t mean it DEVELOPS them.
As you probably know, there are a ton of fine motor activity ideas out there on the internet. I absolutely love finding ideas for fine motor activities on Pinterest boards such as the enormous Kid Blogger Network Activities and Crafts board (to which I also have the pleasure of contributing as a collaborative pinner). However, not all fine motor activities are created equal.
Some activities simply USE fine motor skills while others DEVELOP them.
Occupational therapist and author of the site “OT Mom Learning Activities“, Tracey le Roux, explains there are basically four foundational skills involved in fine motor development. She calls these the “Four Essential Bases“, comparing their importance to the four legs of a stool; if any one of the four bases is weak or missing, fine motor development will be compromised.
These four essential bases, she explains, include postural control, tactile perception, bilateral coordination, and hand function.
So, when selecting activities to help kids with their fine motor development, it’s important to choose activities that address at least one of these four essential bases (while keeping in mind what I mentioned in #4 about finding the “just-right” challenge). If the activity addresses at least one of these four essential bases, then you have a better chance of actually supporting the child’s fine motor development. If not, then the kiddo might either have fun with the activity (while not being challenged) or become frustrated with it because they do not have the fine motor skills necessary to successfully complete the task.
Read more from OT Mom to find out how to differentiate between fine motor activities that help and others that don’t by CLICKING HERE.
(Please don’t misunderstand me. It’s not that fine motor activities that don’t address at least one of the four essential bases are bad or wrong. It’s just that they don’t provide the appropriate level and/or type of challenge in order to advance kids’ fine motor development, especially for kids who struggle with fine motor skills in the first place.)
If you are interested in finding fine motor activity ideas that address these four essential bases, check out the links to pages on OT Mom’s site below:
- Activities for strengthening shoulders and strengthening the core
- Activities for improving tactile perception
- Activities for improving bilateral coordination
- Activities for strengthening hands and strengthening fingers
And for resources you can (legally) download to your computer or print for your own use, check out these helpful e-books from OT Mom, packed with practical, ready-to-use activity ideas:
OT Mom’s Fine Motor Bundle (Discounted price on Fine Motor Activities plus Scissor Skills Activities plus FREE Bonus Cutting Template)
Want access to all of OT Mom’s e-books? Check out her Mega Motor Bundle which includes all of her e-books at a discounted price!
I hope this post has been helpful and has given you a better idea of what to consider when coming up with activities to help develop the fine motor skills of the kiddos in your life!