How to Sneak Fine Motor Skills into Gross Motor Play

Parents and teachers often ask me how they can incorporate more fine motor practice into their child’s or student’s day.

Well, try this one thing:
Sneak fine motor practice into their gross motor play!

Many kiddos I work with struggle to sit still, focus, or follow adult-directed tasks, and their fine motor development suffers as a result. That’s why they’re getting OT! Asking them to sit at a table and transfer color-coded clothespins from one paper plate to another for a few minutes? Forget about it! Not gonna work for these movers and wigglers.

When many of my kiddos participate in a gross motor obstacle course at the beginning of their session, I usually make sure to include a fine motor station. This allows me to “chunk” the fine motor activity into smaller pieces in order to facilitate things such as improved attention to task, decreased frustration, and improved overall success with the activity. Plus the other gross motor stuff often serves as a positive reinforcer for them so they know that as soon as they finish their fine motor station (as much as they may hate it), they’ll be able to go do all that fun stuff again! Don’t get me wrong — the ultimate goal is to improve their attention and skill in the fine motor department and eventually get them comfortable and functional working at tabletop. But we’ve gotta meet kids where they’re at if we want to help them move forward. And, hey, we want it to be FUN!!

Don’t forget that fine motor development requires a stable “base”, which means kids need a strong set of abs, back/side muscles, neck muscles, and shoulders to support the development of refined skills in the hands and fingers. So, really, kids are working on the foundations of fine motor development even when they engage in gross motor play. It’s a win-win!

Below is one example of a fine motor/gross motor obstacle course several of my preschool students recently completed during individual school-based sessions.

OC 1

The obstacle course included the following stations:
1. Climb up the tall side of the blue blocks
Fine Motor Relation: Upper body/core strength; bonus of working on motor planning for those who struggle with it
2. Swing on trapeze and kick down foam blocks
Fine Motor Relation: Hand, forearm, and shoulder strength to hang; core strength to lift legs and kick; bonus of working on attention, timing, and providing vestibular input while swinging
3. Jump on trampoline
Fine Motor Relation: Core strength; neck strength; shoulder and wrist stability if holding therapist’s hands and bearing weight down into them while jumping; bonus of providing proprioceptive and vestibular input to calm and focus the mover or alert the sluggish child
4. Crawl through tunnel
Fine Motor Relation: Shoulder and wrist stability; neck strength; bonus of working on motor planning and bilateral coordination for those who struggle with it
5. Sit on hippity hop ball while using tongs or kiddie chopsticks to place all poms of one color into bucket (Find 50 ways to play with tongs by clicking here, and one tip for facilitating good grasp on tongs here.)
Fine Motor Relation: Hand and finger strengthening; practicing grasp pattern for crayon, pencil, or scissors; core stability while sitting on ball; bonus of providing vestibular input if bouncing and challenging visual scanning and discrimination to find desired color
6. Re-set foam blocks for trapeze by setting them up so they are lined up evenly spaced next to each other and “sit” just above the little white line (just like letters when they are written on paper)
Fine Motor Relation: Upper body strength to lift blocks; bonus of working on motor planning to raise them up and visual perception to accurately place them next to each other and on the line
*Repeat obstacle course until all colors of poms have been placed in the bucket while using the tongs. This means they get to go around the obstacle course four or five times, depending on how many colors of poms are included. It also provides a natural ending point for the obstacle course and eases the transition for many students because they know it’s “all done” when there are no more poms left. Minimizing tantrums during transitions is always good!

Don’t you wish you got to do this when you were in preschool?!

OC 4 OC 2 OC 3 Some other good fine motor or pre-writing activities to incorporate into obstacle courses for young ones include lacing beads, pushing puff balls into small holes, placing toothpicks into the small holes of a spice container, operating shape sorters or puzzles with pegs, assembling Mr. Potato Head, or building Mat Man one body part at a time as they go around (see short video of kids building Mat Man by clicking here).

So the next time you think there’s no way you can possibly get your kiddo to work on fine motor skills, or you think you just don’t have time for it, remember this! Squeeze fine motor practice into their gross motor play and you might just be surprised at how effective it is. Let your child be your guide when it comes to the appropriate level of fine motor challenge. Have fun!

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Mama OT In addition to being mama to two sweet little boys and wife to a crazy awesome husband, Christie is a Registered & Licensed Occupational Therapist (OTR/L). She holds a B.A. in Psychology with a Minor in Education from the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA...Go Bruins!), and an M.A. in Occupational Therapy from the University of Southern California (USC OT). She has experience working as a pediatric OT in early intervention (birth to 3), clinic-based, and school-based settings. Her mission with is to encourage, educate, and empower those who care for children. Christie loves that she gets to PLAY when she goes to work, is hopelessly addicted to Kettle Corn, and is known for being able to turn virtually anything into a therapeutic tool or activity, from empty food containers to laundry and everything in between. Learn more about Christie and what inspired her to become an OT.

Occupational therapy (OT) is a holistic profession that helps people across the lifespan participate in the things they want and need to do through the therapeutic use of everyday activities, also known as “occupations”. Some OTs help people diagnosed with disability, injury, or disease. Others help prevent disability, injury, or disease. Because of occupational therapy, people of all ages are able to say, "I can!" no matter what their struggle. Isn't that amazing?!

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Please provide appropriate supervision to the child in your care when completing any activities from this site. You as the grown-up will need to decide what types of products/activities on this list will be safe for your child. If you’re not sure, check with your child’s occupational therapist or pediatrician. Appropriate and reasonable caution should be used when implementing any ideas or activities from this site, particularly if there is any risk of injury (e.g., falling, crashing), choking (e.g., small parts), drowning (e.g., water play), or allergic/adverse reaction (e.g., materials/ingredients). The author and blog disclaim liability for any damage, mishap, or injury that may occur from engaging in any activities or ideas from this site. 
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2 thoughts on “How to Sneak Fine Motor Skills into Gross Motor Play

  1. Hi, I am also an OT and love the obstacle course ideas to incorporate fine motor skills. My kids love it! The most interesting thing is how motivation can drive you to succeed! (Most extremely active kids will hate sitting at a table on a chair threading, but if you incorporate it as an obstacle course station, it’s exciting and fun). I usually have 2 fine motor activity stations, one similar to yours with the ball, the other on a scooter board.
    Scooter board activities can use tongs, holding a straw and blowing marbles, flicking a tiny soccer ball into goals, creating a cardboard box (shoe box) maze where the child is given string and sticky tape/blutac (depending on skill level – but both incorporate bilateral coordination to tear away) and the child needs to ‘plan’ the way through the maze by sticking down the string. The maze is my favourite and can be graded depending on skill level.

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