A 3-4 year old child’s focus should be participating in activities that support the development of the hand and finger muscles. This article details ways to help your child develop the best fine motor skills possible at a young age which sets the stage for success in school to use pencils and scissors.
How can I help my child develop their fine motor skills?
- Provide toys that have a variety of textures to develop the tactile sense to feel using our hands / fingers including smooth /rough, soft / hard so your child can learn to notice difference between objects and how much force to use.
- Use sensory play to develop hand skills including play dough, water, sand, flour, rice tubs, shaving cream on a mirror or in the bath. These different feelings & smells add extra feedback to your child about holding materials and you can practice specific skills such as finger isolation by drawing lines in shaving cream or two hand use to pull dough apart.
- Encourage your child to post objects from larger to smaller openings (e.g. shape sorter to money box with coins). Practice using a finger and thumb grasp to hold a small peg to place into a peg board. Practice tearing corrugated cardboard to encourage strength and coordination in using two hands together. Use the pieces of paper your child has ripped to glue and make a collage.
Why is it important for my child to develop their fine motor skills?
- In-hand manipulation (i.e. finger coordination using the small intrinsic muscles inside the hand) is an important skill to be able to move objects in one hand using the finger, thumb and hand muscles. This might include moving small objects from the finger tips to the palm, from the palm to the finger tips to release, shifting an object from the palm to finger tips, turning an object over in the hand such as a pencil with a rubber on the end to rub out a mistake.
- In-hand manipulation also enables us to be able to use our thumb, index and middle finger side of our hand to be active (e.g. to grasp a pencil) while the ring & little finger side of the hand acts as a stabiliser. This ability to separate both sides of one hand is important for tasks such as writing or holding a key to unlock a door.
- Playing with blocks or cups to stack will help develop arm strength and control as well as eye hand coordination. It also helps use eyes and hand together. Visual motor integration is the degree to which visual processing and finger-hand movements are well coordinated. Practicing copying block patterns or drawing shapes like a line and circle are examples of visual motor integration. This is an important skill that supports tool use to enable a child to trace & copy letters to write.
Introduce tools to develop strong and controlled movement
- Once your child has developed good control and use of their hands to manipulate a wide variety of object types you might consider introducing tools. This could include pencils, scissors and cutlery.
- Tool use requires more planning skills than just using our hands. A child needs to have the finger control to firstly hold the tool, and then they need to have the strength and controlled movements to use the tool. Using all these tools require two hand use, where each hand works differently to the other.
- The child will hold a pencil in the preferred hand and the helper hand holds the paper steady. When cutting, the preferred hand holds the scissors and the helper hand manipulates the paper they are cutting.
- When your child is interested in drawing, provide a wide variety of drawing tools such as large chalk, small crayons, tripod felt pens. The variety of drawing tools allows your child to experiment with a range of hand grasps to find the one that suits the tool type. They also develop muscles strengthening by repetition within drawing. Draw on a variety of surface types for different feedback. Using a crayon on paper provides a lot of resistance when drawing and this will develop more hand strength compared with using a felt pen on a whiteboard.
- Practice lots of colouring on paper, moving from top to bottom and left to right direction to encourage this movement which is needed for writing.
- Practice manipulating tools on a vertical surface to encourage postural control & shoulder strength which all impact hand control (e.g. easel black board, whiteboard, paint with water on a wooden or brick fence, spray bottle paint onto a hanging sheet on the clothes line, bat a ball hanging in one leg of a stocking on a clothes line).
- When introducing scissors encourage your child to hold the scissors so the thumb is positioned at the top of the scissors. Using tongs in play can help promote a similar open and shut pattern for children learning to squeeze scissors. Start with snipping paper or cut pieces of straws, then cut along a line then around corner and curved lines. Use cardboard for more resistance to cutting to increase strength.
- When using a spoon your child needs to use their preferred hand to actively do the controlling and their non-preferred hand to stabilise the bowl. Using a knife and fork involves one hand to hold the fork to stabilise the food and the other hand to do the action to cut with the knife. You could practice these skills using plastic cutlery to cut pieces of play dough.
Practice makes perfect but it needs to be fun!
- Practice and persistence are important to remember with all fine motor skills. Practice helps a child to refine their hand skills to become automatic and keep trying until they master a skill. It also supports endurance and speed to complete fine motor tasks.
- Lots of practice and repetition in early fine motor play also promotes a child to develop a hand preference. Once they have a hand preference, they can then further refine their hand skills as the dominant hand will have more opportunities to do a task.
- As with all skill development, motivation is very important to engage a child to participate in a task for long enough to practice and persist for success. It is important to find toys, games, drawing tasks that are interesting to your child so you can all have fun!
Many thanks to Kylie Walsh, Occupational Therapist at Family Doctors Plus, for this article. For more information email firstname.lastname@example.org 0r visit the website (www.kyliewalsh.com).
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