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Fine Motor Skills–Get Your Child Ready to Hold a Pencil

As we head into the fall and “back to school” conversations begin, I find myself with several referrals related to kindergarten readiness. As a pediatric occupational therapist, parents seek out my services to make sure their child is equipped to handle the writing requirements of public school. I won’t get started on how I really feel about being developmentally ready to write at ripe ‘ole age of five, but, I digress.

Many of my mom-friends often ask for my opinion on their child’s pencil grasp, and how to correct it. Let me start by saying that grasp development has been in the works since birth. For little ones, hand function is important, meaning what they can do with their hands; dressing, utensil use, tooth brushing, cutting, coloring, and yes – even building Legos. There are many different stages of acquiring that tripod grasp position (thumb, index and middle finger) on a writing implement. Even if your child’s age doesn’t match up with the grasp below, if he/she is on the way to a mature grasp, that’s okay.

Promoting grasp development at home

  • Select the right tools. I love those big chunky crayons for babies. They are great for those first scribbles. As they get into preschool, I break the crayons into smaller pieces. This encourages more use of the fingers to draw rather than grasping with the whole fist. The smaller Crayola Pip Squeak markers are perfect for little hands, as are golf pencils.
  • Get in position. Work on a vertical surface. Chalkboards, whiteboards and easels are perfect. Working upright puts the wrist into an extension position, which naturally encourages a more mature grasp.

If the above surfaces aren’t an option, putting a three-ring binder on its side can help. Finally, lying on the floor with a slant board is great to work on shoulder stability and get a little sensory input!

  • Think outside the box (of crayons). There are a few kiddos that I work with who run the other way when they see me with paper and pencils for them. I need to be creative in working on those underlying hands skills. Using tools like toast tongs and strawberry hullers, and long handled reachers are great to isolate and strengthen the thumb side of the hand. Scissor practice with thick paper/cardstock is great too. Sidewalk chalk, paint, bingo markers and glitter pens can also do the trick. Using play-doh tools, swinging from the monkey bars and squeezing water toys promote hand strength. If all else fails, use a small stylus next time they’re on the iPad.

Red flags to be aware of:

Crossing Midline. Babies learn how to cross midline (the center of their body) to reach a toy. When toddlers only color on the sides of the paper, or switch hands to cross the middle, it can be problematic. It is important to cross midline to develop bilateral skills and integrate the two sides of the body.

Hand Dominance. While true dominance isn’t established until the age of 7, hand preference is typically made by age 3. If they dont hold a crayon long enough to determine preference, watch when they use a fork or toothbrush!

Switching Hands. This is not uncommon as more refined motor skills emerge. It is often due a lack of strength or endurance in the hands, and kids switch to compensate. Some children are still “picking” a hand to use, and try out both sides. I tell parents to let them switch between activities (such as between crayon colors, especially if its a multi-step task). Look for better skill in one hand over the other, or signs of fatigue.

Finally, remember that small  frequent doses of fine motor work is better than sitting down for lengthier periods of time. Finding a new twist on an everyday activity can work in some extra practice, too (i.e. cleaning up blocks with salad tongs, or using a reacher to load the laundry basket). Eating with small tongs or kids chopsticks might be a fun challenge. Most kindergarten classrooms have an occupational therapist who consults to the program, so if you’re concerned, don’t be afraid to bring it up to the teacher.

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