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Make-at-home toys to develop fine motor skills

Maureen used to be obsessed with baseball -- and then she had children. After she welcomed her son, Charlie, and his extra chromosome, she discovered her passion for writing about Down syndrome and disability-related issues.

With two...

Fine tuning playtime

Children with special needs struggle with so many tasks that come easily to everyone around them. Instead of spending a lot to buy the most precise toys and tools to help your child strengthen fine motor skills, check out these simple toys you can make from items already in your kitchen!
Toys for fine motor skills

If you’re Midas, an heir to Mattel or Martha Stewart, move along; there’s nothing to see here.

For the rest of us, here’s one mom’s cheat sheet for giving your child the upper hand when it comes to fine motor development — without breaking the bank.

These do-it-yourself tools are simple and, best of all, affordable (if not entirely free!).

What's our goal?

Wikipedia defines fine motor skills as “the coordination of small muscle movements [that] occur in body parts such as the fingers, usually in coordination with the eyes.”

In layman’s terms, this means you want to create toys and tools that help your child learn to use his fingers to do very fine, specific tasks.

Say what?

Before we go any further, it's critical to understand the pincer grip. Pinch your thumb and pointer finger together. That’s a pincer grip. For children with Down syndrome, a common characteristic is to have only two creases across the palms of their hands. That sounds trivial, but in fact a typical palm has three creases, which makes a pincer grip much easier and natural.

Still having a hard time understanding our goal here?

Try putting an athletic sock on your hand. All the way up to your elbow. That’s right. Now try to pick up a pencil and write. Not easy, correct? Children with Down syndrome face a similar challenge in developing fine motor skills.

These fun tools can help.

Gather materials

Materials

Now, it’s time to take stock of some handy materials right in your kitchen. Almost out of ketchup? Perfect! Run that sucker through the dishwasher. While you’re at it, empty your container of powdered parmesan cheese (into a plastic bag — no need to waste food!) and give that a thorough cleaning as well. These are handy containers for our first project.

In addition, find an extra Cool Whip container, stained and discarded Tupperware container or even a decorative cylinder-shaped container with a lid. The lid is critical, because we’re going to hack into it.

Find these items around your home to create your finished products.

Household items

MaterialsContainers: Find anything with a lid in which you can cut various shaped holes or slits. Examples include:

  • Cool Whip tub
  • Tupperware or cardboard “tins”
  • Parmesan cheese container
  • Ketchup bottle

Items your child can put into containers: Search for items of various sizes that your child will grasp to insert in our finished tools. Some examples include:

  • Pipe cleaners
  • Popsicle sticks
  • A sponge cut into cubes
  • Cotton balls
  • Straws, even the plastic inserts that come with liquid children’s prescriptions
  • Construction paper from which you can cut circles or squares

Helpful tools

  • X-Acto (or utility) knife
  • Scissors
  • Single-hole punch
  • Food coloring

This one or that one?

Finger food

Choose a container with a lid, then use an X-Acto knife or scissors to cut several sized openings in the lid.

Ideally, you want to create openings for specific, different-sized items. When a child is faced with a skinny, one-inch slit and a round, three-centimeter hole, he must decide how various items can be inserted.

Charlie choose a pipe cleaner

Offering a selection, from pipe cleaners to coin-shaped circles cut from construction paper, helps build your child's problem-solving skills. When a cotton ball won’t fit in the slit, can it fit in the hole? Always guide the child to “finish” the action, by pushing the item all the way into the container.

And always, always pour praise on his every accomplishment. Positive reinforcement has tremendous influence on a child’s confidence and patience to keep trying.

Increase the challenge

As your child’s dexterity improves, give him even smaller objects (e.g., pieces of pipe cleaner, straws), which will force him to refine his grip and sharpen his focus. It’s much harder to hold a one-inch long piece of pipe cleaner than a six-inch long popsicle stick.

Gauge his ability, then challenge him. If he struggles and gets discouraged, return to “easy wins,” or something he is already good at accomplishing. This helps build confidence.

Another way to kick things up a notch is to take an object with a vertical slit and rotate it, so the slit is now horizontal. This helps the child learn to adjust, by turning his wrist and fitting the object in via a different angle or direction. This works best with coin-shaped objects.

Ketchup bottle toy

A third way to challenge your child is to help him hold a container (e.g., empty ketchup bottle) with one hand while carefully inserting various objects. This focuses on agility while keeping both hands at midline.

Inevitably, your child will learn how to “cheat,” by balancing the object on a flat surface so he can use only one hand to insert an item. That’s a fine way to start, but your goal should be to have him inserting objects with only one hand while he holds the container with his other hand.

This also promotes “in-hand manipulation skills” or palm-to-finger translation, according to Erin Rockman, OTR/L. “We use this all the time, for example when you get money out of your pocket or wallet and place into a vending machine,” she explains.

Have a ball

Cut a slit in a tennis ball. Show your child how to use one hand to squeeze it open, then the other hand to place objects inside (e.g., marbles, M&M’s, coins). Feeling creative? Draw a face on the tennis ball so when the child squeezes the ball, it looks like a gaping mouth.

Challenges for older kids

My 2-year-old son, who has Down syndrome, was the perfect guinea pig for most of these exercises; however, two projects will require a bit more time and development before he can master them:

Cool but messy activitySqueeze it

Fill an empty sample-size lotion container or eye drop container with water tinted with food coloring. Spread newspaper or plastic on a table, and then cover it with anything white: Tissue paper, construction paper or paper towels. Let your child practice squeezing the container onto the different surfaces, creating a colorful abstract that is messy with the added virtue of helping to develop your child’s dexterity in squeezing in specific directions. This is a messy one… but the smile and the strength gained make it well worth the clean-up!

Punch it

Use a single-hole punch and brightly colored construction paper. The action of punching holes increases hand and wrist strength, and the payoff is a mess of brightly colored circles. Sometimes, the messiest projects can be the most fun — which means they will capture your child’s attention because he’s doing something typically taboo!

Practicing the pincer — and your ABCs

Sponge ABCs

Take kitchen sponges and cut them with scissors into half-inch by half-inch cubes (one regular sized sponge should yield 24 cubes). Place them in a shallow bowl and spray just enough water to make them damp.

Tape dark construction paper down on a clean surface, or, if you have a small chalkboard, hold that in front of the child.

The child then can practice his pincer grip as he selects single cubes and “draws” on the construction paper. Because the cubes are only damp, the “drawing” will dry quickly and your child can enjoy creating design after design on the same paper.

What not to do

Sponge stacking

Always supervise children when they work with these tools. Items are small and can be... well, enticing snacks. Cubed sponges can take on a particularly tasty appearance to a toddler.

Toddlers also see these cubes for what they can be: Cool stacking devices! My son, Charlie, painstakingly stacked a handful of cubes despite my urging him to use them for the original project: Writing on a chalkboard.

Mommy's real lesson

Learning has to be fun, so choose to roll with whatever your child’s imagination introduces. After all, stacking small cubes develops hand-eye coordination and dexterity. Check!

More helpful tips

  • Avoid saying ‘no’ to anything a child tries while working on any exercises. Hearing ‘no’ is discouraging and can undermine the child’s confidence. Instead, talk through what she’s trying to accomplish. If she keeps trying to push a popsicle stick into a hole small enough for a pipe cleaner, for example, guide their decision making. Try saying, ‘It doesn’t look like that popsicle stick can fit in such a small hole. Where do you think it can fit? What about this opening over here?’”
  • The goal is to build confidence while helping the child make decisions about how objects fit in the right spaces.
  • Be attentive to your child’s attention span. If he’s grown tired of a particular exercise, move on. Forcing a child to keep working on a project rarely leads to success. The happier and more engaged the child, the more productive your session will be.

What tools have you created? Share your ideas in the comments below, so other parents can learn too!

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