If you never consciously thought about teaching your child to develop fine motor skills, you’re not alone. After all, previous generations never talked about the issue, and yet children grew up to be able to write, sew, and tie their shoes just fine. But there’s one huge difference between our kids’ generation and all that came before them: technology. If your kids are glued to screens these days, it’s essential to add some three-dimensional play to their lives ASAP.
“More and more students are coming into kindergarten with deficits in fine motor skills,” Arielle Bing, a remedial reading teacher in upstate New York, told SheKnows. “Some students, don’t even know how to hold a crayon properly. They also don’t have the stamina. So when they’re writing in class, after a couple of minutes, they’ll start saying, ‘My hands hurt. My arms hurt.’ And it’s legitimate. I’m sure it does hurt, because they haven’t built up their muscles enough to sustain writing for an extended amount of time.”
Though children typically develop a proper pencil grip between the ages of 4 and 6, she said, this is much harder to achieve when they’re 5 years old and have no grip at all.
Having seen this problem worsen over recent years, Bing believes it’s because more kids are playing on screens instead of with toys and crayons. She’s echoing a concern that others have expressed too.
“It’s easier to give a child an iPad than encouraging them to do muscle-building play such as building blocks, cutting and sticking, or pulling toys and ropes,” Sally Payne, the head pediatric occupational therapist at the Heart of England foundation NHS Trust told the Guardian in 2018. “Because of this, they’re not developing the underlying foundation skills they need to grip and hold a pencil.”
This is not a bunch of teachers being disappointed in young students’ handwriting, by the way. Being able to hold a pencil or crayon is a critical foundation for literacy, Bing told us. Studies have shown a relationship between motor skills and language skills. And on a basic level, if a child is focusing so much on how to write — and on any physical discomfort they might be feeling — they may have trouble focusing on learning their letters and numbers.
There is good news, however. You actually don’t have to “teach” your child these skills. It’s a parent’s job to guide children to the types of play with toys that will allow them to learn fine motor skills on their own. If you have any questions about what they should be learning, when, you can check in with their pediatrician, as well as look at milestone lists like these.
“It’s important to keep a realistic perspective for your child,” Bing said. “You don’t want to push them beyond what’s developmentally appropriate. Each child is different, but I also think it’s important to have a reference.”
Here are some of the activities you can encourage your child to do to get that fine motor skill practice.
1. Eat finger food.
As soon as a baby is ready to eat solid foods, they can start to practice their pincer grasp with Cheerios, puffs and the like.
It’s no coincidence that these are often toddlers’ favorite first toys. “They get the concept of sizes and that one can go in the other, and that helps them with their fine and gross motor skills and coordination,” Dr. Navya Mysore, a family physician at One Medical in New York City told SheKnows. One of the skills they have to learn here after picking up their toy is putting it down and letting it go, rather than dropping it anywhere.
3. Sculpt with Play-doh.
“Parents always underestimate the value of something like Play-doh, but it really builds hand muscles, and you work on those fine motor skills by pinching and manipulating it,” Bing said.
4. Paint and color.
The little ones can start by finger-painting, of course. At a pretty early age they might also be able to grasp crayons designed especially for their less-coordinated hands. Don’t give up on this if your child seems uninterested in being an artist. Introduce it again another time, perhaps with some coloring sheets that appeal to their interests.
5. Stamp stuff.
Stamps require a bit of coordination to get the image onto the paper in the desired location, and no matter where on the page (or body parts) they wind up, they also offer kids the satisfaction of creating completed image.
6. Use busy boards and doll clothing.
Even if our future eventually involves nothing but touch screens, your kid needs to learn how to use zippers, buttons, and laces. These toddler-friendly toys give them a head start.
7. Thread with pipe cleaners and more.
Before your child is ready for needles, you can give them a colander and have them thread pipe cleaners through the holes. Or you can buy lacing toys, too. This task requires concentration and stillness that will help them later on, Bing said.
8. Cut out shapes.
When coloring feels just too two-dimensional, you can start to give preschoolers scissors and paper with outlines to follow. This again requires both focus and coordinated movement.
9. Use tweezers to sort objects.
There are tons of toys that include child-appropriate tweezers (save the sharp ones for your brows) and small objects to pick up and sort. The grip needed to manipulate tweezers is very similar to a proper pencil grip, but if these games are fun to play, no one will notice that’s what they’re practicing.
You can also search for blogs and Pinterest recommending more activities and games to help children hone their fine motor skills, but if you’re going to turn to the internet, you might want to narrow down your search to sites run by experts such as occupational therapists. Getting their advice now might help you make sure your child doesn’t need to see them in an official capacity later.
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Here are more ways to get your kids unglued from their screens.