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Fine Motor Weakness in Children: Skills and Tools That Can Help Handwriting

Fine motor weakness is common among school-age children and can certainly make learning more difficult.   

Fine motor skills are the skills needed to coordinate small muscle movements with our hands and wrists.  They also coordinate actions with our brain messages.  When fine motor skills are delayed, children often struggle with strength, speed, and coordination.  Fine motor delays are common for children who have been diagnosed as having Dysgraphia, Dyslexia, and ADHD. Psychologists and teachers have often emphasized how important handwriting and other fine motor activities are to a child’s learning. Research (2018) has found that poor graphomotor skills often result in decreased literacy and academic achievement.

Children need well-coordinated fine motor skills to perform learning activities, like:

  • Holding a crayon or pencil properly
  • Handwriting
  • Typing
  • Playing a musical instrument
  • Using a scissors 
  • Assembling/dissembling small objects
  • Tying shoes or other kinds of knots 

Many times, schools may have access to an Occupational Therapist to consult with a teacher on different tools or accommodations that children can use in the classroom.  It is important to know that schools rarely provide treatment for fine motor delays. Often the occupational therapist will consult with the classroom teacher and provide suggestions for classroom accommodations.  As a result, your child’s performance may not depend as much on writing.  For example, they may use voice to text technology or different pencil grips.

If parents are seeking treatment for fine motor delays, often formal occupational therapy may help. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to find an occupational therapist that works with children with fine motor delays. Sometimes, these services are not covered by insurance, which can make it difficult for families to afford.  If you are seeking occupational therapy for your child, oftentimes a referral from your pediatrician or Primary Care Physician is necessary. 

Luckily, there are some techniques and skills to that parents can do with their child. If you practice these types of exercises, you may further develop your child’s fine motor coordination, strength and speed at home.   

Helpful activities that parents can do with their children may include some of the following:

  • Towel Scrunching.  This is a technique that both physical and occupational therapists use to help people recondition fine and gross motor skills.  It often works to you’re your child sit at a desk or table, so their forearms are supported. Lay a hand towel or kitchen towel flat, with the shorter side facing your child.  Keeping your child’s arm flat on the table, have them use their fingers to “walk” up the towel, “scrunching” it into their hand as they go. When the towel is scrunched in their hand as far as possible, reverse the process and push the towel away bit by bit.  Repeat this 3-4 times daily.  
  • Sideways Putty Movements.  For this exercise, you will need to obtain a large tin of Therapy Putty or Thinking Putty or even Play Doh (available on Amazon).  Make one-inch balls of putty and put them between your child’s fingers. Have your child try to “squish” them by squeezing their fingers. Work all the different fingers.  Work up to 3-4 sets of 10-15 repetitions daily.  This helps to improve strength for other fine motor skills.
  • Eraser Scoops.  This exercise helps with fine motor coordination and strength. For this exercise you will need some smaller pencil erasers, which usually go on the top of the pencil.  Ask your child to hold the eraser between their thumb and index finger tips (both hands). Use the round (pencil) side of erasers to pick up small objects or stack small cubes or dice into a tower.  You can use small candies, such as Tic Tacs, Cake decorations, or Mini M&M’s. You can also have your child practice with other fingers.  Practice daily and make it fun and rewarding.    
  • Thumb Circles.  This exercise builds up fine motor finger strength.  Ask for child to make an “O” by touching thumb tip to tip of index finger. Repeat with the other hand.  Next, have your child link the “O’s” together like a chain. Practice having a tug-of-war to pull them apart. Try using the thumbs with other fingers to do the same thing. This exercise is way more fun with a fun-loving partner.  
  • Picking up and Holding Small Objects.  This exercise is fun for fine motor coordination and speed.  For this activity, you will need a plate and some small items (beads, candies, cereal, etc.). Ask your child to pick up one small item at a time. When they pick up each one, have them use the fingers on the same hand to move it to their palm where their other fingers can help hold it. Have them try to hold as many at once as they can. Reverse the process, putting them back down one at a time.  
  • Pincer grasp.  For this activity, you again will need small objects, like beads, popcorn kernels, candy, cereal.  Ask your child to pick up one at a time using a pincer grasp and move it to a bowl.  You can add several variations as your child gets better: practice for speed or beating a time, use a tweezers, or even using chopsticks!
  • Perler Beads.  Perler Beads can also be a fun way to practice a pincer grasp, as well as fine motor coordination.  Again, you could make it more challenging with a tweezer or chopsticks.  If your child likes this activity, they may practice for longer periods of time without realizing it. 
  • Write.  This may seem silly to consider but have your child draw and write daily.  Now that children are on computers, many do not write as often as needed to maintain hand strength and conditioning.  There exercises could include dot-to-dot exercises or fine motor activity books (also on Amazon).  You could make your child the grocery list maker, or the family scribe when things need to be remembered.  As a parent, you can write fun little notes back and forth to your child.  Teach them to keep a journal, or keep a journal with them. The possibilities are endless.  
  • Cursive. Teach your child cursive (which they aren’t learning at school) and practice with them.  Many children with handwriting issues do better with cursive (and find it more interesting).  There are several workbooks, you tube videos, and websites that can help you teach your child.  
  • Musical Instruments. If your child is musical, consider guitar or ukulele practice. These instruments require a great deal of hand strength, particularly for the non-dominant hand. Piano practice, particularly using chords and runs, can also increase speed and strength of hand and wrist muscle movements.

As we’ve discussed here, fine motor delays are stressful and challenging for many children, and certainly can make learning more difficult.  Occupational Therapy consults for school and as outpatient treatment can make a real difference.  However, as parents, you can also help your child continue to strengthen their hands and improve their coordination as well.  

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