“Kids with fine motor problems may have difficulty with self-care: things like getting dressed, doing zippers and buttons, handwriting and cutting—all those skills that they’ll need in school” says Joan Vertes, an occupational therapist based out of Toronto’s Sick Kids Hospital.
The term “fine motor skills” refers to the use of the small muscles of the hands and the wrists. Often poor handwriting is the first red flag that there’s an issue in the early school years. Or parents may notice that a younger child is overtaking an older sibling with skills like tying their shoelaces, colouring inside the lines or getting dressed.
Kids who’re struggling might also start acting like the class clown in school. “Their self-esteem is affected,” explains Joan. “A lot of kids I see are above average or at least average IQ, but they feel like failures. They don’t want people to realize they’re having difficulties with basic skills, so they pretend they’re doing things on purpose.”
Fine motor skill challenges may result from birth trauma, a physical injury, or developmental disabilities such as Down Syndrome or autism spectrum disorder. “Or sometimes a kid simply has poor coordination,” explains Vertes.
If parents are concerned about their child’s fine motor skills, they can fill out an Nippising District Developmental Screen (ndds) checklist of some of the most important skills children should typically have mastered by specific ages. This survey was created by a multidisciplinary team of specialists to help identify developmental delays. Parents can then bring the completed checklist to their paediatrician to discuss whether a specialist referral is required.
Working with an occupational therapist can be invaluable to kids to help them tackle fine motor challenges. But there’s a lot you can do at home, too. Here are Vertes’ tips for setting up fun and therapeutic arts and craft activities to give your kid’s fine motor skills a boost:
1. Get siblings (or playmates) on board. Turning arts and crafts activities into a family affair is extra beneficial: “Kids model things for one another, so peer learning is even faster,” says Vertes.
2. Create home craft kits. Vertes recommends creating appealing craft kits and keeping them accessible, so kids are inspired to craft every day. She fills dollar-store popcorn boxes with short crayons, markers, vibrating pens, safety scissors, putty and other tools. (Of course, if your children are younger, scissors should not be accessible unless there’s a parent around to supervise.)
3. Wiggle while you work. Practicing handwriting can be a drag—but not if you’re working on dot-to-dot activities or drawing shapes with a vibrating pen. Vertes says these battery-operated writing tools warm up the muscles, and create a sensory input right into the balance centre of the inner ear, which helps kids stay alert and concentrate—all while perfecting their writing. Vibrating pens are available at dollar stores.
4. Save broken pencils and crayons. “If kids use a long pencil, they’ll wrap all their fingers around it. But if you give them a small pencil or crayon, they’re more likely to achieve the optimal grip for handwriting,” says Vertes.
5. Play hide and seek with putty. Stretching putty and manipulating small objects works the finger muscles and coordination. In this fun game for two or more players, each player selects a few plastic beads (every person gets their own colour) then hides them in the centre of a ball of putty. They then mix up the putty balls and try to select their own one again from the pile. Everybody then pulls their putty ball apart to check the colour of the beads inside.
6. Get artsy with shaving cream. Take a plastic tray and spray unscented shaving foam (or a neutral play foam, from an arts and craft store) onto it. Then encourage kids to draw letters, numbers and shapes in the foam. You might want to create a form then have them trace it, if they’re just starting out. You can also add beads or thin noodles to the foam. Many kids with fine motor skill challenges also have sensory sensitivities, and this gets them used to different textures and tactile sensations.
Watch the video above for more tips from Vertes and to see the craft activities in action.