Occupational Therapists (OTs) are often asked to design programs to help children work on fine motor and handwriting skills at home. Frequently, the assessment and intervention for children who have difficulty in these areas happens at school.
Educator support is essential for helping a child build and improve both their fine motor and handwriting skills. The school environment provides a practical opportunity for children to practice their hand skills in a variety of functional tasks.
Some children struggle with fine motor skills and handwriting to a greater degree than their peers. Studies have shown that one of the primary factors for helping improve handwriting is practice.
While some parents choose to seek private occupational therapy to help their children build the skills they need, many parents want to know how they can support their child’s fine motor and handwriting practice at home.
OTs certainly advocate for sharing strategies and recommendations with parents, and parent support is essential to a child’s success. However, it is important to recognize that, like adults, children need time to be themselves, without the added demands of school and performance.
Thus, when OTs design home programs for children for building fine motor and handwriting skills, they emphasize that the program must be FUN and low-anxiety. It should seem to the child like they are “playing” and not “working.”
Any parent, therapist, or educator who has worked with a child struggling with fine motor skills knows that this can be tricky, especially if the child has a history of bad experiences with fine motor and handwriting skills.
Tips to help make practice more fun at home
Designate a calm, fun spot to store items such as paper, erasers, pencils, markers, crayons, beads, etc. Do not choose a spot that you can’t get dirty. Put newspaper or a large place mat on the table if you are concerned about the furniture. The child and caregiver have to be free to experiment and get messy.
Find a chair that is COMFORTABLE for the child to sit on, that allows your child to be high enough to reach activities on the tabletop without struggling with uncomfortable sitting. Provide a foot stool if your child doesn’t like to dangle their feet. A comfortable play area set-up will allow your child to focus more on the motor skills activities rather than being distracted by the need to maintain their body in a difficult position.
Timing for activities:
- Do NOT force your child to spend more than a few moments per day doing hand and printing activities; unless your child wants to continue for longer. Usually 10 to 15 minutes per day is enough. End the activity if you sense that your child is getting annoyed or disengaged. Try again another time.
- Choose a time of the day when your child is alert and ready to be engaged. For example, if your child is worn-out and tired at the end of a long day, then skip that day or wait until later. If your child is hungry, then let them have a snack first.
- Families are very busy and it can be difficult to find the time in your week for fine motor skills activities. Remember that finding 10 to 15 minutes a few times during your week is a priority for your child. Make this a priority for you as well.
- Be creative about timing; keep a kit of fun hand games/activities (cool colouring books, pencil crayons, mazes, dot-to-dots, etc) in a box in your car so you will have options for doing this when you’re waiting in places like arenas, doctor’s offices, etc. It’s amazing where you can find 10 minutes!!
- Mistakes are OK and happen frequently. Help your child to “brush it off” using their eraser, and move forward with a positive attitude. Learning how to cope with mistakes in a positive way will help your child succeed in the long run. Parents can model positive coping using their voice, body language, attitude, and their own positive strategies.
- Practice of hand activities, such as printing, is a good opportunity to be goofy and fun with your child. For example, make lists of funny things, or draw funny faces together. This helps to take the emphasis off of the “work” being done in favour of the fun and bonding that is happening.
- Avoid letting your own preferences impact the activities you do with your child. For example, if you don’t like the way markers smell and your child enjoys smelly markers, then don’t make a big deal about this – don’t express your dislike in your body language.
- You don’t have to be “formal” about fine motor skills and handwriting activities – the focus is on FUN while using hands, not on results.
- Read your child’s signs. Notice if your child is becoming frustrated or tired of an activity, and then adapt/change the task or end the fine motor session in favour of trying again another day.
Ideas to help engage your child in an activity:
- Begin with something easy. (e.g. Draw funny faces, or colour simple shapes, or divide beads into piles by colour, etc.)
- Take turns with your child. (e.g. If drawing a person together, parent draws a body part, then child makes the next one, or parent makes two, and child makes one, etc.)
- Allow your child to make some decisions. For example, allow him to decide between two or three activity choices (e.g. draw, or colour, or use play dough), or allow your child to choose the colour (red or blue pencil crayon) or materials (markers or pencil crayons).
- Model the activity for them. If your child can’t seem to get started, or is reluctant to participate, then simply enjoy doing it yourself while you are with them. For example, you will colour, or draw, or list favorite foods, or play with play dough yourself, while talking to your child and engaging them in conversation. Ask him to help you choose colours for you to use, or tell you what to draw, etc. Eventually your child might want to “try” something on his own, and then you let him try as much as he likes. Sometimes, the parent may have to do it alone a few times before the child feels like he is ready to join.
- This is about enjoying using the hands for activities. Remember that this time is not about teaching or pointing out mistakes.
- Introduce new “rules” or concepts gently and slowly. IF your child consistently shows enjoyment of handwriting or motor skills activities, and it is easy to engage him, then begin to introduce new things slowly. For example, if you want your child to print on the line, then take turns trying to print shapes or small words on a bold dark print line. Do NOT make the task difficult – have fun, and if it becomes too difficult for the child, then stop and try again another day.