Play to develop fine motor skills in preschoolers

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Have you thought about getting a workbook to help your child work on her pencil grip? Or learn letter formation? Or make her handwriting neater before she starts school? Hold that thought! There are better ways to develop fine motor skills in preschoolers!

Workbooks are not the right tool for most preschoolers. (Or for a lot of older kids, either!) Kids might be bored or frustrated and learn to hate writing and drawing activities. They might not have the muscles they need for gripping a pencil yet, so workbook practice might not solve the problem, either! Instead, here are some ideas to develop preschool fine motor skills through play.

Messy stuff

I love the messy stuff…as long as it happens outside or at someone else’s house! Um, just kidding, but I do keep my preschooler on a pretty short leash when he wants to paint or play with slime. Last summer, I decided to be the “Fun Mom” and set up his washable paints at his picnic table in the yard while my husband was out there mowing and I was putting my daughter down for a nap. A few minutes later, he came running into the house, so excited to show me that he had mixed the colors together and painted the side of the house and the door of my husband’s car to surprise us. We were surprised, so I guess it worked! And that’s why I only buy these Crayola washable paints.

So now we only do paint or slime at the dining room table, and he has to wash the table before and after. But it’s important, so I try to make time and space for it.

Here are some ideas for messy fine motor play:

Paint – with a brush or with fingers, painting is a great way for children to practice pre-writing movements like drawing lines, circles and dots. For more fun, and to help them strengthen shoulder and arm muscles, put painting paper on an easel, or on an easily-cleaned wall or your glass sliding door. 

Water beads – good lord did I learn to hate these things when my son was two, but he loved them! Make them less messy by spreading a large towel on the floor (they roll and bounce less when they hit the towel. My son liked to play with kitchen tools, like a large mixing bowl, funnel, spoon, an egg separator, and turkey baster.

Fun fact: Did you know if you push hard enough on the plunger of an oral syringe (the kind that comes with the baby Tylenol) you can squish a water bead right through that tiny opening and smash it to bits? Well, now we both know! 

Squirt bottle – add an inexpensive squirt bottle full of water to your wading pool or water table. Squeezing the trigger on the bottle is great for developing little hand muscles. They will love “washing” every surface they can reach, so this usually works best outside. 

Play dough – pinching and rolling and squeezing is all great for development of hand muscles. Make your own or get the store bought kind, but know that stiffer dough takes more muscle and is a better “workout” than super soft dough.

Tissue paper collage – cut up little squares of tissue paper and have them paint glue on their paper and then place the little pieces of paper. They will focus more on precision than strength with this activity, but it’s a good one. Bonus: choose seasonal colors and send handmade art to all those doting relatives!

Cooking – OK, so this isn’t strictly play, but don’t tell my preschooler! Have them help you scoop flour, mix ingredients, roll dough, pinch dumplings closed, whatever they can safely do. Bonus: you get to teach them where food comes from and they are more likely to try unfamiliar foods if they make them themselves!

Last Christmas, I got my son these plastic knives, and he is still super excited about cutting up pears, bananas, and sandwiches. They are not at all sharp, but they are a great way to practice good knife habits.

Clean play

Sometimes, Mama just can’t face mopping the kitchen floor again this week! It’s time for some nice, clean, quiet, activities! None of these are the kind of things you want to set up an hour before the family arrives for Thanksgiving dinner or anything, but at least they aren’t sticky?

Clothespins – hang a string across a corner of the room and let them hang all their doll clothes, or their art, with clothespins. Get a big bowl of pom poms (from the dollar store) and make a game of pinching pom poms and dropping them into a small-mouthed bottle. Or write letters or numbers on clothespins and make a matching activity – clip the uppercase A on the cardboard with the lowercase a, clip the right number onto the cup of blocks.

Legos – pinching together and pulling apart the tiny pieces is great for fine motor control. 

Sewing cards – make your own by cutting a shape out of heavy cardboard and punching holes along the edge. Or buy a ready-made set. Either way, tie a knot in one end of a shoelace and show your child how to pinch and pull the free end in and out of the holes. 

Sewing with embroidery floss – I never did get a set of sewing cards, but when my son was desperate to get into my yarn stash, I set him up for sewing with a large plastic needle, a length of embroidery thread, and a square of mesh from an onion bag stapled to a cardboard frame. He made some very interesting modern art that I would love to frame.

Stringing beads – this can be anything from big chunky wooden beads on a length of rope or cord to little plastic pony beads on an elastic string. Start with whatever size you think would be fun, not frustrating, for your child, and try smaller ones when they meet the challenge. Stringing macaroni, ditalini, or ziti on yarn serves the same purpose, if you don’t have any beads around. Oh, and when your little nugget makes you beautiful jewelry? You find the outfit it goes best with and you wear it with PRIDE! (Dads, you’re gonna have to wear yours, too.)

Puzzles – Again, go from chunkier to tinier as your child masters them. 

Hardware – Take a thick chunk of scrap wood and partially pound some nails into it, or make some pilot holes for screws. Give your child a small hammer (tack hammer) or short screwdriver and some safety glasses, and let them go to town. Yup, they might pinch their fingers, so do this one with supervision. There are toy “pounding benches” too, but the real stuff holds my son’s attention for much longer.

Tape puzzles – I can’t remember where I saw this, but I’m sure you can track it down on Pinterest. Take painter’s tape or masking tape (the former is easier to peel and the latter is more work to peel) and lay strips of it, criss-crossed, on a surface where the finish won’t peel off. Think glass sliding door, plastic table, vinyl floor. This can even be done on a high chair tray while you make dinner. The challenge for little fingers is to pick at the tape until they can peel up an edge. It’s so satisfying to pull up the whole strip! The “puzzle” part is figuring out which strip to go for first.

Rubber bands and soup cans – Multi-colored bands are more exciting, but any will do. Show your child how to stretch the bands around a soup can or water bottle. The bands should be tight enough to make them work a little, but not so small that they are easy to snap. 

Lite-Brite – remember Lite-Brite? Remember those tiny pegs that you had to shove through those little holes in the black paper to see the picture light up in color? What a great fine motor activity. For less than $15, you can get the fancy new LED version on Amazon. 

Some kids are happy to do any of these activities, while others are bored by them or avoid them no matter what you do. Don’t worry. If your child isn’t eager to sit down and build fine motor skills, pull back a little and reintroduce them in a month or two, or try a new type of activity. For some kids, especially kids who aren’t comfortable sitting in a chair or who don’t have strong arms and shoulders, these activities can be uncomfortable or even painful. Maybe your child needs to focus on gross motor development first, before they feel comfortable with these fine motor activities. Follow his lead and keep the activities light and fun! That’s the best way to help kids make progress.

Comment below: What’s your child’s favorite fine motor play?

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