Making Sense of Fine Motor Skills

More than 20 tips and activities from an occupational therapist that will improve your child’s handwriting.

by Annie Baltazar Mori, ODT

Making Sense of Fine Motor Skills1Handwriting or any fine motor activity seems like it is a simple and straightforward learning process. But when we pull back the curtain, there is a lot going on behind the scenes, working in seamless harmony to create a perfectly formed and spaced sentence or well-constructed craft project. Occupational therapists are skilled at evaluating and treating underlying issues that might be creating a road block for progress in fine motor skills. Let’s take a look at some of the more common issues.

Does your child have an awkward pencil grip or push too hard or too lightly?

Your child might be receiving inaccurate body position (proprioceptive) and touch sensory feedback. These two sensory systems provide our brains with information about how tools are positioned in our hands, and whether we are moving them in an effective manner. To assist with “waking up” these sensory systems, have your child take part in fun, playful and resistive activities with their hands and whole body. Activities requiring a child to pull or push their own body weight or carry a heavy object provide the needed body position input to help your child learn to accurately adjust the amount of pressure she or he uses on a tool. This heavy-work (proprioception) input along with touch (tactile) sensations also help a child to feel how their pencil or other tools are positioned in their hands. For fun heavy-work and touch activities to help with writing try:

• Squeezing sponges filled with water to make a waterfall;

• Lifting buckets of water to shoulder height and pouring them into containers or rain gutters;

• Digging, scooping and filling buckets with sand, mud, uncooked beans, rice or popcorn; and

• Play games with small parts, tongs, or eye droppers requiring use of a pincer (pinch like) grasp that promotes positioning for pencil grasp.

Making Sense of Fine Motor Skills2Does your child have difficulty sitting, or slouch when writing?

We all need to have stability at our core to have controlled movement with our hands. Some children have difficulty processing the sensations that influence their ability to sit upright and maintain muscle tone that fights the subtle pull of gravity on our bodies. Movement sensors that are part of our vestibular system (the part of our inner ear responsible for balance) detect the pull of gravity on our bodies and influence signals to our muscles to extend to sit upright. Encouraging a child to play with movement experiences where his or her head is in a variety of positions can activate this system to promote the core strength needed to sit upright, and provide the stability needed for controlled fine-motor activities. Additionally, the body awareness/position sense mentioned earlier works together with the movement sense to identify how the body is positioned. Good positioning provides stability for the core and lessens the load and fatigue on the body. To help your child’s core muscle tone and stability:

• Make sure your child is using furniture that is appropriate for his or her height. Their feet should easily rest flat on the floor and the table top should be just above their his or her waist.

• Use foot stools or books to provide a place for your child to rest their feet if the chair is too high.

• Have your child play games or do short amounts homework lying on their stomach with their head up.

• Use a slanted writing surface to provide the wrist and hand added stability. Use a 3-inch, 3-ring binder with binder clips to secure papers.

• Encourage your child to play on swings, or ride a scooter or bike before sitting down for homework or a fine-motor activity.

Does your child struggle to use scissors?

Cutting with scissors requires a good sense of hand position as well as the ability to coordinate the movement of the scissors and to hold the paper with the opposite hand. In union with the position sense (proprioception), the movement sense (vestibular), plays a role in how we fluidly coordinate and sequence movements from both sides of our bodies (bilateral coordination). Learning to button buttons, tie shoes, swim or peddle and steer a bike also requires this well-integrated sensation. Encouraging activities that provide whole-body movement, where the child uses his own body to propel himself, promotes this coordination. Try activities such as:

• Lacing or beading,

• Using tongs to pick up and release small objects,

• Using spring-loaded scissors to slow down the opening and closing of scissors,

• Providing thick paper stock (e.g. business cards) or other stiff and/or textured materials for cutting.

Does your child have difficulty with the sizing and spacing of letters?

Our sense of vision develops along with the rest of our senses. Through experiences, our brains form spatial and size concepts. In early learners, it is not enough to simply see space and size. They form lifelong visual associations of space, form and size through early experiences touching and bumping into objects. This can impact writing when the vision sense has not had accurate information in early experiences. To help a child see and feel how close together or how large or small to write letters, use the sense of touch and vision together.

• To help with spacing, place the thin side of a craft stick between letters and the width of the stick between words.

• Used raised-line paper. This can be purchased, or you can make your own. The raised lines provide touch cues for when to start and stop letters.

• Highlight every other line on lined paper. The added visual feedback will provide a visual cue for sizing letters.

• Cut out a lined-sized window from a dark or high-contrast piece of cardstock. Have your child write within this window. Their pencil will bump the top and bottom of the cardstock to help them feel how they need to move their fingers and hand for sizing letters.

An hour or even 30 minutes of handwriting practice is not fun for anyone, especially a child. Actual pencil-to-the-paper handwriting should take no more than 15 minutes a day. If your child wants more, great! If it is a struggle, back off, sneak it in during a game and continue on tomorrow.

Fine-motor activities can be disguised in just about anything, including:

• Eating with tongs or toothpicks,

• Being a score keeper in a game,

• Sidewalk chalk artistry,

• Writing a comic strip, or

• Cutting drinking straw beads to string on a necklace.

Handwriting and fine-motor skills require optimal integration of sensory information to produce precise movements that ultimately move along a pair of scissors, lace a bead or move a pencil across paper. Merely practicing these skills repetitively may not produce long-term results. The road can be long, leaving a child finding little enjoyment or pride in their accomplishments. The body and brain were designed to work in synchronization, using information from multiple sensory systems to guide their actions. When a child addresses underlying sensory issues in support of handwriting and fine-motor-skill development, you will find activities that were once a chore are fun, make sense, and are meaningful and enjoyable. Children will take pride in their hard work and excitedly ask for more.


Annie Baltazar Mori, ODT, is a pediatric occupational therapist based in the South Bay. Visit her online at

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