Play: The Recipe for Hand Development

Deanna Macioce, MS, OTR/L

It seems as if, today, we find so much information about how to academically prepare our children for the classroom. How the standards for starting kindergarten have drastically changed over the years! Considering the evolution from years ago, when the beginning of a child’s academic career focused on play and peer interaction, to today, children being able to start reading simple chapter books and writing a paragraph consisting of a couple of sentences, it is true that kindergarten has become the new first grade. Besides a huge focus on math and reading, we are asking our children to do more than just write their ABC’s. Children often become fatigued, making writing and coloring a non-favored activity, which is actually one task where children can easily demonstrate creativity in the classroom. There are a lot of different developmental components that contribute to writing performance in the classroom, but overall grasp on tools is key.

The development of grasp patterns begins at birth. Infants use their reflexes to hold onto a parent’s finger early on, building the strength to hold onto an object later. This is seen, too, when you place a small rattle or ring in their hand. From there, parents watch in awe as children begin to reach out and swat at objects, and then the excitement comes as they reach and grasp a toy for the first time all by themselves. From there, we see how the hand develops to reach for objects of different sizes and shapes, from a full hand grasp to a raking/hook grasp with finger tips to a refined pincer grasp (tip of the thumb and index finger).

Once a child works through that progression, typically around a year old, we then begin to focus on the manner in which tools are held, from utensils to crayons and then on to pencils and scissors. Children should present with what we call a dynamic tripod pencil grasp (holding a pencil with the thumb, index and pointer finger). However, more and more, we are seeing weak, underdeveloped hands. From finger strength and dexterity to the overall palmar arches of the hands, children do not have the proper development to perform the tasks in the classroom. Without the right “tools,” children become fatigued, and frustration sets in.

Although this progression once seemed to be almost natural, it no longer is. Years ago, parents were not doing exercises or activities just to develop their child’s hands; a child’s hands developed through play. But today, as therapists we are often asked by teachers and parents, How can we help get a child to hold a pencil correctly? The answer: through play!

Starting early on, present children with age-appropriate toys for them to grasp and hold. It is important to play with toys in a variety of positions. So, an infant should not only be presented with toys while sitting in a stroller but also while on their tummy, being held, in a seat, wherever…let them play.

As children begin to move into toddlerhood, expand their play. Hand development and grasp refinement happen both inside and outside. While outside, allow them plenty of time to play at the playground. Climbing, using monkey bars, and holding onto swings all develop hand strength. Playing different games with balls of varying sizes is also beneficial. Scooping, digging and dumping of sand, water and dirt is an OT’s ideal play activity. Inside, encourage coloring and drawing on various surfaces, such as magnetic writing boards, dry-erase boards, in shaving cream, with tub crayons, and just plain old paper. Play with blocks of various sizes and shapes, as well as cars, trucks and even your child’s favorite character figures. Board games, dress-up and craft dough also make the list of ideal play ideas. As long as children’s hands are holding, and moving, you really cannot go wrong, but just make sure there is variety in what they do.

Naturally, encourage children to manipulate fasteners, open small containers, use zipper bags, and put coins into a bank. Helping with household chores also makes the list. From washing windows and mirrors to folding laundry, hand development happens on a daily basis.

Once a child hits the school environment, we may increase our refinement of skills. Presenting activities that use tongs and tweezers, or even medicine droppers, as well as games with coins or small objects that encourage in-hand manipulation and finger dexterity are all good choices.

Choosing extracurricular activities that improve hand skills, such as an art class, playing an instrument, or playing sports, also enhances performance in the classroom.

Overall shoulder, elbow and wrist stability plays an important role in hand grasps and strength. Playing games on the ground while propped on forearms, wheelbarrow walking, and performing tasks on a vertical surface will help in this area.

So, the answer to how to improve hand skills so our children can be successful in the classroom is simple…Play!