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Getting Hands-On With Fine-Motor Skills

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A month ago, Eric entered my kindergarten classroom unable to hold a pencil without using the "death grip" on it. He also held scissors with multiple fingers in each finger hole and found it difficult to roll play-dough into a long snake. Eric comes from a family that struggles to ensure that there is dinner on the table, much less a snack in his backpack. His lack of exposure to fine-motor activities is already affecting him in all academic areas. He has trouble writing down his thoughts, using crayons to color in shapes, or even completing a craft because it is frustrating or painful.

Research has long shown links between students' fine-motor skills and their future academic achievement. Studies also indicate that low-income students in particular tend to enter school with low fine-motor skills. So how can we help students like Eric?

I'm always on the lookout for fun ways to improve students' fine-motor skills. Keep in mind that these activities don't have to be expensive or complicated—ordinary objects can be pressed into service easily:

Math-Based Activities

Cotton ball races: Ask students to use clothespins to move the cotton balls from one jar to another. We make this a counting activity: How many cotton balls can a student move in a specific amount of time?

Moving pipe cleaners: Cut up some pipe cleaners into shorter segments (or you can use jacks). Then challenge students to use an eyelash curler to move the pipe cleaner segments from one spot to the next. (This activity is great because it asks students to exercise the same three fingers they should use to hold a pencil. Make sure the concave side of the tongs is facing the thumb.)

Stacking cubes: This activity requires a deck of numbered cards (at first limiting it to numbers one to 10), small cubes or blocks, and paper plates marked with numbers one to 10. I ask each student to select a card, identify the paper plate marked with the same number, then stack that number of cubes on the paper plate. As the stacks get higher, students must use steady hands to balance the cubes on the growing tower.

Sorting buttons: Ask students to sort a handful of buttons into piles by various attributes. Then have students use the buttons to create patterns. (Instruct students to pick up the buttons with their fingers rather than sliding them off the table to scoop up.)

Coins in clay: Embed coins within a ball of clay, then challenge students to find and pick out all of the coins from the clay. Afterward, talk about the value of the coins you have collected. Another idea is to use small buttons or beads, then count how many the students found.

Tweezers and jars: Write different numbers on empty baby food jars and ask students to use the tweezers to put that many pom poms inside the jar. During the activity, check to ensure that students are grasping the tweezers with their thumb, index finger, and third finger and tucking in their fourth and fifth fingers—thus strengthening their pencil grip fingers.

Literacy-Based Activities

Clothespin boxes: Cover a shoebox with paper—then write the ABCs on the outside of the box. Mark clothespins with letters as well. Have students match the letters on the clothespins to those on the box, clipping each clothespin over the box's edge.

Eyedrops: Using a couple of ice-cube trays, mark the bottom of each cube compartment with a letter. Students can then use an eyedropper to put water into each compartment needed to spell their name—or a simple word they have learned. My students never get tired of this activity!

Bean letters: Challenge students to place beans around the outer edge of large letters on pieces of paper.

Miscellaneous Activities

Spray bottle art: Give students small spray bottles filled with colored water and allow them the opportunity to create artwork outside on the sidewalk or on a piece of paper with the spray bottles. You can prompt them to use their motor skills to create controlled images.

Tops and marbles: Teach students to spin tops and marbles using their thumb, index, and third finger. Once the students have learned to do this, have a contest to see who can spin them the fastest or longest.

Nuts and bolts: Provide students with various nuts and bolts and make it a game to see how fast they can put the bolts on the nuts.

Feed the water bottle: Challenge students to "feed" an empty small-necked water bottle with toothpicks.

These activities may seem simple, but they work. If you ask my student Eric about school, he will tell you that he is working on counting or learning the alphabet. What he and his classmates don't realize is that they are also improving their fine-motor skills. Doing so helps students to focus on the concepts we study—and less on the mechanics of holding pencils or taking part in hands-on activities.

And of course, reaching out to parents as partners can also strengthen students' development in this area. I help parents understand why fine-motor skills are linked to academic success and provide detailed descriptions about how to help students with these skills at home.

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