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Physical Nurturing: Fine Motor Activities in Early Childhood

Angela Oswalt, MSW, Natalie Staats Reiss, Ph.D and Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

When parents nurture young children's fine motor skills, they are encouraging activities that develop hand-eye coordination and other smaller hand skills such as drawing, cutting, and crafting. Parents can offer children a large range of tools to encourage fine motor skills and creativity, such as crayons, paint, glue, building blocks, blunt scissors, magazines, construction paper, play clay, ribbons, cloth, buttons, sand, beads, water, etc. Encouraging fine motor development can be as easy as giving kids some of these materials and letting them construct whatever they like. However, parents can also provide general instructions for completing a particular project and in so doing, encourage children to develop new skills that they have not seen nor tried before.

One fun fine motor activity for kids is papier-mâché, a three-dimensional craft that allows children to get a little messy. In papier-mâché, strips of newspaper are dipped in glue and then wrapped around a simple mold, like a blown-up balloon. Once the strips of newspaper are dry and rigid, the balloon which previously provided structural support can be popped (fun for kids!), and then the remaining shell can be painted with designs and colors. This activity allows kids to practice cutting, hand manipulation, and painting.

"Sewing" can be another fun activity that will help small children refine their fine motor skills while enhancing their artistic talents. For young toddlers, parents can cut out large shapes (e.g., animals, geometric, or seasonal items) from pieces of cardboard and then punch holes around the perimeter of these shapes with a hole punch. Kids can then lace yarn or string from hole to hole around the perimeter of each shape until the shapes are surrounded. Older preschoolers and younger school-aged children can use inexpensive large-gage plastic mesh sheets (found in most craft stores) as the base on which to stitch designs and patterns using different colored yarn and blunted plastic needles made especially for this activity.

Yet another domestic activity that will booster hand-eye coordination and creativity is cookie decorating. Large sugar cookies, some colorful icing, some sprinkles, and some clean paint brushes make for a fun and edible craft. This can be an especially fun activity around birthdays or special holidays, as children can easily make a gift to present to Grandma, Daddy, a teacher, or someone else that is special in their lives. It's fun for children to mix and roll dough, but make sure they are kept away from the hot oven and hot cookie sheets!

Older children are developed enough to be able to participate in more directive and intricate crafts. Often, holidays and seasons provide excellent inspiration for craft ideas. Young children can draw, cut, paste, and decorate pumpkins, Christmas tree ornaments, paper menorahs, colorful scarecrows with moving arms and legs, or tissue paper flowers.

Parents must supervise all of children's fine-motor play activities and assume responsibility for making sure children remain safe. Parents need to make sure that they're providing children with safe and child-friendly craft materials, such as blunt scissors, non-toxic, lead-free paints and glues, etc. Small children under the age of three years (or older children who still explore the world with their mouths) shouldn't be given beads, glitter, or other craft materials that could pose a choking hazard. No matter the child, material, or project, parents should always be providing supervision so as to ensure that safe decisions are made and to intervene if necessary.

Nurturing fine motor skills requires that parents develop a tolerance for messiness. Parents should create space, both physically and emotionally, to allow for messes to occur. Parents can cover children's clothing with smocks (e.g., Dad's old shirt), cover the table with newspaper or an old table cloth, and put a drop cloth or towels on the floor of the kitchen or playroom to catch stray drips and dribbles. Purchasing washable art supplies (e.g., markers, paint, and crayons that can be easily scrubbed off walls) is also a good strategy for ensuring easy cleanup. Many families love to use the great outdoors for the "messy room." A hot summer day in the back yard can be perfect place for water play including pouring, scooping, and dribbling water on each other. Or, a child can spend an afternoon as an artist trying to capture Grandma's flowerbeds on paper or canvas. Meanwhile, any paint that drips on the grass will be mown away in a few days.


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