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    Back-to-School Shopping for Fine Motor Skills

    By Karen Wainright, Occupational Therapist

    Your 3-5 year-old will probably want to be involved in back-to-school shopping, just like older siblings or friends. Even if your child is not attending school this fall, you can fill a backpack with lots of fun items and activities, so he or she can be "like the big kids" and develop some important skills at the same time. Here is a sample shopping list (although you may have many of these items around the house already) and several ideas for ways to use these items for fun activities that develop pre-writing, writing and other fine motor* skills:

    Play dough and clay: Squeezing, rolling, poking and cutting out shapes help develop hand and finger strength. You can also hide small items such as beads or pennies in the clay in the play dough and have your child search for them, or have your child hide the items for you. Pushing objects into play dough is a great way for little ones to strengthen their fingers. (Note: Any item that can fit through a toilet paper roll is a choking hazard so watch children closely during all activities involving small items.)

    Checkers, marbles or pennies: Cut a slot or hole in an empty frosting can or butter tub. Have your child pick up the checkers, marbles or pennies one at a time. When your child has gathered several items, have him/her insert them into the container one at a time using only one hand. Start with two objects, then work up to several. Both activities develop coordination and strength of small muscles within the hand. Again, always monitor children closely at all times with any activities involving small items that can be choking hazards.

    A strawberry huller, kiddie chopsticks or mini tongs can be used to pick up small pom poms, raisins, mini marshmallows or other small items to practice a mature tripod grasp. (i.e., The thumb opposed to index and middle finger which is the proper way to hold a pencil or crayon, allowing for smooth fluid movements.) This activity also practices scissor skills. Make sure the child holds the tools from underneath, like an adult holds a spoon or fork. You can pick up a pair of kiddie chopsticks from a take-out restaurant or make your own by breaking apart the sticks, rolling up the paper sleeve they came in, placing it between the sticks at the top, and securing it with a rubber band.

    Drawing with broken crayons, short pencils or short magic markers (like Crayola? Pip-Squeaks?) also promotes a mature tripod grasp. Using a coloring book with uncomplicated pictures, children can learn to make precise strokes as they work to stay within the lines while using the tripod grasp. Taping the coloring page onto a wall or other vertical surface automatically places the wrist and fingers into a proper tripod-grasp position. Crayola? Color Wonders? coloring books often hold a child's interest and encourage thoroughly filling in areas as the colors magically appear.

    A black slate board and short pieces of chalk: Using chalk on a chalkboard gives a child stronger sensory information about his or her movements, rather than a marker which glides across the surface. Until a child can copy simple lines (vertical, horizontal and diagonal) and simple shapes, they are not ready to form letters. A wet small sponge cube can be a fun way to practice tracing an adult's strokes on the chalkboard. (Note: A slate board can often be found in a craft store or the craft section of a department store.)

    Squeezing clothespins and placing them around the edge of a container or using them to hang washcloths on a mini clothesline strengthens fingers and practices the tripod grasp. Once again, be sure the child holds the clothespin from underneath, like an adult holds a spoon or fork. 

    Cans of colored foam soap, shaving cream or finger paints provide interesting tactile input as well as a unique way to practice making strokes and simple shapes. If you want to start to practice letters, start with the child's name and use capital letters only. These letters are the easiest to form with simple lines, rather than the curves of lower case.

    Activities involving stringing beads and/or lacing cards encourage a fingertip grasp as well as finger coordination as the child "walks" his or her fingers down the string to push the string further into the hole.

    When focusing on fine motor skills it is important to consider that strong shoulder and trunk muscles provide the foundation and stable surface for hand and finger use. These must be developed and maintained in all children, especially in those who crawled for a very short time or skipped crawling altogether. Some fun ways for young children to develop shoulder and trunk strength include:

    ? Sitting on a jumbo playground ball at a low table while eating a snack, coloring or playing a game. All trunk muscles are required to remain active to maintain sitting balance when using this equipment.

    ? Wheelbarrow walking or animal walks such as bear walk, crab walk, etc.

    ? Crawling on hands and knees through tunnels made with blankets on top of tables and chairs

    ? Crossing monkey bars or climbing on a jungle gym (Note: Always provide close supervision when child is on playground equipment.)

    ? Playing a game, watching a movie or coloring while lying on stomach on propped elbows

    Keep fine motor activities - especially pre-writing and writing - brief, fun and within the child's tolerance level. Children can get "burned out" very quickly, especially if these tasks are challenging.

    *Fine Motor Skills are small muscle movements of the hand. These small muscle movements are used when manipulating small objects such as buttons or beads and when managing tools, such as pencils, with precision.


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