Kindergarten has changed drastically in the past 20 years. Experienced teachers report that the kids’ motor skills have declined A LOT. The curriculum and expectations for kindergartners have increased, but the children are still just five years old.
Teachers complain that students coming into kindergarten can’t color or hold a crayon, use scissors, or draw basic prewriting forms. But, they can isolate a finger for most tablet games!
Changes in technology and lifestyle have changed the ways children play.
Occupational Therapists will tell you that early gross and fine motor play is essential to many skills later in life. Even as a lover of technology my advice to parents of young kids is to reduce time in front of screens as much as possible. Kids also need more opportunities for movement and free play outside where they can crawl, climb, etc. in addition to fine motor play with blocks, play-doh, etc.
So why am I saying this at the beginning of a post about apps? Well, I firmly believe that all is good in moderation. High-quality, purposeful apps can have their place when kids are also getting plenty of exercise and using their hands to do tasks that have nothing to do with a tablet or computer. When I’m giving activity recommendations to parents, I always emphasize gross and fine motor activities but will usually throw in an app or two they could try.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than 1 hour of screen time (including tablets, phones, computers, and TV) for children under the age of 6 and they urge parents to look for “high-quality programming” and to co-view or co-play as much as possible with their children.
Sometimes using an app can take a task a child avoids (like pre-writing strokes or letter practice) and turn it into something they actually want to do.
So here you have it, 10 apps for building visual perceptual and visual-motor skills. In making this list, I’ve tried to combine apps with games that require motor skills besides just finger isolation, activities meant to be done as part of play or learning with a parent, therapist, or teacher, and even one app that instructs children in molding clay figures. When possible, I always recommend a stylus or a chunk of cellulose sponge to promote a functional grasp!
- Bugs and Buttons 2 by Little Bit Studio, LLC ($2.99 for iOS/Google Play, Ages 4+)
This app has two games with different motor challenges. One involves using your thumb and pointer finger to “stretch” a rubber band to protect bugs from falling buttons as they crawl across the screen. The other requires both hands to control two remote controls (think doing one thing with one hand and another thing with the other) in order to drive a remote control car. Two totally entertaining games but sort of limited for an app you have to pay for. Some of the sounds in this app might be off-putting to some (think loud engine noise!) and I also felt like the games were a little long!
2. Dexteria Jr by BinaryLabs, Inc ($3.99 for iOS, Ages 4+)
Dexteria Jr. includes pre-writing, fine pinch, tracing, and beginner-level maze activities. These activities can help build foundational skills needed for writing. “Pinch the Pepper” requires the ability to pinch a moving target on the screen. A well-developed pincer grasp supports functional pencil grasp. Squish the squash works on finger isolation as well as hand/eye coordination and visual tracking. The prewriting forms and mazes build foundational prewriting skills and can be done with the finger or a stylus.
3. Broom Broom by Atech inc (Free for iOS, Ages 4+)
Full disclosure, there’s not much to this app but it’s FREE and I’ve found it be motivating for some kids that avoid pre-writing strokes. Basically, you draw any sort of line and it turns it into a little road with cars driving on it. Let’s call this a quick and free tool for parents and therapists working with young kids on strokes like vertical/horizontal lines and circles. Once you’ve created an understanding of “make a road down”, “make a road across”, and “make a circle road that loops around” you can apply this same cueing to whiteboards, paper, etc.
4. Kids Doodle by Zhao Chen (Free for iOS and Google Play, Ages 4+)
Same scenario as the Broom Broom app but with much more freedom to draw anything, including letters and numbers. I once had a student on my caseload that would almost ALWAYS refuse to practice letters but would practice on this app. The different brushes are super cool and the best part (in my opinion) is that you can save what they did to the gallery and email it to yourself! Work samples galore!
I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE this app. A lot of the children I serve in elementary school have a really hard time drawing a face or a person even if they can do basic shapes and lines and it’s developmentally appropriate. This app is so cool because you create pictures, faces, etc. out of everyday objects (Fruit, flowers, random household items, etc). This gives plenty of opportunities to learn about object shapes, orientation, etc. There are tutorials and visual supports as well. In terms of fine motor development, this app allows you to pinch or expand items to change the size as well as use two fingers to turn items. Lots of good opportunities to work on using that thumb and pointer finger together!
6. Matrix Game by MyFirstApp Ltd. (Free to try for iOS $4.99 for the full version, Ages 4+)
This is a great app for working on visual perceptual skills. The point of the game is to correctly place objects based on what two forms they are a combination of. So, for example, if your form is a combination of a square and a rectangle, you would place it in the spot on the matrix where the square and rectangle would meet. Unlike some of the other apps that serve as a tool for teaching skills, this app could allow for some independent time once the child understands what they need to do. They simply click and drag the objects until the matrix is full! Use a stylus for working on pencil grasp and visual perceptual skills all at once!
7. OokiiSquiggles by Baby First & Lazoo ($1.99 for iOS, Ages 4+)
This is a great app for little ones that aren’t super motivated to draw. When they add their squiggles it animates the picture! A very fun and interactive way to work on making lines as well as placing them on a picture. For example, one picture is a car and you have to draw a squiggle line behind the car for it to go. If they draw too far away from the target, it will prompt them to “draw somewhere else” before animating. Also, a great time to work with that stylus!
8. Hey Clay Birds by Hey Clay (Free for iOS and Google Play, $4.99 for the full version, Ages 4+ although it says 3+ on the clay set)
This app is different from all the rest in that it’s merely a tutorial on how to make lots of fun birds out of clay! The company, Hey Clay, makes different apps for birds, animals, bugs, aliens, dinos, etc. I love this concept not only because working with clay is great for fine and visual motor skills but it also teaches young kids about using a tablet or phone app as a means to another end. Often when children are using apps to play games or watch videos they are merely just experiencing the app for whatever it offers. This teaches them the idea that apps can be used as tools to do something else the way adults use apps for recipes, time management, shopping, etc. The deal with these apps is that everyone offers one free design, then you can buy the rest for $4.99. You also need colored modeling clay. Another way to get access to the full version AND get the clay is to buy Hey Clay’s app specific clay sets like this one. For $16.95 you can have the clay that promises to be an exact match to what’s in the tutorial as well as free access to the full version of the app. This would be a great wish list item for therapy rooms or classrooms as well as a great gift for birthdays, etc. But nothing is stopping you from using other clay and trying the free designs!
9. Homeschool Montessori Puzzle by MyFirstApp, LTD (Free to try then $2.99 for iOS, Ages 4+)
Have you ever tried working with a child on connecting the dots activities to quickly realize they don’t understand the concept of connecting the dots? Then this is the app for you! The app uses color cues to prompt which dots to connect and then provides a nice straight line no matter how all over the place they are! There’s also a little auditory cue when they make the connection. You get two free pictures then it’s $2.99 to unlock the rest.
10. RelationShapes by VizuVizu LLC (Free for iOS)
Here is the final app on the list, complete with a boatload of accolades, from VizuVizu. On their website, the creators claim “our open-ended approach to playful learning encourages children to explore and discover visual-spatial relationships, or how objects relate to one another, in a fun and interactive way. Children move through eight levels of cumulative, progressively challenging activities designed to encourage flexible thinking and creativity. As they drag, scale, and rotate both abstract and figurative elements, they are exercising their spatial reasoning skills – which build a strong foundation for mathematics, problem-solving, and creative expression”.
This app, based on the Agam Method, is similar to the Faces iMake app but uses basic shapes and progresses through different levels that the creators claim to build upon one another to develop reasoning and thinking skills. There are a couple of studies cited on the website that the creators say supports this claim. One thing I like about this app is that it supports “co-play” or the use of the app by the child and another person (parent, teacher, etc.). Co-play and co-viewing of digital media are encouraged as much as possible for early technology users. Considering this app is FREE, I think it is a must for parents, therapists, and educators that want to use device time to work on visual-spatial skills. The app website even has resources for educators!
Thanks for reading all about these great apps, some of which have been on my therapy iPad for some time! Just make sure to consider the age of the child you are working with and how much screen time they are getting through their day. With appropriate limits in place, these apps can serve as a wonderful addition to a day of active play and learning!