“Promoting fine motor skills at the playground” is part of a year-long blog hop called Functional Skills for Kids. Each month, I will be working with other pediatric OTs and PTs to post on different developmental topics that impact functional skills for kids. I’m so honored to be working with some amazing pediatric bloggers to bring you a well-rounded blog hop that will ultimately result in a BOOK!
This series will be a wonderful resource for parents, teachers, and therapists to learn about all the different activities a child performs each day. Every month, each therapist will discuss different aspects of functional skills. Each childhood function will be broken down into developmental timelines, fine motor considerations, gross motor considerations, sensory considerations, visual perceptual considerations, accommodations and modifications, activity ideas, and more.
This month’s topic in the “Functional Skills for Kids” blog hop is the Playground, so check out the landing page for the rest of our posts and information on all things related!
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Promoting Fine Motor Skills at the Playground
Occupational therapists who work with young children have an in-depth understanding of the skills a child needs to interact with their environment on a daily basis. A child needs to be able to negotiate their home, school, and playground (Henderson & Pehoski, 1995). Playing at the local playground is a wonderful way to help your child improve their physical, cognitive, emotional, and social development (Fisher, 1992). Typical playground equipment such as swings, monkey bars, and slides can help a child to develop sensory processing skills, motor planning, problem-solving, balance, as well as hand strength. As children interact with their environment, they learn how to make sense of the world around them (AOTA, 2012). The playground is a great place to start!
Most parents think that playing at the playground will only address gross motor skills. A child can improve their coordination, balance, and strength as they run and play at the playground. However, playing at the playground can help your child’s fine motor skills, too! Often parents think of fine motor skills as a tabletop activity, coloring, or stringing beads. This is true, but those are just a few activities that address fine motor coordination and dexterity. Playing at the playground also offers many unique opportunities for grasping and strength. Additionally, it works on the underlying components that are necessary to promote fine motor development.
What fine motor skills are needed at the playground?
Playing at the playground requires hand strength and different grasp patterns. The most common grasp pattern that a child uses at the playground is called a “power grasp”. When a child is using a “power grasp”, they are stabilizing an object with the pinky side of their hand while the thumb side of their hand wraps around. This is also known as the “cylindrical grasp”. Here are a few examples of when a child would need a power grasp:
- Climbing a ladder (holding onto the rungs)
- Sliding down a pole (hands wrapped around the pole)
- Climbing “up” the slide (holding on the sides)
- Swinging on a swing (holding onto the ropes)
- Climbing a jungle gym or monkey bars (holding on the bars)
At the playground, the power grasp is needed to pull on the bars while climbing up the ladder of the slide, grabbing a pole, holding the sides as they walk on the bridge, and holding the chains as they swing on the swing. The power grasp requires hand strength, so children with weak hand strength may have difficulty participating in typical playground activities.
What comes before the power grasp?
BEFORE FINE MOTOR SKILLS COMES GROSS MOTOR SKILLS – IT’S DEVELOPMENT!
Gross motor skills start to develop before fine motor skills. A baby learns how to roll over and stand before they can reach for an object and manipulate it. This is called developmental progression, and it means that certain things naturally develop before others. Before a child develops good fine motor skills and hand strength, they need to develop the stability and strength of the rest of their upper body. Some other foundational skills that need to be in place for the development of fine motor skills include postural control, forearm rotation, and strength and stability of the shoulder, elbow, and wrist. The child also needs to be able to separate the thumb side of the hand from the pinky side. The image below demonstrates the pyramid of typical development.
In terms of development, the word “stability” refers to the ability to keep certain body parts still while moving others. For example, the term “shoulder stability” refers to a child’s ability to keep their shoulder joint still while using the wrist and fingers. This is an important component in handwriting and fine motor development because it means the correct body parts are doing the work.
Postural control is an important consideration for good fine motor skills. Having a strong core and postural stability enables a child to use their hands with control in any position (Henderson, Pehoski, 1995). Typical playground activities like climbing, swinging, and changing positions (from standing to sitting at the top of the slide, etc.) help to strengthen the muscles of the back and abdominal muscles, contributing to improved postural control. A child with good postural control is more prepared for handwriting and tabletop activities in the classroom because they have the strength and stability to sit upright in their chair independently. Children with poor postural control often lean forward onto their desks, change position frequently, or stabilize their non-dominant arm (and “helping hand”) on the seat to prop themselves up while writing. So getting them outside on the playground is a great way to work those core muscles in preparation for the classroom.
Forearm rotation is another important prerequisite skill for developing fine motor skills. For most fine motor tasks that involve the controlled use of the hand, the forearm is partially supinated, which means facing upward (Henderson, Pehoski, 1995). Children need to be able to grasp something in their hand and then turn it over in order to participate in many typical daily activities. A perfect example is grasping a card from a pile and then turning it over. Children who have difficulty rotating their forearm will often hold their scissors upside down, hold their paper awkwardly, or carry things in a clumsy “thumbs down” position. The playground provides many opportunities to work on forearm rotation and frequent changing of hand positions. A child exploring the playground will negotiate climbing, walking from level to level, and figuring out how to pull themselves upward. They will change their hand and arm position frequently as the motor plan and problem solve how to conquer the next adventure on their mind.
Wrist stability is the ability to keep the wrist still while the fingers manipulate an object. A child’s hand must have established skilled motor patterns before it can manipulate a toy or a tool (Henderson, Pehoski, 1995) with precision. Occupational Therapists often use activities that promote shoulder and wrist stability by working on a vertical surface above the child’s eye level (Henderson, Pehoski, 1995). Writing and drawing on chalkboards, working on magnetic easels, geoboards, pegboards, or playing on a Lego wall are all good ways to promote stability in the wrist. According to developmental progression, a child should be able to write with a dynamic tripod grasp by the age of six. This means that they should have wrist stability, relying on their fingers to move the pencil. Unfortunately, many children do not meet this developmental expectation upon entering Kindergarten.
Separation of the two sides of the hand is another developmental acquisition that is directly related to good fine motor coordination. Using different grasping patterns while playing with toys and participating in pre-writing skills helps to strengthen and develop the arches in the hand. The hand has three arches made up of bones and muscles that allow the hand to cup (like holding dice) or flatten (Benbow, 1999). These help the fingers to work in various positions so that children can perform their “job” of playing and learning. Children learn to separate the thumb side of the hand from the pinky side as they perform different actions with their fingers. The playground is another example where the child learns to use both sides of their hand to achieve a task. Holding a rope, pulling on a bar, or grabbing the walls of the slide all require the separation of the two sides of the hand.
Remember that song: “the hip bone’s connected to the thigh bone, the thigh bone’s connected to the knee bone…”? Below is an image demonstrating how each joint and body part is connected and therefore reliant on each other. Good fine motor skills involve the whole upper extremity, not just the hand!
How to help a child with poor fine motor skills at the playground
Many parents have said to me, “What do you mean they have weak hand strength? They can hang on those monkey bars for 5 minutes!” While this can seem like a task that requires strength, it is not the same. Hanging from the bars without moving does require hand strength and assists in developing the arches of the hand. However, this is not the same as working the tiny intrinsic muscles of this hand and using them with precision. Many children who have not yet developed stability in their upper body compensate by using their whole arm, rather than utilizing the tiny underdeveloped muscles in their hands. In fact, children with weak hand strength and poor fine motor skills can have difficulty negotiating the playground equipment.
- For hanging activities, like the monkey bars, start by hanging while holding their trunk, so you are supporting some of their weight.
- Let your child hang on equipment that still lets them keep their feet on the ground.
- Encourage your child to change their hand positions. If they usually hang with all their fingers together, encourage them to use a “power grasp”. If they usually have their palms facing towards their face, encourage them to face their hands away. Try a “mixed grip”, with one hand facing forward and one facing backward. This is great for the forearm rotators.
- Teach your child how to “pump” after pushing them on the swing. Leaning back and forward while holding onto the ropes is a great workout!
- Games and pretend play that involves climbing, crawling, and holding themselves up on their upper extremities encourage postural control and upper extremity stability.
- Bring other toys to play with, too. Playing velcro catch, blowing bubbles, and jumping rope are all great for strengthening the upper extremities, which helps promote fine motor skills, too! A jump rope or a bag or balloons are easy pocketbook toys that work on gross motor skills for when you need an alternative to keep your child busy. Stick them in your purse or diaper bag!
Fisher, E. (1992). The impact of play on development: A meta-analysis. Play and Culture, 5 , 159–181.
Handwriting research and resources: A guide to curriculum planning. (n.d.). Columbus, OH: Zaner-Bloser.
FUNCTIONAL SKILLS FOR KIDS
This post is part of the Functional Skills for Kids series. Check out all of the bloggers who are participating and learn more about the series by clicking on the link above.
For more information on the components and considerations related to Play, stop by and see what the other Occupational Therapists and Physical Therapists on the Functional Skills for Kids team have to say:
Developmental Progression of Playground Skills | Your Therapy Source
Sensory Integration Therapy at the Playground | Sugar Aunts
Modification Ideas for Playground Equipment for Children | Growing Hands-On Kids
Playground Games and Activities for Kids | The Inspired Treehouse
Developing Visual Skills and the Playground | Therapy Fun Zone