Clapping Games are an Awesome Way to Work on Motor Skills

Remember all the clapping games you used to play when you were little? Nowadays, kids have a hard time playing with nothing. Meaning, if they don’t have a toy or an iPhone to keep them occupied, they don’t really know what to do with themselves. As a little kid, my friends and I spent hours playing clapping games during recess. We thought they were so fun and loved all the silly lyrics that went along with the clap sequences. What we didn’t know is that we were also developing foundational motor skills that would benefit us for years to come.

As a school-based OT, I use clapping games often with individual children, small groups, and whole classes. The things that I can learn about a child from watching them learn a clapping game are amazing. I thought I would break it down for the rest of the world so I can spread the love of clapping games!

Motor Planning

hopscotch, motor planning, playing, playground

Motor planning is a prerequisite to learning any new skill. A difficulty with motor planning, also known as dyspraxia, can interfere with a child’s ability to learn everyday tasks such as getting dressed, writing, and playing games with other children. In order to motor plan, a child has to come up with an idea, figure out how to do it, and then actually physically complete the task.

For example, a child unfamiliar with a playground slide decides he wants to try it. Now he has to get himself to the ladder, hold onto the railings, get himself up the steps, and then coordinate his body from standing at the top step to sitting at the top of the slide. Then he has to shift his weight to actually slide downward.   Who knew there was so much involved? Clapping games involve a lot of motor planning, too. The child has to practice the movements over and over before they become automatic.

Crossing Midline

The midline is an imaginary line down the center of your body (picture through your nose to your belly button). As an infant, a child starts to bring his hands to midline (usually to put something in their mouth). Then they start to develop the ability to cross over the midline. Once a child begins to develop a hand dominance, they should be able to cross over the midline to get a preferred toy, a crayon, etc. If they don’t cross the midline, they will use their left hand to pick up something on their left side, and their right hand to pick up something on their right side. This can interfere with a child’s ability to develop a “strong” side because they are using both sides equally. I have had a few parents say to me “I think he’s ambidextrous!”. Ambidexterity is rare. Usually, it’s a midline deficit.

clapping5_picmonkeyedI swear that the original clapping game “Patty-cake” was invented by an OT. Okay… maybe not—they didn’t have OT back then.

BUT, the very simple clap hands together, hit both your hands to your baby’s hands was designed to work on getting a baby to bring their hands together in the midline, then take them apart. It’s very “OT-esque”.


When a child sequences, they put events, ideas, and/or objects in an order. Many children’s songs involve a particular sequence. The Wheels on the Bus, Old MacDonald, The Itsy-Bitsy Spider, Head-Shoulder-Knees, and Toes, etc. Most clapping games tell a story in a particular sequence, which helps a child to remember the lyrics. Miss Mary Mack has to ask her mother for 15 cents before she can see the elephants jump over the fence.  

clapping games, motor planning, bilateral coordination

The more challenging clapping games involve different motor movements at a particular part of the song. This would be for older children; who are capable of remembering the words, singing them in the correct order, using their body to clap in a rhythm, and motor planning to do the right moves at the right time. Whew! Who knew there was so much involved? But there is…  


Bilateral Coordination

The ability to use the two sides of your body together in a coordinated manner to complete a task is a foundational skill that we use every day. We need to use our two hands together for everyday tasks like opening a bottle, putting on an earring, or tying our shoes. It is even harder when the two hands have two separate jobs.

bilateral coordination, holding the paperClapping games help children to develop solid bilateral coordination skills because they consistently require the two sides of the body to perform the same task over and over. Plus, the two hands have to meet in the middle (working in midline) and cross over the middle (crossing midline). This practice is great for kids who have trouble with everyday bilateral activities in their lives such as using scissors, opening snacks, holding the paper while they write, sharpening a pencil, pulling their pants down in the bathroom, etc. Using your hands to do the same thing at the same time is easier than using both hands to do something different. But first thing is first! Learn the easy way and then make it more challenging.

Visual Tracking

Many children with learning disabilities have a hard time with visual tracking activities. Attention problems, sensory issues, developmental delays, and weak eye musculature can all interfere with a child’s ability to track appropriately from left to right. This of course affects their ability to read, write, and copy from the board down the road. Children who have difficulty crossing midline with their arms and hands usually have difficulty tracking across midline. An example would be if you held your finger ten inches to the left of their face and asked them to keep their eyes on your finger and then you slowly moved your finger straight across to the right side. Their eyes may not be able to follow your finger after the midline. Sometimes it’s just a quick glance away at midline and sometimes it’s a “shoot-ahead” movement all the way to the right. But either way, you can see when they lose their visual attention on your finger. Children should be able to easily move their eyes without moving their head by the third grade, without losing place and without faltering at midline. However, by kindergarten, children should be beginning to move their eyes without complete head movement. During a clapping game, the child’s eyes continually move from their left hand to the right hand, to left, to right. It’s great practice for tracking in school. Plus, because there is a rhythm, they are learning to track smoothly and rhythmically, like they need to when they are reading.

Rhythm and Beat

The ability to keep a beat and understand a rhythm is a skill that will impact a child’s life for years to come. A beat is a repetitive hit or pulse (think of a heartbeat). A rhythm is a pattern of music and movement through time. My favorite music teacher at school (shout out: Mrs. Wade!) often helps me to problem solve how to plan activities for my kids who to her have no “rhythm” and to me have no “coordination.” I find it helps to add music because 1) it’s more fun and 2) somehow they seem to “get it” when there is music involved. She taught me that the beat is like marching “left, right, left, right” and the rhythm is the call and response song that the soldiers sing while marching to the beat. The ability to hear a beat is important in social activities like singing, dancing, and clapping, in unison. Keeping children dancingthe rhythm of motor movements is important in learning new repetitive movements to learn a dance or other gross motor skills like hopscotch (feet in, out, in, out). This is why music can be such an amazing teaching tool. Clapping games require the rhythm and beat skills because the child is singing (rhythm) as well as keeping performing their motor movement “clap, cross, clap, cross” (beat). So clapping games can help your child by building the foundational skills that they will need later to learn a dance, play an instrument, etc. A child needs to keep the beat when singing the lyrics to the song (Miss MARY, Mack, Mack, Mack, all dressed in BLACK, black, black, etc.). They also need to keep the rhythm with the words of the song (clap, cross right, clap, cross left, clap). This seems so simple until we try to teach it to a child. Rhythm and Beat can be very hard work! Kids start to develop the ability to hear beat very early. My good friend who is both a Kindergarten teacher and a Dance instructor (shout out: Miss Smith!) told me that even her Kindergarten dance kids learn to count the beat pretty quickly.


Most clapping games involve just two children, but many can be done with a whole class. Part of my job as a school-based OT is to work with the self-contained classes. I love to use clapping games with them because they have no idea that they are working on so many important skills! No matter how old they are, they all laugh and have fun. They consider it a “break” from schoolwork, but as the OT, I am satisfied that I am addressing many important skills at once. When working with one other child, you have to develop a “rhythm” with your partner in order to keep going. Often, one child will be more advanced than the other. No matter! When the one child is “off” a bit, the other always reaches a little faster or crosses a little farther in order to keep up with the class. We try to sing the songs all at the same time. Usually in the beginning it’s a big mess, but after a few tries, they do much better. A few of the girls may know a song or two, and they help to teach the kids who are unfamiliar. Plus all the staff, it all comes together! It’s hard not to laugh and have fun as you make eye contact with your partner, sing silly words, and have a grand old time for a few minutes. Even us teachers end up giggling and having fun. The kids need that movement and the “break”, but they also need the socialization and “playtime”. (Even though it’s a very therapeutic task!)

Sometimes I will get the whole class in a big circle and we play “quack-didly-oso”. The kids have to put one hand on top of their friend’s (on the left) hand and the other under the other friend’s hand (on the right). This concept alone takes a few minutes as we have to go over left, right, under, over (spatial language and awareness!). Once we get started playing, I can see who has difficulty with focus, with motor planning, directionality, etc. And meanwhile, the kids love it!

How to Modify a Clapping Game

No game is fun if it’s way above your level. But all clapping games can be simplified by slowing down the movements and the words. The motor movements can also be simplified.

Here are a few examples from easiest to hardest

1) Simple patty cake motions – clap your own hands together, then use both hands to clap both your partner’s hands. Then back to your own clap. A simple 1,2,1,2  pattern.

2) More complex patty cake motions –  clap your own hands together, then clap your right hand to your partner’s right hand, then clap your hands together, then clap your left hand to your partner’s left hand.  1,2,1,3,1,2,1,3

3) Getting harder – adding more motor movements make it even more challenging. Clap your own hands together, then clap your right hand to your partner’s right hand, then clap your hands together, then clap your left hand to your partner’s left hand. Next, form an “X” over your chest by crossing your two arms to touch your shoulders. Then, clap your hands together and start again.

4)  Really hard – Clap your own hands together, then clap your right hand to your partner’s right hand, then clap your hands together, then clap your left hand to your partner’s left hand. Next, form an “X” over your chest by crossing your two arms to touch your shoulders. Then, clap both hands to both your lap. Then start again.

* If you have a child who just can’t seem to “get it,” or they keep confusing their left and right sides, you can try putting a colored sticker on each child’s right hand. This way you are providing a visual cue as to which hands need to hit.

Here are some links to some of the most common clapping games if you need a refresher.

Miss Mary Mack
Miss Mary Mack- Just music and lyrics – you can use whatever motor pattern you want
Quack Didli-Oso – Great for a group or partners
“Slide” – Very Complex!
“Down Down Baby”
“Sally Was  Baby”
Patty Cake

Get Clapping!

~  Miss Jaime, OT


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