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How to Improve Your Preschooler's Fine Motor Skills for Kindergarten

Ms. Meyers is a long-time preschool and kindergarten teacher who writes about issues in early childhood education and advocates for play.

A weak pincer grasp can make it hard to write, color, and cut in kindergarten.

A weak pincer grasp can make it hard to write, color, and cut in kindergarten.

Preventing Fine Motor Struggles

Many kindergartners today can't hold a pencil correctly, causing them undue frustration. They become easily fatigued when writing, drawing, cutting, and coloring because their fingers and hands haven't developed the necessary strength and dexterity. Parents of preschoolers, though, can help their youngsters now so weak fine motor skills won't be a problem in the future. First, though, they need to learn what the pincer grasp is and why it's critical for success in kindergarten.

Strengthening the Pincer Grasp

It's not unusual for children on the autism spectrum to need extra help to improve their pincer grasp and overall hand strength. As such, they might work with an occupational therapist. Today, though, they're certainly not the only ones with weak fine motor skills. Kindergarten teachers today have more students than ever before who lack dexterity. These youngsters struggle to do everyday activities such as cutting with scissors, tying shoelaces, stringing beads, and turning the pages of a book.

Many of these kids have spent too many hours with screens and not enough time manipulating play-dough, putting together puzzles, and playing simple games such as Pick-Up Sticks and Hi Ho! Cherry-O. Fortunately, parents of preschoolers can step in to solve this problem so their children won't struggle when starting kindergarten. Here are 20 fun, simple activities that moms and dads can do at home to strengthen their child's pincer grasp and fine motor skills.

Peeling, Pulling, and Squeezing

1. Place strips of duct tape on the kitchen floor, outside on the sidewalk, or on the walls of the garage. Then, have your child pull them off the surface. It will be difficult at first but watch their proud faces as they get faster, stronger, and more confident!

2. Keep lots of stickers on hand for your youngster to peel and stick (I kept a little tackle box of them in the car for my son along with crayons and markers). Have them place the stickers on a piece of paper to create a scene/story. Encourage them to add background details with crayons and markers. Optional: Have them describe the scene/story while you write it on the paper.

3. Keep a squishy ball on hand for your child to squeeze while watching TV, riding in the car, or walking to the park. Make it a part of their everyday routine.

4. Have your youngster take a wet washrag and squeeze the water into a sink, on the lawn, or in the bathtub. Give them a goal of filling a cup or a bucket.

5. Give your child a wet sponge to squeeze on the plants inside and out.

Pick up sticks is a terrific game to enhance the pincer grasp so preschoolers will be ready to hold a pencil correctly when entering kindergarten.

Pick up sticks is a terrific game to enhance the pincer grasp so preschoolers will be ready to hold a pencil correctly when entering kindergarten.

Playing Games Together

6. Hi-Ho Cherry-O—Many parents will remember this classic game from their own childhoods. Youngsters improve their pincer grasp by picking up little plastic cherries and placing them on a tree. It's great for hand-eye coordination, counting, adding, and subtracting.

7. Don't Break the Ice—The beauty of this game lies in its simplicity. Players take a mallet and tap at blocks of ice—gently and strategically. Patience is key. Suspense builds as the ice falls away, and whoever causes it to collapse loses.

8. Don't Spill the BeansThis game is ideal for enhancing the pincer grasp. Players take turns picking up little plastic beans and placing them carefully on the pot. The object is to avoid tipping it over and, if you do, you lose.

I used this game with my pre-kindergartners, and they absolutely loved it. Best of all, it's so simple that kids can play it by themselves with no adult supervision. When teenage volunteers would visit from the nearby high school, they wanted to play it as well. They, too, found it fun, exciting, and suspenseful.

9. Pop Up PirateThis is another terrific game to improve the pincer grasp. Players insert small plastic swords into the barrel. Suspense builds until one player's sword causes the pirate to pop off the barrel and they lose. This game will always have a special place in my heart because it was my son's favorite when he was 4. He never tired of it and loved playing it with friends during playdates at our home.

10. Pick Up Sticks—The oldest games are often the best ones. Players take turns picking a stick from the pile without disturbing the others. If the player causes a stick to move, they end their turn. If they don't cause a stick to move, they get to go again. At the end, the player with the most sticks is the winner.

Using Tools

11. Let your child use tweezers to pick up small objects: cotton balls, paper clips, beans, plastic rings, and little rubber dinosaurs. Have them transfer the object from one container to another.

12. Have your youngster pick up similar objects with chopsticks and tongs. See how many objects they can transfer to a container in two minutes.

13. Have your child play with hole punches. Michael's craft store has a good selection. Some make circles. Some make squares. Some make stars. Some make animals. Using a hole punch develops hand strength and children absolutely love doing it.

14. Have your youngster pound, punch, pull, roll, stretch, squeeze, and create with play-dough on a regular basis. Keep a variety of kitchen tools on hand for them to use: rolling pins, cookie cutters, utensils, a garlic press, etc.

15. Even if your child is not yet ready to use scissors to cut paper, have them cut thicker items such as play-dough, straws, and foam shapes.

Unfortunately, some parents (and teachers, too) don't understand the importance of play-dough in developing the pincer grasp.

Unfortunately, some parents (and teachers, too) don't understand the importance of play-dough in developing the pincer grasp.

Get Creative and Keep It Fresh

16. Give your child some bubble wrap and let them pop the bubbles with their fingers.

17. Assign your youngster the weekly job of watering all the houseplants with a spray bottle.

18. Let your child drive nails into scraps of wood with a junior-sized hammer.

19. Have your youngster write/draw on the sidewalk with jumbo chalk and then “erase” it by squirting it with a spray bottle full of water.

20. Let your child build sculptures with mini-marshmallows and toothpicks.

In this video, an occupational therapist gives tips for enhancing a youngster's fine motor skills.

Turn Off the Technology!

In my kindergarten class, I had students who could surf any technological device but would cry when they colored a picture because their hands ached. Youngsters once had ample opportunities at home and at preschool to develop their pincer grasp by pounding and pinching play-dough, playing games, stringing beads, doing puzzles, and painting at the easel. Sadly, so many of them no longer do because they're preoccupied with screens.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, kids today are spending an average of seven hours a day on cell phones, televisions, computers, and other electronic devices. Seventy percent of them say there are no rules at home that restrict their use. This problem is compounded when young children attend preschools that allow screens there as well. Instead of doing activities that enhance their fine motor skills, little kids are spending too much time on technology, sitting too long at circle time, and enduring too many teacher-directed lessons.

While some ill-informed parents are impressed when their little ones use technology at preschool, research doesn't support it. Lisa Guernsey, Director of the New American Foundation's Early Education Initiative, cautions moms and dads. She states that screen time at preschool can “distract children from important play patterns and social interactions that help them develop social-emotional skills, cognitive skills, and habits of mind.” Having kids on devices at preschool is putting the cart way before the horse, preventing them from building the strong foundation that's needed for future learning.

Final Thoughts

Kids face many challenges when they start school—both academic and social. Why not eliminate one of those challenges by dealing with it now? Strengthening your children's pincer grasp and overall hand strength will prevent fatigue and frustration in kindergarten. They'll enter the classroom with confidence, knowing they can handle the routine of coloring, drawing, and writing.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2016 McKenna Meyers