Being trapped indoors on a gloomy spring day can have even the most imaginative caregiver or parent wracking her brain for fresh ways to play. The good news: The right activities can keep kids entertained and prime them for school success by boosting their fine motor skills (aka their ability to manipulate their fingers, hands and forearms).
"Ninety percent of what children do in school - from writing to using scissors - calls on their fine motor skills," says Christy Isbell, Ph.D., OTR/L, a pediatric occupational therapist and associate professor at Milligan College in Tennessee. Fortunately, encouraging these skills is as simple as playing around.
We asked Dr. Isbell, a mom of two, for some of her favorite fine motor skill-boosting activities. Here, her top picks from her book Everyday Play (Gryphon House, 2010):
At this age, gear activities toward helping kids develop the coordination they'll need later for writing and scissor skills.
Play Pay-Off: Boosts hand strength and coordination
Set out tongs and tweezers of different sizes and materials along with a variety of small items such as small blocks, cotton balls, pegs, or crayons. Show your child how to use the tongs and tweezers to pick up items and place them in containers. Have her count how many objects she can put into a container without dropping one!
Play Pay-Off: Lays the foundation for later writing
Cover your table or a large section of the floor with a sheet of paper. With markers or electrical tape, help your child form a racetrack from a simple pattern of large lines and circles. As he drives a toy car around the track, ask him to identify the round and straight lines. Ramp up the fun by letting your child dip the wheels of the car into paint and use them to trace the shapes of the track.
With the foundation set, older preschoolers are ready to really start writing.
Mirror, Mirror, On the Wall
Play Pay-Off: Gives kids experience drawing or writing on a vertical surface
Have your child stand in front of a large, stable mirror. Give her a few dry erase markers and let her adorn her reflection with everything from a beard or mustache to earrings, a hat or glasses. Anything goes! When art time is up, show her how to use an eraser or cloth to wipe clean the mirror.
Glue Shapes and Letters
Play Pay-Off: Encourages shape- and letter-tracing and ups hand strength
Sketch shapes or write your child's name on a piece of paper. Have him trace the shapes or letters with glitter glue to create raised lines on the paper. You can assist with the tracing, if needed. Let the glue dry and then encourage your child to trace the figures with his finger.
Kindergarteners are getting more comfortable using scissors, tape, glue, hole-punches and other tools.
Write a Little Note
Play Pay-Off: Encourages an appropriate grasp of writing tools and practices small finger movements for writing
Give your child small sticky notes (you can start with the 3-inch size and work down to the 1-inch squares as she gets more adept) and pencils that are less than three inches long. Encourage her to write little notes and read them to you or "secretly" stick them around the house. You may wake to an "I love you" sticky note on the bathroom mirror!
Off to Work I Go!
Play Pay-Off: Develops small muscle dexterity and eye-hand coordination
Help your child create a briefcase stocked with supplies such as notepads, a stapler, ruler, tape, address book, hole-punch, calculator, glue stick and pencils and pens. Explain the purpose of a briefcase and let him run his own office with the tools he's collected.