How to Adapt Activities to Encourage Small Motor Skill Use

Fine motor skills are essential for most activities in daily living from dressing oneself, to writing, to using a bank card, dialing the telephone and even playing games. The abilities to grasp, sort, track, string, hold, pick up, fold, bend, separate, insert and remove are used constantly throughout ones entire life. Occupational and recreational therapy can help an individual learn new skills, improve existing ones, and prevent loss of skills. Delays in acquiring fine motor skills are an early indicator of sensory processing disorders, eyesight problems, and muscle atrophy, but are easily reversed by adapted activities which encourage fine motor skill use.

Things You'll Need

  • Beads, pasta shapes, buttons, string
  • Scissors, paper, magazines
  • Chopsticks
  • Spoon, fork
  • Clay
  • Different size, shape and color seeds
  • Small objects such as jacks
  • Marbles
  • Tiddly Winks
  • Pens, pencils, markers, crayons
  • Watercolor paints, brushes
  • Small medicine balls
  • Stress balls
  • Plastic canvas, yarn, plastic lanyard
  • Plastic tapestry needles
  • Crochet hooks, round knitting needles
  • Knitting looms


    • 1

      Get the individual's fine motor skills professionally evaluated. For example, can the person pick up small objects by sliding them with one finger into his hand? Can the individual use a pincer grip between thumb and forefinger? Hold a pen, pencil, or spoon without assistance?Can the person squeeze clay, a stress ball, or a finger? Can he control head movements, sit upright with mechanical aids or without assistance? Can he track the path of a finger or pen from left to right across the mid-line of the body without turning his head? Can the individual switch an object from hand to hand without dropping it? Can he pick up an object placed on the opposite side of the body with the off hand and bring it back across the body without switching hands?Is he able to push or pick up small objects with his feet? Can he make circles with his hands and feet using only wrist or ankle movements?The occupational therapist will advise on how to best adapt activities for a given individual. Follow her recommendations as best you can, gradually shaping activities to fit the person's needs.

    • 2

      Provide any necessary stability devices such as adapted utensils, wrist braces, pads, trays, bolsters, raised plates, footed bowls, mouth sticks or any other needed device which will assist an individual in holding and manipulating objects.Use hand over hand assistance if necessary, but be sure to gradually fade assistance to the least intrusive amount needed to complete the activity. Be sure to allow the individual the opportunity to complete the last step of each activity unassisted. This is a process known as reverse chaining. Reverse chaining starts with the very last step of an activity, such as pulling a loaded watercolor brush across the paper. Next time, two steps will be used: Blotting the brush, then pulling it across the paper. Next time, loading the brush, then blotting, then pulling. Next time, wetting, then loading, blotting, and pulling. Each time you add the step that comes before the last step. This way, the individual has the opportunity to complete a task without help, and has a success to build upon next time he attempts the activity.

    • 3

      Adapted needlework is very good for building fine motor skills. Have the individual hold out her hands with thumbs extended, while another individual winds yarn around her palms. Practice having the individuals take turns taking the yarn off the first person's hands and onto her own without tangling the yarn. If it does tangle, have her rewind it and start over. Assist with getting snarls out if necessary.Using plastic tapestry needles, have the person weave yarn in and out of a sheet of plastic canvas. Don't worry about a pattern at first. The idea is to get the fingers more limber. As the individual becomes more confident, have him change colors after every third row.Give individuals a yarn hand loom and have them wind yarn in and out of the pegs. Teach everyone how to cast on with a set of round knitting needles. Round needles keep the yarn on the needle a little easier and are usually sold as two short needles attached by a length of thin plastic cord.

    • 4

      Instruct individuals to sort a variety of colors, shapes, and sizes of seeds, buttons, or other small objects. Help them push or pour the objects into small bottles or bowls with lids for use in art projects.Assist individuals in finding and cutting out pictures from magazines and newspapers to make collages. Give individuals a pile of pictures to sort, using one finger, pushing them into a box on the lap.

    • 5

      Give individuals stress balls or therapy clay to use. Use hand over hand assistance if needed to help the individual grasp and squeeze. Encourage the person to squeeze as hard as he can. Encourage the person to roll out clay, use small cookie cutters to cut out shapes, and pick shapes up with a spatula to place them on a cookie sheet to harden.Use cookie dough, sometimes, and encourage the individual to make items that are pleasing to the eye as well as to the nose and mouth. Sort hard candies by color. Make an outline of cookie dough on a cookie sheet and fill in various parts of the outline with different colors of candies. Leave an area near the top of the cookie open for stringing later. Bake at 300 degrees Fahrenheit until candies melt together. Remove from oven and allow to cool. Hang from a clothesline strung across the room at least a foot above the tallest person's head level, or string from a counter. These can also hang in the window.

    • 6

      Play games such as marbles, tiddly winks, bingo, checkers, Chinese checkers, or other games using small pieces. Encourage the individuals playing the game to pick up the pieces and move them around themselves as much as possible. Provide hand over hand assistance if requested, but fade assistance as soon as possible. Encourage use of shakers to hold small pieces. Provide table bumpers or other adaptive devices such as card holders if needed to prevent items rolling from off of the board or table or falling from the hand.

Tips & Warnings

  • Be sure to get a professional evaluation in order to adapt the activity to the person's abilities. Play to a person's strengths to establish successes, then gradually encourage the person to perform the task independently.
  • Provide adaptive equipment as needed.
  • Use reverse chaining to help a person achieve success.
  • Be sure to use age appropriate activities and materials.
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