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Play ideas to improve Fine Motor Skills in Preschoolers

What are fine motor skills in 3-5 year olds?

Fine motor skill is the movement and coordination of small muscles in the hands, fingers and eyes. From birth through to adulthood our fine motor skills are continuously developing.

There are likely to be many activities your child is already doing that help improve their fine motor skills. Daily routine things such as…

  • Cutting food
  • Opening a lunchbox
  • Using one hand to carry out a task
  • Putting on shoes
  • Pulling up a zip
  • Buttoning clothes
  • Brushing teeth

Simple play activities, like the ones in this guide can boost children’s accuracy, grasp coordination and  grip strength. You’ll also find tips on how to help your child use scissors for the first time and ways to encourage them to hold a pencil correctly.

Basic Scissor skills

Cutting is a great activity to develop fine motor skills because it requires a lot of hand-eye coordination and hand strength. When your child cuts, they use their hand muscles to hold the scissors and control the movement of the blades. This movement helps to improve the strength and dexterity of the small muscles in the hand and fingers.

Cutting also helps your child to develop their hand-eye coordination. They need to coordinate their hand movements with what they see to ensure that they cut the paper in the right place. This skill is important for many activities, such as writing and drawing.

Finally, cutting also helps your child to develop their spatial awareness. They need to understand how much pressure to apply to the scissors and how to move them in different directions to make different shapes and patterns. This skill is important for many activities, such as building and construction.

How to help my child use scissors

Learning to use scissors can be a challenging task for young children, but with practice and patience, they can develop the skills they need to use them safely and effectively. Here are some tips to get started with scissors:

  1. Choose the right scissors: Child-safe scissors with rounded tips and blunt blades are recommended for younger children.
  2. Teach scissor safety: Before your child starts cutting, teach them how to hold the scissors properly and how to use them safely. Show them how to keep their fingers away from the blades and how to place their other hand on the paper to hold it steady.
  3. Practice cutting lines and shapes: Start by having your child practice cutting straight lines and then move on to cutting shapes such as squares, triangles, and circles. Encourage them to cut slowly and carefully, and praise them for their efforts.
  4. Use visual aids: Draw lines or shapes on a piece of paper for your child to cut along, or provide them with cutting worksheets or activities to help them develop their skills.
  5. Provide feedback and encouragement: As your child practices cutting, offer them positive feedback and encouragement. Let them know when they are doing a good job and provide gentle corrections when needed.

Scissor activities for preschoolers

preschool child cutting paper

Natural cutting materials

Next time you pass a long patch of grass grab a good handful. Wash and dry the grass, then put it on a tray or in a tub and put your child’s scissors nearby. Leaves and flowers also make a great material for cutting. The pieces can be used to create a collage or in sensory play.

Set up a cutting tray

Put together a selection of different materials, with your child’s scissors and a small empty tub for the trimmings. The recycling bin is a good place to start looking for items like soft plastic, foil, thin card and paper. Or you could do a food or snack themed cutting tray, using things like cooked spaghetti, lettuce, herbs, spring onions, peppers, wraps or bread.

Tray rescue

Place some small toys or treats into a cupcake tray. Lay masking tape across the holes of the tray, both horizontally and vertically, until each hole is covered by a cross of tape. Now place your child’s scissors close by and tell them they need to rescue whatever’s hidden in the tray only using the scissors.

Threading activities for preschoolers

Making an ‘OK’ sign with our hands creates an open space between our thumb and index finger, known as ‘thumb web space’. This open thumb space allows greater control and precision when carrying out certain tasks like picking up small objects and handwriting. Threading activities are a way of encouraging children to open their thumb web space. These activities require kids to pick up small beads or hold a piece of thread and lace it through a hole.

Shoelace threading

Shoelaces are great for children to use in a threading activity, thanks to the sealed ends of the lace. Aside from pulling them out of shoes and getting your child to re-lace them, you could put some spare laces with open tubed pasta, cereal like Cheerios or with some card that has holes punched into it.

Beading for kids

If you think your child would prefer to make something then pick up a small beading craft kit designed for kids. These kits have simple to follow instructions, specially designed thread with toggles on the ends to stop beads from slipping off and come in a range of designs for different interests.

Bendy doll

You will need:
– A paper straw
– 3 x pipe cleaners
– Large round bead (optional)
– Scissors
– Pens and stickers to decorate

First get your child to cut a paper straw into smaller sections. Thread 2-4 sections of straw onto a pipe cleaner, this becomes the body of your bendy doll. Get another two pipe cleaners, thread some paper straw sections onto them and bend around the centre pipe cleaner. Finally add a head from some card or a large circle bead, that you can draw a face onto.

Play dough Activities for preschoolers

Pattern mats

Give a lump of play dough to anyone and they’ll start squishing, pinching and rolling it. These movements will all work the small muscles in hands and fingers. To add a little more challenge and work on your child’s precision, give them an image to make from the play dough. Put a simple picture in a plastic sleeve, using this as a mat under the play dough. The get them to shape the dough to the picture.

Spaghetti structures

Dry spaghetti, paper straws or other sticks allow children to create really interesting structures, when combined with play dough. If your child needs a little encouragement you could set them a challenge, like create the tallest tower, build a bridge or make a cool den for your favourite toy figures.

Pretend play with play dough

If your child likes role play, tap into this by putting things like baking tools or a toy tool set with some play dough. Some biscuit cutters and paper cases are probably more than enough to prompt their imaginations and have them serving you multicoloured muffins.

Play dough letters

Draw some large letters onto a piece of paper or tray and ask your child if they can recreate the letters using their play dough. Forming letters from dough will have your child using their palms to roll, their fingers to shape and their pincer grip to place the dough on the letters. It will also be helping them recognise the different shapes of each letter.

Emotions in dough

Ask your child if they can show some of the emotions they’ve experienced in the day, with their play dough. Using materials like play dough or paint can help children who struggle to express themselves in other ways.

Alternatively you could draw, print or display some emoticon faces for your child to replicate with their play dough. As your child creates different faces talk to them about emotions and how people show these to others.

Non-sticky play dough recipe

Here’s an easy recipe for making your own non-sticky play dough at home.

170g Plain flour
65g Table salt
2 x Cream of tartar sachets
400ml Warm water
2 tbsp Vegetable oil
Few drops of food colouring (optional)

How to make play dough:

  1. Mix all the dry ingredients in a saucepan.
  2. Add water and oil as you slowly heat the pan.
  3. Keep mixing until the dough forms a doughy lump, rather than a sticky mess.
  4. Scrape out onto greaseproof paper.
  5. Knead the dough for a few minutes.
  6. Separate the dough, if you want different colours.
  7. Add the food colouring (in small amounts).
  8. Keep kneading until the dough is smooth and springy (it shouldn’t stick to your hands).

Pencil skills for preschoolers

preschool child holding a pencil

Learning to hold a pencil correctly is an important skill for 3-5 year olds as it lays the foundation for good handwriting. Here are some ways to help your child practise their pencil skills.

  1. Show the correct grip: Start by showing your child how to hold the pencil correctly. Hold the pencil between your thumb and index finger, with the pencil resting on your middle finger. Fingers should be relaxed and not tense.
  2. Practice with larger items: Before moving to the pencil, encourage your child to practice holding larger items such as crayons, chalk, or markers. This will help develop the muscles in their hands and fingers. See our guide on activities to develop fine motor skills in toddlers.
  3. Provide a comfortable grip: It’s important to ensure that the pencil is comfortable to hold. Use pencils that are specifically designed for young children, with a larger diameter and softer grip.
  4. Offer support: Place your hand over your child’s hand to provide support and guidance. This will help them to understand how to hold the pencil correctly and to feel more confident.
  5. Use tracing: Provide tracing activities to practise moving the pencil. Tracing lines, shapes and letters will help your child develop muscle memory and improve their grasp and control. There are more pencil activity ideas below.
  6. Encourage regular practise: Encourage your child to practise holding the pencil correctly regularly. Offer positive reinforcement, praise and encouragement when they show progress.
  7. Allow them to use either hand: Hand dominance develops around 4-5 years, so allow plenty of practise on both hands.
  8. Be patient: Remember that learning to hold a pencil correctly takes time and practise.

Playing with pencils

Practising how to hold a pencil doesn’t have to all be focused around writing and drawing. You can set mini challenges where your child has to use one hand to manipulate the pencil in different ways.

Pencil windmill: Use your thumb and fingertips to turn the pencil like a windmill. When they’ve mastered one way ask them to change direction.
Spidey pencil: Hold the pencil as if you’re about to write. Now walk your fingers to the end of the pencil and then back to the tip.

Pencil practise activities

Using a pencil isn’t all about forming letters and numbers correctly. Mazes and dot-to-dots are both fun activities that encourage your child to pick up their pencil. Tracing around drawings with a highlighter pen is another way your child can practise their grip and control.

If you’d like to incorporate some numbers and letter learning into their practise here are two free pencil path worksheets.  The aim is to connect all the letters or numbers by drawing a line between each one, in the correct order.

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