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Together is a new resource for anyone affected by pediatric cancer - patients and their parents, family members, and friends.

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Improving Fine Motor Skills

What are fine motor skills?

Every day, we use our fingers, hands, and wrists for small, precise actions. Our muscles, nerves, and bones work together to control these movements. Fine motor control is the ability to do activities such as:

  • Play with small toys
  • Cut paper with scissors
  • Write with a pencil or pen
  • Play a musical instrument
  • Open food containers
  • Button and zip clothes

Treatment for cancer, sickle cell disease and other serious illnesses can sometimes cause weakness in a child’s hands and fingers. Making the muscles in your child’s hands stronger will help improve fine motor control.

Closeup of child's hands while playing piano

Making the muscles in your child’s hands stronger will help improve fine motor control.

Activities to strengthen the grip

The following activities will help your child’s grip:

  • Use child’s scissors to cut shapes or lines drawn on pieces of paper.
  • Cut folded paper or make snowflakes.
  • “Clean” a surface with sprayer bottles or sponges.
  • Have fun spraying a squirt gun outside.
  • Use a hole punch.
  • Squeeze foam balls or blocks. As your child gets stronger, use firmer balls.
  • Pull apart and piece together pop-beads and toys that lock together.
  • Stir, knead, and roll cookie dough. Cut cookies with plastic knife or cookie cutters.
  • Use ink stamps of different sizes with stamp pads.
  • Use a toy carpentry or tool set.

Activities to improve dexterity

Dexterity is the fine control of a tool or an object by the fingers. These are some activities to improve your child’s dexterity:

Child smiles while zipping up jacket.

To improve your child's dexterity, work on buttons, zippers, hooks, etc., and tie shoelaces.

  • Screw and unscrew objects such as nuts and bolts, or caps from jars.
  • String beads onto a shoelace. Lace beads of different sizes.
  • Make a macaroni necklace.
  • Type on the keyboard.
  • Roll a pencil or marble between thumb and fingers without dropping it.
  • Work on buttons, zippers, hooks, etc., and tie shoelaces.
  • Play with wind-up toys.
  • Complete puzzles or play shape-sorting games.
  • Take a handful of coins and put them into a piggy bank one at a time.
  • Tear small pieces of construction paper and paste them onto a picture to make a mosaic.

Activities to improve the pinching motion

Practice picking up objects with the fingertips and thumb:

Child playing with bubble wrap.

Popping bubble wrap is one activity that can improve your child's pinching motion.

  • Pick up small objects such as beads with tweezers.
  • Put clothespins on the edge of boxes, rims of cans, or sheets of paper, and then take off the clothespins.
  • Pin up clothes with clothespins.
  • Pop bubble wrap.
  • Use an eye dropper to move colored liquid from one container to another.
  • Use puffy paint by squeezing the bottle to apply it.
  • Use a bulb-type nasal aspirator or squeezable bath toys to blow small pieces of paper or cotton balls around.
  • Use tongs to pick up blocks and cotton balls and move them from one container to another.
  • Play “paper-flick basketball”: Roll small pieces of paper into a ball and use a fingertip to flick it at a target.
  • Play with Legos®.
  • Play games with cards, coins, or pegs.
  • Play pick-up sticks.
  • Try these games using clay, putty, or modeling compound:
    • Play eggs in a nest: Make a bowl-shaped nest. Roll small pieces for eggs and a large piece for the bird.
    • Pinch clay into pots or bowls with lids.
    • Finger touching: Pinch modeling compound between fingers until fingers meet.
    • Putty strings: Pull putty in opposite directions to make strings of different widths.
    • Connect ends of putty strings to make necklaces and bracelets.
    • Hide small objects like coins or beads in putty, or cut putty with child’s scissors.

An occupational therapist may suggest more activities or exercises to help improve your child’s fine motor skills.

Key Points

  • Some serious childhood diseases can cause weakness in a child’s hands and fingers.
  • Simple activities and games can help improve fine motor skills.
  • An occupational therapist can suggest other activities to help, if needed.

Reviewed: February 2022