Hand Strength

It makes sense that hand strength (how strong the little hand muscles are) and finger isolation (being able to move each finger separately) is necessary for good fine motor control. In a nutshell, a weak hand = a weak grip = poor fine motor skills.

The strength of the muscles in the hands and fingers develops as kids grow. Therefore, it’s essential that little miss or mister is given plenty of opportunities to strengthen their small hand muscles and develop their ability to isolate or separate each individual finger in movement.

How hand strength and finger isolation skills develop

The development of your little one’s hand strength started as a newborn reaching out to you and grasping your fingers ever so sweetly.

Fast forward a little: at 3 months old they were picking up their rattle and by 6 months they were shaking it. Soon afterwards, at around 8 months old, blocks and crayons became permanent fixtures in their hands – and oh my gosh the strength they could muster if they didn’t want to let go of something!

Then, by the time junior had their 1st birthday their pincer grip (where they use the pad and tip of the pointer/2nd finger and thumb to pick up small objects) had made its appearance.

How do I know if my child is having difficulty with their hand strength and finger isolation?

Children with poor hand strength and finger isolation may have difficulty with:

  • Holding a pencil with a tripod (three-fingered) grip
  • Holding cutlery and feeding independently
  • Picking up small objects using a pincer grip (using the pads and tips of the pointer/2nd finger and thumb)
  • Using scissors
  • Fastening zippers and buttons

When the hand and forearm muscles are slow to develop kids might also:

  • Appear weak and uncoordinated or complain of tired/sore hands
  • Try to avoid activities that involve hand strength, such as colouring in or writing
  • Find 'compensatory' (alternative) ways of holding or gripping small objects such as pencils, which affects their speed and efficiency with fine motor tasks

Hand strength, finger isolation and pencil grip

Here are the ways children generally compensate for poor hand strength and finger isolation when they’re holding a pencil:

  • Having a tight pencil grip and/or heavy pencil pressure (they’re trying to increase the stability of their fingers but it will most often mean they tire easily or complain of sore hands)
  • Using too many fingers to hold their pencil (this helps increase their stability but affects their ability control and move their pencil)
  • Wrapping or hooking the thumb around the pencil (which assists with unstable joints but restricts their movement, control and speed)

For more information, head over to the Handwriting foundation skill section, which includes a whole load of material, activities and tips on pencil grip.

Fun Activities

(members only content)

Ways you can help your child with their hand strength and finger isolation

Some fun activities and games that will assist in developing little miss or mister's hand strength and finger isolation include:

  • Using playdough, therapy putty, plasticine or clay (e.g. squeezing, rolling, pinching, pushing, rolling into little balls)
  • Threading and lacing activities (e.g. threading macaroni or beads onto string)
  • Using children's tweezers (connected chopsticks) or tongs to pick up objects such as dry cereal, pieces of fruit salad and cotton wool balls
  • Tearing paper, scrunching it up and pasting it to paper to make a collage
  • Using clothes pegs on plastic plates and cups (or even asking your little one to help you peg the washing)
  • Doing hand exercises such as prayer pushes, finger squeezes, piano moves and finger opposition (*see below for details)
  • Singing songs that have finger movements such as 'Open, Shut Them', 'This Little Piggy' and ‘Where is Thumbkin?'
  • Hiding beads, chick peas, coins and so on in playdough and inviting junior to dig them out with their fingers (using the pincer grip of the thumb and pointer/2nd finger together)
  • Playing with water using spray bottles, water guns, squeeze toys and sponges (e.g. using spray bottles to move plastic balls)
  • Hole-punching paper to make confetti
  • Popping bubble wrap using their pointer (2nd) finger and thumb
  • Using an eye dropper, bulb syringe (found in the baby section at the shops) or turkey baster to squirt water or make patterns with food colouring on paper towel
  • Playing with Lego or construction blocks
  • Finger painting

* Example hand exercises include: prayer pushes – pushing their hands together while in a prayer position; finger squeezes – squeezing each finger with their opposite hand; piano moves – playing or pretending to play a piano with their hands flat and lifting each finger individually; and finger opposition – touching each finger individually to the thumb.

Some additional tips for improving your child’s hand strength and finger isolation

Encouraging your youngster to extend their wrist while they’re doing fine motor tasks will help develop these skills.

To do this, use a ‘vertical plane’ (upright surface) in activities such as colouring in, drawing and learning letters. Examples of vertical planes include chalk on a wall outside, butchers paper taped to a wall, easels, whiteboards and blackboards.

You can also place little miss or mister’s paper/pad on a foolscap or lever-arch file for tabletop activities, angled so their writing page is on the slant of the file with the highest point of the file being furthest away from junior.

Wherever possible in day-to-day activities, encourage your child to use their ‘crab pinch’ (thumb and pointer/2nd finger pads together) as this helps with both hand strength and finger isolation development.

Basically, strengthening the 'crab pinch' results in a stronger ‘pincer grasp’ (thumb and pointer/2nd fingertips together), which assists with most of the fine motor tasks and is especially important for pencil grip and pencil control.

PlayBiz Members Only Content

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Combined Videos

Combining several foundation skills, our PlayBiz Play-a-Long videos run for 10 minutes or so. We’ve carefully ordered the activities so they enable your youngster to have an optimal learning experience and develop the skills they’ll need for school by joining in the ‘teachable moments’. Picture a fun and educational TV program like PlaySchool crossed with an occupational therapy session that’s chock full of strategies. Ready, steady, learn! Please note: The Play-a-Long videos don’t need to be viewed in any particular order.