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In hand manipulation and fine motor precision are the 2 fine motor skills that research has proven to directly affect writing legibility. Here are activities that you can start today to reinforce these skills!

In hand manipulation and fine motor precision are the 2 fine motor skills that research has proven to directly affect writing legibility. Here are activities that you can start today to reinforce these skills! #finemotorskills #finemotorpreschool #howtoimprovehandwriting #finemotorskillactivities #occupationaltherapykids #occupationaltherapypediatrics #prehandwriting

Handwriting is a complex skill that is influenced by several factors. As an Occupational Therapist for 15 plus years in the school system, all things dealing with handwriting fall in my direction! Especially legibility difficulties.

Although I have a good handle on development and often a hunch of what additional support is needed, documented research for Best Practice is ALWAYS welcomed!

I was so excited when I found this article, “The effects of fine motor skills on handwriting legibility in preschool aged children.” It was published in February 2018, by the Journal of Physical Therapy Science.

It concluded that “…children are able to acquire more mature fine motor precision as well as in-hand manipulation skills, which will in turn have a positive effect on proficient control of writing tools when commencing handwriting down the road”.**

So what does that mean?

The study shows that increasing the accuracy of fine motor precision and in-hand manipulation skills leads to increased writing legibility.

By strengthening these two skill areas, kids will be able to move their fingers more accurately and adjust the pencil to better form shapes, letters, and numbers.

Likewise, kiddos who have not adequately developed these skills will compensate by using alternative grip habits. Learn more about tripod grasps.

Let’s dive into what exactly in hand manipulation and fine motor precision skills are and how to work on them.

#1 In-hand manipulation

In-hand manipulation is the ability to move an object in your hand using only your thumb and fingers. There are 3 different types of in-hand manipulation: translation, shift, and rotation.

Kiddo’s who struggle with in-hand manipulation will often use their other hand, chest, or table to reposition the item.

-Translation: to move an object from your palm to your fingertips.

  • Place coin, pompom, or small piece of food in your palm and use your fingers to move it between your thumb and pointer finger tips before dropping it in a slot
  • Pick up a small object and store them in your palm. See how many you can hold before one falls out!
  • Store beads in your palm – Work one bead to your fingertips and string it onto a pipe cleaner. How many can you store in your palm before one falls out?

A kiddo who struggles with translation will empty their hand on a table or floor and then pick up the item one at a time. These kiddos will also use their other hand to pick out the desired item while in the other palm.

Also, watch for kids to drop the item before moving it all the way to the tip of their fingers. Kids will often stop short of the tip to the point their thumb is fully extended and without bending their pointer finger.

-Shift: moving an object using only your finger tips in a forward or backward motion.

  • Pull or push paper through a slot – Kids will try to do this using their whole arm. To help make them use just their fingers, have them lay on their stomachs and prop up on their elbows.
  • Buttoning
  • Pick up one card at a time on a table – make sure that your kiddo does not drag the card to the edge of the table to help assist picking it up!
  • Turning one page at a time in a book
  • Pencil Walks

A kiddo who struggles with shifting, will often use two hands to reposition an object. They often will use the table to “drop” the pencil or crayon between their fingers rather than move the item with their fingers.

-Rotation: the ability to turn an object using the pads of your fingers.

There are two types of rotation: simple and complex. Simple is when you twist open or close a lid on a container. Complex rotation is when you turn an object over to the other side. For example, flipping a coin from heads to tails.

  • Flip items laying on a table: coins, cards, popsicle sticks
  • Twist lids off – snack containers
  • Easy-Twist Animal Builders, or turn nuts onto a carriage bolt
  • Make small balls using play dough
  • Activate Wind-up Toys
  • Spin a top
  • Alphabet Locks – insert and turn a key to unlock a lock
  • Tennis Ball Letters – Write letters on a tennis ball. Use one hand, and move the ball with only your fingertips to find the desired letter. “Press” the letter with your thumb!
Child holding a tennis ball, in one hand, that has the alphabet randomly written on it demonstrating an activity that works on rotation.
Move the ball with just your fingers and “Press” the wanted letter with your thumb

A kiddo who struggles with rotation may use two hands to move an object. They may also drag an item to the edge of the table to pick it up rather than pick it up where it was positioned. They will also use their other hand in order to flip their pencil to erase a mistake.

Here are more in-hand manipulation activities for you!

#2 Fine Motor Precision

Fine Motor Precision is the ability to use small muscles of the hand in an accurate way. Kids begin to develop their fine motor skills at a very young age and continue to into elementary school.

The accuracy of a kiddo’s fine motor precision not only impacts their ability to move small objects, but also impacts their accuracy with buttoning, zippering, and utensils.

Preschool Activities that work on Fine Motor Precision

Two children buildling with blocks working on their fine motor precision.

A kiddo who struggles with fine motor precision will appear to look clumsy with materials. They may need several tries to accomplish a fine motor task.

These kiddos also have a hard time holding small items with the tips of their fingers and may try to use all of their fingers to manipulate an object. While moving an object, they could use either too much or too little pressure.

How to Apply This to Your Preschoolers Life!

One of the great things about preschoolers is that if they find a task enjoyable, they are more likely to do it over and over again. Adults tire of activities much faster than preschoolers!

Set up an activity for them to complete everyday that works on one of these skills! Snack time is ALWAYS a great way to naturally implement these skills.

What if My Child Can’t Do These Activities

The secret behind helping your child is to meet them where they are. If an activity is too hard for them, then either put it away until they are ready for it or change the demand of the task so that they CAN do it.

Also remember that development of both fine motor precision and in-hand manipulation skills takes time. Every opportunity your kiddo has to work on these skills will help them develop their accuracy.

If you are concerned about your kiddo’s fine motor development, I recommend speaking to your pediatrician or your child’s teacher.

More on Fine Motor Skills for Your Preschooler

If you are looking for more activities that build fine motor skills then checkout Fine Motor Activities for Cutting Without Scissors or Outdoor Activities That Strengthen Hands.

Here are fine motor activities that you can do with items in your house, and it our most popular free printable 30 Fine Motor Activities with Household Items.

Wondering if your kiddo’s pencil grasp is good? Checkout Pencil Grasp Development: What You Need To Know.

**Seo SM. The effect of fine motor skills on handwriting legibility in preschool age children. J Phys Ther Sci. 2018;30(2):324-327. doi:10.1589/jpts.30.324

If you have any questions, please leave a comment below. I am sure that you are not the only one with the same question! I read all comments and would love to hear from you!


Kelly is a licensed Occupational Therapist with 15 years of experience servicing school-aged children and Early Intervention. She is the founder of OT Perspective and a mom to 4 children. To learn more about her, check out her About Me page, here.