Category Archives: fine motor skills

Playdough Play Time

Playdough is a staple of childhood.  It always amazes me how long it can keep a child’s interest, squishing, pounding, rolling, and cutting.  I personally prefer homemade Classic Playdough, because it’s cheaper, better smelling, a bit softer and easier for little hands to command, and I have a little less to worry about when my son snitches another pinch to eat. (Should I worry about the fact that he’ll often turn his nose up at the dinners I make, but will gladly eat playdough?)

Rolling out the dough and using your favorite cutters is always fun, but playdough is all about limitless creativity, so here are some ideas that might help you shake things up a bit.

  • Add a shaker bottle of glitter.  Cover some of the holes so it doesn’t come out too quickly!  Let  your kiddos sprinkle it on as “cookie sprinkles” or knead it in for magical glitter playdough.
  • Supply “loose parts” like pipe cleaners, beads, googly eyes, toothpicks, even accessories from Mr. Potato Head!  Pushing these pieces into playdough not only encourages a lot of creative fun, but it also builds the same fine motor strength and control needed for writing.
  • Bring in the scissors!  Kids love to cut playdough!  It helps build cutting skills in a non-threatening, fun way. 
  • Extruders like these are a blast to play with and they build that hand strength as well.  (As I mentioned before, if your kids have been frustrated by these in the past, try it again with the Classic Playdough.)  If you need an impromptu extruder, try using a garlic press!

What is your favorite way to use playdough?
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A Few New Takes on an Old Favorite: Shaving Cream Painting

Whoever coined the phrase “less is more” certainly wasn’t under the age of six.  Young children love piling it all on, especially when doing art.  It’s more about the experience than the exhibit, and that’s the way it should be. 

But if you’ve ever done shaving cream painting with young children, you’ve seen them sculpt huge mounds onto paper, and then watched it all flutter away as soon as you take the paper from the drying rack. 

Here are a few ways to prevent this problem:

1 – Try Bev Bos’s glue/shaving cream combo.  It’s sturdier and can even hold lightweight collage items.

2 – Ditch the art table and take that cream straight to the sensory bin!  Toss in some colored ice cubes and get ready for some gooey fun with Iced Shaving Cream!

3 – Use plain old shaving cream, but forget the whole “product” idea and just paint onto a tray or table top.  Children can mound it, swirl it, or spread it flat and write with a finger.  

4– Follow idea #3, but then make reverse prints with paper!  Plop just a little dollop or two and let the children work it to their hearts’ content.  When they’re ready, press a paper onto their tray and peel it back for a print.  Making the reverse spreads the cream a bit more thinly on the paper, allowing it to dry more thoroughly without the fluffy residue that flies away afterward.  Plus, it’s fun to draw pictures into the cream and then see them reproduced onto the paper!

Shaving cream is a wonderful (and cheap) resource for a fun sensory, creative, and fine motor experience.  And now, you can try an old favorite with a new spin!

Do you have another fun way to use shaving cream with preschoolers?
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Sign Me Up! Meaningful Ways to Encourage Preschoolers to Write Their Names

I wrote a while back about a sign-in chart that provides regular practice for name-writing while also providing a record-keeping system to track progress.  Some children really thrive with this method — they’ve recently figured out that they OWN their name, and they want to write it everywhere!  Others however, are more reluctant.  “I already did that,” they may say.  Like the parent who’s constantly cleaning the same kitchen, the child wonders, “Why am I doing this again?  I did it yesterday!”  Sometimes all a child needs is more purpose for the writing.  Writing it today so they can write it again tomorrow just doesn’t always cut it.  Here are some ways you can encourage reluctant writers to leave their mark.

Label it.

Encourage children to write their own names on their artwork or other items.  Remind them that that’s how people will know it belongs to them so it won’t get lost.  This might be as simple as adding a marker to the art table or providing a crayon on a string at the easel for labeling, or it may mean sitting down with your son and relinquishing control of the forbidden and therefore alluring Sharpie marker so that he can label every soccer ball, basketball, and beach ball in the house.  When children realize that writing their name on something is proof of ownership, the task is not only meaningful, but powerful.

Mail it.

Help your child write letters or cards to friends and family members.  Write what your child dictates, and then allow her to write her name at the bottom (“So they know it’s really from you!”).  The mail is a mysterious, wonderful thing, and the hope of receiving something in return is often incentive enough to get your child on-board. 

Mandi Ehman at Life…Your Way has made the brilliant suggestion of using your child’s artwork to share with others in the mail.  (It cuts down on your paper clutter without diminishing the value of your child’s work.)  Just have your children write their names on the back, along with a message they dictated to you, and then mail it off to Grandma.  Art, literacy, name-writing, family connections, and organization all in one shot!

Sign here, please.

Use sign-ins and sign-ups as much as possible!  Want to borrow a book?  Sign here.  Want a turn at the computer?  Write your name on the waiting list.  Do you like dogs or cats?  Write your name in a column on the survey chart.  Instead of telling your children that the sign-in chart is for practicing names, tell them that’s where you sign up for snack today!  Have children sign up when they are waiting for a turn with something.  Tell them that the list lets you know who’s next.  Besides motivating them to write their names, it teaches them about turn-taking and keeps them engaged in something when they might otherwise be growing impatient.

Play it up.

Incorporate name writing into you play situations.  Many children perform much better when working as an alter-ego!  I’ll give you an example.  I worked with a little gal who had little to no interest in practicing her name.  It just didn’t mean anything to her.  What she did love was dramatic play.  She was always coming up with new stories and characters, and it was all very real to her.  One day she asked for a new prop, a doctor’s kit I believe.  I went to my supply closet and pulled one out, but on my way back to her play area, I snagged a notebook and a pencil.  I approached her as a delivery person, saying, “I have a delivery here. I think you ordered it.  I just need you to sign your name here, please.”  She looked at me suspiciously and then scribbled on the paper.  “No, ma’am.  I need your name so I know you got your delivery.”  She looked at me again, and thought for a minute.  Then she carefully wrote every letter in her name (for the first time that year), and staying true to the story we had created, thanked me for the delivery as I handed her the package.

Find ways to make name-writing playful.  Make random deliveries, ask for their autograph, and take orders at the kitchen diner (“Write your name under the picture of which snack you want to order today“).  Play is an incredibly powerful motivator!

What are some of the ways you encourage preschoolers to practice writing their names?

Top photo by Vivek Chugh.
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The Writing in the Salt

My oldest son began kindergarten this year.  He is enjoying all of the “big-kid” perks of going to school like riding the bus and having recess.  But he’s also discovered that school also comes with responsibilities.  Not least of which is a list of skills to be practiced as homework, including several penmanship tasks like drawing shapes and writing letters, numbers, and his first and last name.  I don’t think my guy is the first child to react as though writing practice were akin to being kidnapped by terrorists, but there is at least one way I’ve found to get around this response. Make it fun and exciting!

Instead of sitting him down in front of yet another sheet of lined paper, I take a standard cookie sheet and pour in one container of salt. That’s the magic ingredient– salt! It costs all of 35 cents, but it transforms the exercise from mundane to motivating! (Don’t be scared of my tarnished cookie sheet.  That old girl has seen more than her fair share of tasty treats!)


Using a pencil or a finger he writes right into the salt. Besides being a little less physically taxing, the salt provides an element of sensory stimulation and the cookie sheet gives room for larger strokes.  I usually let him experiment a little, and then we play some games copying each other’s zig-zags, curves, and lines. He thinks it’s just fun, but writing really comes down to recognizing and intentionally generating these types of written lines, so this “non-writing” game is actually building his writing skills as well!  (But don’t tell him!)  To erase he gently shakes the cookie sheet back and forth like an Etch-a-Sketch to settle the salt again. 

His teacher requests just ten minutes of skills practice for homework, but without fail, when the timer goes off to signal the end of our writing practice, my guy is content to continue exploring with the salt.  He writes, doodles, and draws, all the while building that fine motor strength and control. And every now and then he grabs some toy cars or heroes (or an eager younger brother) to get in on the action as well. When we’re done, I just pour it into a ziplock and save it for next time.

It’s just one way to get play and learning back together!

For more on writing, check out:

  The Write Way to Read

Do the Write Thing
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Fill it Up! Soapy, Sudsy, Sensory Fun!

It’s often surprising how the simplest activities will keep kids engaged for the longest time!  Such is the case with this simple sensory activity!  Simple supplies and preparation, but the kiddos just love it!

Add water to your sensory table or sensory bin.  I also like to just a little bit of color to make it easier to see and just a tad more intriguing.  I also added soap for a sudsy effect. (I like to use baby soap to prevent any painful eye-rubbing experiences!)  Add some of your favorite water toys like ladles, spoons, funnels, re-purposed laundry scoops, and water wheels.  Add some emptied and washed clear water bottles.  On a whim, I also added some of those flat marbles sold for fish bowls, and the kids were enthralled with them, scooping them up like treasure and using them to weigh down the water bottles while they filled them.

The children will explore and experiment as they find what makes the water bottles sink or float, what makes the bubbles appear and disappear, and how to use the various tools.  Small motor skills and hand-eye coordination are also enhanced during this enthralling play.  The children will love to fill and empty the bottles over and over again.  And you’ll love watching them learn and grow through play!

If you need a reminder as to the benefits of sensory play, read about them HERE.
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Gum Drop Adventures

While enjoying some family time at the cabin (the memorable scene I wrote about here) my sister-in-law pulled out a brilliant activity that I thought I would share with you all here!  There were three very simple ingredients, and you don’t have to live near a specialty store to find them: 

  1. Gum Drops
  2. Toothpicks
  3. Imagination

One long table scattered with paper plates full of candies and toothpicks instantly brought 24 kids running to the table to stack, stick, and snack their way through a fun, creative activity!

The activity is wonderfully open-ended so it was enticing and engaging for everyone at the table, ranging in age from 3 to 16!

The kids had a blast creating everything from simple barbells and human figures to complex castles and cathedral-like structures.

They were all on summer vacation so I didn’t ruin the fun by pointing out that they were building fine motor skills, math skills like spatial awareness and geometry, and getting plenty of problem solving and science practice as they questioned and tested their many different attempts at structural integrity.

Simple supplies.  Open-ended exploration.  Tons of learning objectives.  And smiles like this!  Why not give it a try?

Top photo by Silvio Gabriel Spannenberg.

All other photos by the amazing Joan Taylor!
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Take it Apart!

If you’d like to promote creativity, curiosity, language, small motor skills, and scientific problem-solving in your young children, you don’t need to buy something new.  In fact, you need something old.

Children love to see inside of things, particularly electronics!  All the wires and mysterious circuit boards.  Seeing levers and knobs connect with the movement of previously unseen parts.  Give them that opportunity by handing them a few simple tools and an old gadget.  Then set them loose!  They can’t break what’s already broken, but they just might learn something from it!

The Hunt

Find an old electronic item in your home, or (if you’re the one person in America who really did get all the spring cleaning done this year and you really have nothing you should part with) go to a garage sale or thrift store.  I most recently used an old stereo that had been through a few too many remodeling projects, was covered in drywall mud, and the knobs and tuners were starting to go out.  (Though I think the cassette player was still in top condition, so we could still listen to my college mix tape.)  Radios are great for this project, but so are phones, toasters —almost anything!

Safety First

Cut the power cord off and/or remove any batteries before opening the item or setting the kiddos loose on it.  Be a little familiar with the item you are using and be aware of any special safety considerations.  Obviously, you also want to be aware of any children who may be “mouthers” with this activity.  There are a lot of small parts involved, so if that’s going to cause a concern, adapt or postpone this activity.

Have Some Fun

I like to put the object on a table or inside my sensory bin (that way, all the tools, screws, and disconnected pieces stay in one place).  Open the item ahead of time, just to be sure you know you can get it open quickly.  Sometimes there are some well-hidden screws or connective plastic.  You don’t want the children to get too antsy waiting for 10 minutes while you figure it all out.  (It would be like Christmas morning with the billions of twisty ties and kids ready to play!)

Inspect the inside for potential problems, and then put it back together, loosely inserting just a few screws to speed up the process for the little ones.  Provide the children with screwdrivers, pliers, safety goggles, tweezers, magnifiers, even Q-tips.  Let them explore the “innards” of some spectacular gizmo. 

They may simply examine all the treasures inside.  They may experiment and hypothesize as to how the parts work together.  They may pretend to “fix” the item or to build something new from it.  Dramatic play may come into the mix as they talk about creating a robot, fixing their spaceship, or any number of exciting storylines.

Kids could spend all day with their fingers and brains going to task on this activity.  And it doesn’t even have to cost you a penny.  Now that’s got to feel good!

Photo by Bartek Ambrozik.
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Filed under fine motor skills, Learning through Play and Experience, science activity, sensory activity