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Fun ways to train fine motor skills – DIY and others

As shared in an earlier blog article , my #2 boy AC has been struggling with handwriting, caused by problems with visual-motor coordination and delayed fine motor development. We have been working on various aspects of his fine motor skills in fun ways to help him and we wanted to share some of these activities with you!

But first, what are fine motor skills? Here’s an excellent explanation from

  • Fine motor skills are the ability to make movements using the small muscles in our hands and wrists.

  • Fine motor skills are complex….they involve the coordinated efforts of the brain and muscles, and they’re built on the gross motor skills that allow us to make bigger movements.

Fig. 1 Cutting a DIY deco for National Day 2020

We employ our fine motor skills in all sorts of daily life activities like brushing our teeth, combing and styling our hair, buttoning a shirt or zipping a dress, putting on make-up (for the ladies!), using utensils especially chopsticks, typing on our phone or computer keyboards and so on. For children, fine motor skills are also critical in academic learning where they will need to manipulate different tools to draw, colour, paint, write, cut and paste, type…

One particularly challenging task for AC has been trying to use a pencil and a ruler to draw a decent straight line. I was frustrated at first that he couldn’t accomplish this seemingly simple task. However, I realized, after observing him, that it needed simultaneous coordination and control of 2 ‘apparatus’ with his left and right hand – not easy at all!

So keeping in mind that fine motor skills are important for daily life, and some tasks are actually quite complex, here are some ways we as parents can help to nurture the development of these skills at home:

Fig 2. AC trying to underline 19 Sept 2020

Kinetic Sand, Water Beads and all things sensory

1. Kinetic Sand and Mad Mattr Almost all children are drawn to play materials that involve their senses of sight, touch and even smell. Sensory play materials that children can handle with their hands in different ways - knead, roll, pinch, shape, cut – are great for them to unconsciously practice their fine motor skills.

Fig 3. The wonderous texture of Mad Mattr

We bought both Kinetic Sand and Mad Mattr when they were first released and everyone in the family was fascinated with the textures. Both types of sand can be shaped and cut just like normal sand, but thankfully, are easier to clean up (just use a lump of sand to stick up the loose bits). Take a look at this video to see the many ways these materials can be used. We preferred Mad Mattr as it had a firmer consistency – very satisfying for cutting through! AC formed blocks of “green chocolate” and cut them into little pieces with a plastic knife.

Fig 4. "Masak Masak" fun

2. “Orbeez” or Water Beads

Fig 5. Waterbeads from the neighbourhood market

The price of previously-known-as-Orbeez beads, or water beads, have dropped significantly and we were able to get 5 little packs for S$1 at our HDB market stall (what a steal!!!). These little beads, made of a superabsorbent polymer, grow up to over 100 times their size when left to soak in water. The result - beautiful translucent soft beads that are curiously satisfying to hold. AC loves to sort these by colour and count them – a task that requires him to use a controlled, gentle pincer hold (where you use your thumb and pointer finger to grasp something, see photo) to pick up each bead to place into sorting containers. We also let him use kitchen utensils (ladles, spoons, tongs) to transfer the beads between bowls, a great way to build the precursor skills needed to handle chopsticks!

3. Homemade Playdough

We have also been making our own playdough at home – there are many recipes but we have been using the easiest one from The Imagination Tree, which doesn’t require cooking [the cooking-needed recipes are akin to the tedious process of making kaya, where the adult has to stand at the stove and keep stirring a mixture in a pot until you get the right consistency!]. We use baby oil from the neighbourhood budget shop, in place of vegetable oil, and add essential oil (we get ours from this spa supply shop - lemon’s cheaper!) to our playdough for a soothing scent. Making the playdough is a fine motor exercise in itself – scooping ingredients and mixing them, dripping food dye and essential oil, then kneading until we get the ideal texture.

Fig 6. DIY no-cook playdough

Once the dough is made, then more fun begins. Besides forming shapes and rolling out the dough for cookie-cutter cutting, I also hide things in balls of dough for the boys to peel apart with their fingers to find.

Just note that non-cook playdough doesn’t last quite as long in Singapore’s warm and wet climate, so try to keep the dough in air-tight containers, only after it has cooled, and watch out for mould after a few weeks!

Fig 7. Home-based learning during Circuit Breaker

Toys: Lego and Skoolzy

Besides these DIY materials, we are also huge fans of Lego. The boys all started with Lego Duplo from about age 2-3. At 8, AC still enjoys Duplo as the larger pieces are much easier for him to handle, but we manged to graduate him to the actual smaller Lego pieces in the past year, and he finally did his own set, following the printed instructions, past Christmas. I love the Creator 3-in-1 sets as I find them real ‘value for money’ – the boys follow the instructions to build something fancy, then they take it all apart and follow more instructions to build something else just as fancy! The fine motor, visual-motor and visual-spatial training they get with each build is priceless.

Fig 8. One of the boys' many creations with Duplo

I also had the chance to get the boys to “test run” Skoolzy toys that are available on our e-shop. They immediately came up with their own ways to use these toys without me having to provide any instructions. The hardy, well-made pieces were able to withstand the sorts of rough handling that little boys are famous for. I found that the selection of toys were great for training different aspects of fine motor skills (pegging, threading, screwing things on) and the boys got to learn about colours, shapes and counting at the same time. They were learning through play, just as Skoolzy’s CEO had designed the toys for!


About the Author

Hsin Ee is a mum of a bunch of rowdy and active boys. If you see a woman hollering madly at three boys in a shopping mall or a MRT station, it's probably her.


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