Fine Motor Practise. Colouring and the Broken Crayon Debate.

There are a lot of opinions as to whether we should be asking our children to colour pictures and colour within the lines.  I am not going to jump into that contentious minefield here!  I am, however, going to focus on colouring, fine motor practise and the broken crayon debate, and looking at how and if colouring helps fine motor skills.

Can we use colouring for fine motor skills?  And if so, should we brake crayons for fine motor practise?

Does coloring help fine motor skills?

The most critical thing we need to do when introducing any activity to achieve a specific goal, is to analyse what is happening.  We need to be clear about our goals and then watch carefully and analyse if we are getting the movement or output skill we are aiming for.

What handwriting foundations do we need?

If our goal from colouring is to develop the pre-writing skills and handwriting foundations, then we need to be sure we are getting them.  And if we aren’t, we need to know, so we can develop those foundations in other ways.

The supporting muscles and movement patterns for pencil control require the following:

  1. Functional forearm position.
  2. Wrist stability and extension.
  3. Separation of the two sides of the hand, with stability on the little finger side of the hand.
  4. The ability to move the-three-friends® (the thumb, index and middle fingers) independently from the hand.
  5. Finger strength.
  6. The ability to move objects around within the hand.
  7. The ability to rest the forearm and hand on the table while writing.

If colouring develops the handwriting foundations, then we can include it in our repertoire for fine motor practise.  If we are talking colouring, we need to address the idea of breaking crayons.

Should we break crayons?

There is a movement, which seems to have a cult following, which says we should break our children's crayons into small pieces.

Using small broken crayons does require a firm hold on them with the-three-friends.  This is going to develop the tiny in-hand muscles.  If we use tiny crayons, there is not enough surface area for all the fingers to hold on.  So,for the most part, our children are going to be developing the active and supporting sides of the hand.

The breaking crayons movement was born from the thinking that colouring with small pieces of broken crayons promotes development of the small muscles of the hand.  And it absolutely does!  So, yes please: use broken crayons for fine motor practise muscle development!  BUT!  With me there is always a but...

Broken crayons don’t always develop all handwriting foundations

While holding onto the small crayon pieces requires the small in-hand muscles to work, it often promotes the use of a whole arm movement.  So we are getting one aspect of fine motor practice, but we are not promoting the forearm and hand to be resting on the table.

In addition, while broken crayons are working hard on developing those tiny in-hand muscles, they are not always promoting the developing of the discrete, refined finger movements we need for fluidity of handwriting.  If these finger movements have yet to emerge, your child is going to be initiating movement for handwriting from their knuckles, wrist, or even their whole arm.  This is inefficient and tiring and handwriting speed, and most probably legibility as well, are going to be compromised.

We need to use broken crayons as one of the strategies on our list of fine motor activities, but we need other things as well.

So, yes please, use broken crayons for small muscle development, but add activities that promote the resting of the forearm and hand on the table, along with those for developing the refined finger movements for handwriting.

Amy from Kids Play Smarter, also weighs in on the issue of broken crayons.

Colouring for fine motor skills: watch out for the hyperextended thumb

If your child displays the tendency for their thumb to bend backwards like a banana when they are drawing or writing, tiny broken crayons are not for them!  The small size re-inforces the very pattern we are working against when we are working on developing the refined finger movements.

Block and novelty crayons

I love block crayons.  I have also made a range of different small crayons using ice-trays.  These are not only appealing, but they promote holding with the-three-friends®, and stability of the tuck-down-two®.  I would encourage a range of different shaped crayons that are going to allow for small muscle development and require the child to adapt to the different shapes and sizes.

Does coloring help fine motor skill with a regular sized crayon?

We also need to analyse what movements we are getting when your child colours with a regular crayon or a twisty.  For the most part, unless there are small areas to be coloured, your child is going to use large movements from the elbow or wrist to colour.  There is nothing wrong with this – we would all colour a large area like this.  But, we do need to be sure to add in fine motor practise activities that require small areas to be coloured to promote the emergence of the finger movements.

Promoting the use of small crayons for colouring for fine motor skills

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There is nothing better than sending your child off on an exciting journey, and all the while knowing you are achieving fine motor practise!  This texture scavenger hunt requires your child to find the texture and then reprduce it alongside the example.

  1. Grab your scavenger hunt download at the end of this post.
  2. Prepare the scavenger hunt texture sheet by finding different textures and colouring them clearly in the block.
  3. I found that the raised brand stamps on plastic surfaces worked really well.
  4. Dark colours work best.  Yellows just don't do the texture rubbing justice.
  5. Give your child a supply of small crayon pieces for fine motor practise.
  6. Send them off to find the different textures and colour the large rectangle to reproduce the example.
  7. There is a lot of small muscle work that is going to take place in the hand!

In closing about colouring for fine motor skills

Colouring does absolutely target some of the handwriting foundations and as such, has a place in our list of fine motor activities to help fine motor development.  But, it doesn't promote the forearm and wrist resting on the page.  Neither does it facilitate the development of the discrete dynamic finger movements we need for speed and legibility of handwriting.  We need to be sure to add in other activities to ensure our children have the benefit of developing all of the handwriting foundations.

©Bunty McDougall
Occupational Therapist

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