In-Hand Manipulation Activities. Why they Help Handwriting

In-hand manipulation is the ability to move small objects around in the palm of the hand without the other hand helping.  It is an important skill for our children to develop because it is what enables them to pick up and adjust their pencil in their hand.  Along with in-hand manipulation skills, we are also going to explore some in-hand manipulation activities you can use to help your child.

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It is in-hand manipulation that enables your child to pick up their pencil and turn it around so the point is facing the page.  The tiny in-hand muscles also help with manipulating the pencil for handwriting, so it is a really important skill.

It is not enough that our children can hold their pencils.  If they just pick them up and hold them, they may not be in the best position for writing.  Our child need to be able to hold them, but they also need to move them.  This ability to move a pencil, or any object, in their hand is called in-hand manipulation.

The researchers have looked at how children move things within their hands and have divided the types of movement into three categories.  If you are more of a practical person than a theory person, you could skip this part, and go to the part where we talk about how to develop these skills.

In-hand manipulation types

Translation

Sometimes we move something we are holding in the palm of our hands, up into our fingertips.  We use this movement when we have a bunch of coins in our hands and need to pay for parking.  We feed the coin up into our fingertips, and post it into the machine.  The movement can also happen in reverse if you move something from your palm into your fingertips.  This is an easier aspect of in-hand manipulation because the fingers move as a unit.

Rotation

Rotation is exactly that.  But it can happen in two different ways. You could rotate your pen in your fingertips.  This is a simple rotation movement.  Or, you could make your pencil do a somersault.  This is way more complex and requires sequential movements of the fingers to shift the pencil through 180°. Rotation is more complex than translation because the fingers need to move on an individual sequential basis.

Shift

This is movement parallel to the fingers.  For example, a pencil is moved in a straight line as the fingers creep up the pencil.

In-hand manipulation improves with age

In-hand manipulation is a developing skill.  A child of a year old can hold an object but cannot manipulate it.   From basic grasping, the ability to move and object around with the hand develops with age.  Research seems to indicate this is not typically achievable for a child younger than three years.  And this is just another reason why our children shouldn’t be encouraged to hold their pencil with a mature grasp before going through the normal developmental stages: their fingers are simply not yet ready for such isolated movements.

Younger children can still explore objects – they simply use two hands or do so.  But as their manipulation abilities develop, they are able to explore objects with one hand only.  In-hand manipulation is tricky for children to achieve before they have developed a stable and moving side of the hand.  So, your child needs to master these activities first and then move on to the in-hand manipulation activities.

A clue that children are battling with in hand manipulation is that they pick up their pen with one hand and then adjust it into a better position for writing with the other hand.

To develop in-hand manipulation we need to work on developing the tiny muscles, or intrinsic muscles, within the hand.  The traditional ideas of posting coins and placing pegs are really good for developing this skill.  And there are loads of other activities that develop in-hand manipulation.  My favourites are the ones that use the skill to create a game which they go on to play afterwards and keep developing the skill while they play.

Margaret from Your Therapy Source has a detailed post on in-hand manipulation with many different activities to choose from.

Warm up finger exercises for writing

These simple exercises which you can do with just a pencil, will assist your children to develop in-hand manipulation skills.

  1. With creeping movements of the fingers, climb up to the top of the pencil.
  2. Then climb down again. The climbing down is trickier which will give your children a challenge to work on.
  3. Somersaulting forwards develops the higher level in-hand skills which also need sequential isolation of the fingers.
  4. Somersaulting backwards can be challenging, but let your children persevere
  5. Rotating the pencil forwards and backwards is a critical in-hand foundation for handwriting so worth pursuing even if it is difficult.

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Ice-cream in-hand manipulation activity

I love activities that require the movement we are looking for to assemble them and then continue to require it as our children play

  1. Cut out the rectangle.
  2. Roll it up to form a cone shape and glue the edge.  Rolling the cone can be a bit fiddly.  You need to roll it and then match the upper points of the page to form the apex of the cone.  Once you have got this, you will just need to adjust it slightly to form the cone.
  3. Using the preferred hand only, crumple a piece of light weight paper into a ball.  Encourage the child to crumple and turn the ball as they progress.
  4. Glue the blob of ice-cream into the cone
  5. Show your child how to use their fingers to rotate the cone, first in one direction and then the other.

You can even do a Christmas ball variation!

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In closing about in-hand manipulation skills

In-hand manipulation develops with age.  Without it, our children are able to hold an object in a static position but not to move it about within their hand.  Fun activities can help develop this skill and with it, improve handwriting quality.

©Bunty McDougall
Occupational Therapist

I learnt about in-hand manipulation from one of my favourite books, Hand Function in the Child:  If you want to learn about fine motor skills and handwriting foundations, this book is a must!  Henderson, A. and Pehoski, C., 2006. Hand Function In The Child. St. Louis, Mo.: Mosby/Elsevier.

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