Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Learning Through Games: Fine Motor Skills

by Lea Sidoti, co-coordinator of Labyrinth's Educational Outreach Programs

This is the second article in our series on learning through non-electronic games. Our first article covered cooperative games. The idea behind this series of articles is to explain some of the concepts that we address during our educational outreach efforts, like after-school game clubs, as well as provide our readers with the names of some great games and puzzles.

Whether you're shuffling cards, moving player pawns, or piecing together a jigsaw puzzle, games and puzzles require the use of your hands. That probably sounds like a pretty obvious statement; using your hands to manipulate objects isn't much of a challenge to most adults, so it isn't something we usually think about. But for young children, as well as individuals with disabilities, games can provide important opportunities to practice fine motor skills and develop abilities to help them gain independence and essential life skills.

Motor skills, the controlled ability to move your body, are generally divided into two groups: fine and gross. Gross motor skills involve full body movements, such as running and jumping, while fine motor skills specifically focus on the hands. Fine motor abilities include tying shoelaces, stacking blocks, and holding a pencil or paintbrush. The development of these and other physical skills is connected to the development of cognitive skills: Tying their own shoes allows a child to feel independent and self-confident. Building a tower teaches a child to think about balance, size, and shape. Learning to write or create artwork gives a person a new method of communication.

One of the first skills that babies learn is how to open and close their fingers to form a fist. Grasping toys are great tools to encourage this motion, and supporting the weight of the toy also improves a baby’s strength. We carry a variety of animal shaped grasping toys from Melissa and Doug and a classic toy called Skwish from Manhattan Toys. All of these toys are designed for small hands, and have some freedom of movement so babies can stretch and squash them, leading to further muscle development.

After mastering the ability to hold and move objects, a good new challenge to tackle is balancing objects. A few games provide this practice at varying levels of difficulty. One of the simplest is Stack Up!, where players work together to build a tower of large square blocks. The game comes with two batons, which children may use to hold the blocks indirectly, adding to the challenge as they advance in skill. A more complex option is Animal Upon Animal, where players stack wooden animal figures instead of blocks. The irregular shapes are harder to fit together, so stacking them requires more thought.

Pick-up sticks and Jenga are great examples of advanced fine motor skill games. They also illustrate how physical skills are closely tied to mental abilities. In these games, it is just as important to look closely at the pieces and make predictions about how they are dependent upon each other as it is to control your movements very precisely. If you are already familiar with these games and would like a new challenge, Suspend is a great game to check out. In Suspend, players hang pieces off of a base, trying to build up a suspended structure without upsetting the balance.

Many other games require fine motor skills without focusing on them exclusively. General skills that can be found in many games include rolling dice, shuffling and dealing cards, holding a hand of cards, and placing pieces or tiles on a board. Although fine motor skills are essential to the total development of a person’s body and brain, it is easy as adults to take our own abilities for granted and forget that these games and other activities provide babies and children much needed practice to gain basic coordination of their hands and minds.

Some of our other favorite games that focus on fine motor skills include:
  • Strong Stuff!
  • Perplexus
  • Jacks
  • Puzzles
  • Wobble Around Beads
  • Chickyboom
  • Rhino Hero
  • Treasure, Ready, Go!
  • Kee Kee the Rocking Monkey
  • Coo Coo the Clown
  • Zimbbos!
  • My Very First Games: Feeling and Touching
  • Latches Board
  • Basic Skills Board


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