by Mary Edstrohm

More fine motor play will lead to more writing the preschool way

As I began the year with high expectations for all my students, I was greeted with a group of students who had many challenges. Each year the challenges are different from the year before and the range of development is broad. This year I received a class seeming to lack many of the basic fine motor skills that most Pre-K students have–or at least I have had in past years. I rose to this challenge and devised my own personal mission to move my students to the next level in this area of development.

Thus I posed the question for this action research project, “Will increasing the amount of fine motor opportunities throughout the day make a direct impact on fine motor skills in my students in a short period of time?” My assumption was that there would be some progress, but I was amazed and intrigued at the results of this trial experience.

To begin my research, I utilized my previous knowledge regarding the importance of fine motor skills. I found evidence validating my assumptions. I also elevated my level of understanding to just how important fine motor skills were to future success. Many of the articles explained the motor skills as a foundation for so many other skills utilized in the upper grades. Hand dexterity and motor planning, vital daily life skills, I believed could be strengthened, thus lead to more confidence in exploring other areas of development. Being able to express my ideas on paper could be liberating, and using the focus on fine motor skills would help me get those ideas on paper.

I began the project evaluating all my students’ fine motor skills. Our program used Creative Curriculum Desired Results Developmental Profile (DRDP) as an assessment tool. I was able to use two of the measures to assess the area of fine motor–emergent writing and fine motor. After assessing all  in my Pre-Kindergarten class, I decided to target three students of varied levels. One male student lacked the skills to even hold the writing tools with a fist grasp and was very reluctant to even attempt to draw or write. Another male student was a child who could write the first letter of his name and had a high grasp on a writing tool with light pressure. The final targeted student was female who had the ability to write her name and was just beginning to write her last name and other letters.

With this baseline data, I began researching and planning how to implement more fine motor options in my classroom.  Using the basic schedule of our day, I decided to add fine motor opportunities throughout the day.

Some parts of the day such as bathroom, snack and gross motor times were points when students, without too much intervention or planning, used fine motor muscles. While waiting for a turn in bathroom, finger plays are used to engage students. Silly songs such as “Sticky sticky bubble gum” or “Five Little Monkeys” were used to entertain the students waiting but also as a workout for their little fingers. At snack time, I added snack scissors to the tables for students to open their own snacks independently and small pitchers of water for pouring water. With simple prompts and redirections, the children were able to navigate these tools on the table. Gross motor time was a bit more difficult because the children had many options for large muscle gross motor play (running, jumping, climbing), and teacher directed activities were met with reluctance. I added wheel barrow walking to an inside gross motor time, and the children enjoyed the novelty of it.

Our day always began with choice time, a time for arrival and an option for cooperative play with peers. My students are very social, and definite areas are more popular than others. The block area and dramatic play area, big hot spots in my room, had a fine motor component as part of the play. Building with Magna tiles or playing cars in the garage, the children worked on fine motor and social skills. The dramatic play area offered fine motor options such as playing with pretend food, pushing buttons on the cash register, or manipulating plastic people in the doll house.

Dressing up with costumes and working puzzles were other ways to use the fine motor muscles. The writing center was always stocked with cards, note pads and golf pencils for writing. Manipulatives such as Unifix cubes and small building blocks were rarely used and tended to be used by individual students–not a group of children. There had not been intentional planning of fine motor lessons in those activities. All these areas were just places for practical use of fine motor muscles.  I had to find more engaging and interesting choices to implement during this time of our day for fostering growth in the area of fine motor.

My research led me to explore enticing options for children.  My first idea was to add journals, writing two times a week as part of arrival procedures. The journal writing, done with parent assisting, included a different daily journal prompt. The children were to draw their response to the prompt, and the parents were to label their work for them. The goal was that as the year progressed, the children would label their own work. I also added a sign-in sheet. The sheets were in protector sleeves with each child’s name listed. The sheets were elevated on binders on an incline. Each day the children identified their names and drew  different letters or shapes. This daily practice was for name recognition and fine motor practice. We referred to the process as Checking In. This meaningful practice was to progress to the children signing in with the letters in their name.

In the sensory area, I began to add turkey basters and pipettes to the water table, an area loved by all my students.  Beyond mere pouring or digging, students skills became more strategic.  Using the pipettes in the water table to squirt ping-pong balls was challenging but forced children to use their fingers as a power source. Gluing beans or using push pins to make holes to outline the first letter of their name on paper, students’ interest spiked.  Cutting paper to make grass for a model magic insect gave a purpose to their work.  I encouraged the use of liquid glue for art projects rather than glue sticks to promote squeezing and the use of small collage materials (pompoms, buttons, foam pieces, feathers) for refining thumb-finger grasping.  In addition, I supplemented the Play-Doh during our monster theme by adding small goggle eyes, toothpicks, pasta and yarn.  Utilizing Gak as an alternative to Play-Doh provided a sensory option and a new material to push, twist, and cut. Every day during choice time, I intentionally planned at least two fine motor options outside of the block and dramatic play area.

Having tackled how to add to choice time, I pursued adding fine motor opportunities to the more structured parts of the day in both large and small groups settings. The class routinely participated in two finger plays before the story “Thumbs Go Up” and “Open Shut Them.” To make it more enticing, students could do these finger plays in different voices or without a voice. The children seemed engaged with the process and loved changing the way these exercises were performed. I had to draw on lessons from our Handwriting Without Tears curriculum for songs and additional finger plays to implement during large group.

Large group was also a great time to answer a Question of the Day. We graphed our answers on a vertical dry-erase board. The response was to be written by each student as an X, a shape, or first letter in his/her name. Another aspect of our large group was yoga. One child was the yogi and he/she decided the three yoga poses for the day. Yoga poses enlisted many of the deep muscles in shoulders and wrists that help in writing as well.

I focused on ways to increase more fine motor options in literacy and math small groups. In preschool almost every lesson had to be hands-on to keep children engaged. However, making those hands exercise smaller muscles required modifying how to execute lessons. Some of the lessons were drawn out of the Handwriting Without Tears curriculum (rolling dough to make letters or magic slates for writing letters and shapes) while we discovered others through the research. I found more options for writing practice. Literacy lessons provided time to write or draw responses to journal prompts. I found ways to make it interesting to copy names with broken crayons. Using sensory materials such as shaving crème or sand provided ways to trace letters with an index finger. In addition, I added scooter boards and wheel barrow walking to small group lessons that required the students to match rhyming word pictures or match letters, fishing games to match shapes, number or letters—these required steady shoulders and elbows to pick up items. These were other ways to strengthen other muscles in shoulders and hands.

Finger Gym was a site I researched, and it provided ideas for fine motor practice that I incorporated into a small group lesson. Students used tweezers to sort items or to add items to a set during a dice game. Patterning with beads on pipe cleaners or with Unifix cubes demonstrated ways to work two areas of development (cognition and motor) at the same time. During one small group, the children experimented with making balls with Play-Doh (representing pumpkins) to decide which pumpkin would roll faster down a ramp–large or small balls of dough. In the same way, we experimented with making shadow puppets with our fingers during our study of shadows. Mixing colors with our fingers while painting a large jack-o-lantern or in small jars with eye droppers, students put fine motor muscles into action. By using their fingers as tools, the children manipulated and demonstrated what they knew.

While the data I chose to collect on the three students was a key focus, I was cognizant of the other students in this process as well. I planned to assess journal entries (two times a week) based on the DRDP tool. I also took photos of the grasp and ability of the children to manipulate the tools in large and small group setting. And finally, I took anecdotal notes on participation in some of the choice time activities to see if there were more or less participation by the three target students.

As a result of the weeks of intensive fine motor exposure, I noticed some significant changes. My student who demonstrated a deficit in fine motor skills made progress in relation to the measures on the DRDP. He began the year only making circles over and over. Currently, he can write five of the six letters in his name. They may not always be in order, but they are the correct letters. He can verbalize the letters as he writes without a model. He needed at times reminders on his grasp during writing or cutting but completed a task with the proper adjustment. During choice time, he originally only played with cars or large animals. After the interventions, he participated in Play-Doh or the sensory table. He seemed engaged, playing in these areas and focused for at least ten minutes. Art activities that required cutting or gluing were not his first choice at the beginning of the year and required hand over hand assistance to complete a task. After the interventions he attended if called to participate, and he stayed engaged for short periods of time. He was not very detailed in his drawings or art but completed the task. Though he did not utilize the writing center, he did use the kitchen area with costumes. After interventions of the action research, he really enjoyed building magnet tiles and continued, primarily playing in this area. In small group, he was able to use the added tools (tweezers, pipettes, broken crayons) with little assistance. Besides the growth in writing letters, he has grown in confidence. He began the year with his hands at his sides during journal time stating, “I can’t do it,” in response to a request to draw something on paper. Writing any letter in his name was a struggle. He didn’t want to even try and wanted hand over hand help.  After the action research interventions, he wrote some letters in his name to label his work. He checked in on the sign-in sheet independently and made the required letter or shape. He asked for help at times but was more willing to attempt writing a new letter or shape.

The student who began the year with some fine motor skills also made progress. He began the year with a fist grasp and needed prompts to reposition his hand. Able only to write the first letter, he was willing to engage in art activities independently. He cut with scissors and glued objects. Sensory table and Play-Doh interested him during choice time. The additional items added to these areas of the room enticed him to participate for longer periods–up to 15 minutes at times. Building with Magna tiles and playing with the pretend money were still his favorite activities during choice time. In small groups, he fully participated with the new tools added for fine motor practice. As a result of the intensive fine motor exposure, he was able to write all the letters of his first name in upper and lower case. He changed his grasp to a more tripod grasp and used the proper placement of his fingers when cutting with scissors. More importantly, his confidence grew. He wrote his name on his projects independently. He went to the writing area to get a pencil to make notes and explain his writings. His face beamed with pride when he showed you his name in print.

Finally, the third student had the highest ability standing of the targeted students, able to write her name at the beginning of this project.  Left-handed, she wrote her name in upper and lower case letters. She made progress in that she was more apt to try to write more letters to label her work. She identified and labeled all the letters of the alphabet, and if I spelled a word for her, she attempted to write the letter without a model. She enjoyed collage materials and drew objects as she painted at the easel. During choice time, she enjoyed Play-Doh and created different things with the dough.  She struggled at first with learning to use the pipettes in the water table but eventually mastered the process. Her interest in writing seemed to increase, and she added more details to her drawings.

Increasing the fine motor possibilities throughout the day did make an impact. The targeted students made progress, according to the data I collected. Assessing progress via the DRDP tool and observed grasp skills were only part of the process.  Perhaps more important, I noted shifts in student confidence.  The two male students of the targeted group were more engaged in the fine motor options during choice time. The female student made progress in her ability to write more letters. Daily practice in the area of fine motor was rewarded with growth in ability and confidence.  This was what I expected. Having writing tools in their hands daily and with a purpose, all my students were encouraged to do more exploration. As the year progresses, I assume they will build on these successes to become more proficient in writing.

An unexpected aspect of the project was not factoring parental input. Two of my targeted students had parents helping at home with name writing practice, unaware their children were a part of my project. They were just being supportive of lessons from the classroom. I wonder if the input by the parents added to the positive impact. Many times writing practice drills at home will make children see writing as a chore. On the other hand, the children may see a purpose to name writing and are proud of the accomplishment. I’m not sure how to use this type of data in future projects.

The use of two areas of development working together seemed relevant in small group lessons too. The children counted or sorted using their cognitive skills while utilizing their fine motor skills to demonstrate their work. Expressing ideas or responding to prompts with pictures employed the combined use of language and fine motor skills. It seemed like a win-win situation for all concerned. The bonus was the boost to the level of confidence of all the students and to me as a teacher.

The targeted students made progress, as did the class and even the teacher during this project. It enabled me to become more confident and creative in utilizing fine motor options within lessons. It was a way to build my children’s confidence in their ability to write and my ability to provide practice opportunities.

An asset of this project was the link between student engagement and the use of fine motor opportunities throughout the day. During choice time, the children stayed longer at areas with varied fine motor options. In small groups, having tweezers to practice with pompoms, while waiting for their turn, kept children on task and less disruptive. Rolling Play-Doh to make letters was more engaging than making the same letter over and over on paper. Large group finger plays have become a way to increase student focus before a story. Having engaged students is a key to learning.

Because my students demonstrated new confidence, I am willing to attempt new ideas in my classroom. I tend to be very thematic in my planning, and researching options to fit my teaching style would make lessons more comprehensive. I’m willing to expand this project. I want to explore utilizing many of these ideas with my morning class of three-year-olds. I wonder if the impact would be the same on this set of students who only attend two days a week. I also hope that my Pre-K students will build on their stronger fine motor skills to the next level and discover more inventive spelling as the year evolves.

As the research has stated, fine motor skills are the foundation for future successes. The potential for all students only gets brighter when we pair strong fine motor skills with increased engagement.