As an occupational therapist working in an interdisciplinary program for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), I often am leading groups of five to six children at a time.
When planning our group activities, I strive to find the optimal way to facilitate improvement of each child’s fine motor skills at once.
One of my favorite activities to lead is coloring—a quick internet search and I can find everyone’s favorite character in coloring page form, and off we go.
There are significant benefits to sitting down and completing a coloring page with a pack of good old-fashioned crayons. Namely, a child’s fine motor coordination benefits greatly from coloring.
Think of it as a workout for the hand and arm. When children use crayons to color a complete page, they are building the strength and endurance of all the musculature in their fingers, palm, and forearm.
In addition, they are learning how to control a tool with their fingers in order to stay within a boundary. A child’s fine motor control and handwriting can both be improved from this practice.
There is absolutely a right way and a wrong way to color, and it’s all about grasp. Children first grasp items as infants with their whole fist, gradually moving toward using only their fingers as their skills mature.
Here is a great image that shows the typical development of a child’s grasp and gives parents an idea of the progression we want to see, leading up to the most mature dynamic tripod grasp:
Figure 1 Pictured from left to right: Cylindrical grasp (~1.5 years), Digital pronate grasp (~2-3 years), Modified tripod grasp (~3.5-4 years).
Figure 2 Pictured: Dynamic tripod grasp (4.5 years and up).
If children color using an immature grasp, such as a cylindrical “fisted” grasp after 2 years of age, no real muscle work or small finger movement is happening. It’s hard to reposition a child into a better grasp because they tend to revert back to what is habitual and easy. I’ve discovered that providing the right crayons for children naturally encourages the grasp I want them to use—the more finger involvement, the better!
As a general rule, broken crayons are best, as their small size means a child cannot fist their hand around them. I tend to stay away from markers and jumbo crayons; these are just too large for little hands and encourage a fisted grasp, which is the opposite of what I want when building fine motor skill.
Here are the top five crayons I recommend to facilitate improvement in fine motor skills, in order from beginner skill level to most mature.
1. Finger Crayons (2-3 years or skill equivalent)
These introductory crayons give children a nice, round bulb to put in their palm and start to encourage fingers pointed towards the tip.
2. Crayon Rocks (3-4 years or skill equivalent)
The small size of these crayons encourages a nice pincer grasp and encourages a child to use their fingers instead of their whole hand.
3. Broken Large Crayons (3-4 years or skill equivalent)
The same concept as crayon rocks, broken large crayons encourage a child’s index finger, middle finger, and thumb to have the most involvement when coloring.
4. Large Triangle Crayons (4-5 years or skill equivalent)
Triangle crayons help cue and teach a tripod grasp by naturally providing a space for each finger to rest when grasping the crayon. I often still break the triangle crayons at this stage.
5. Regular Crayons (5-6 years or skill equivalent)
By this time, your child can hold the skinniest of crayons and build up the endurance and musculature to fine-tune their maturing grasp. You can still break them at this point if need be!
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From here your child will be ready for pencils, colored pencils, and beyond. Keep in mind, many times children with fine motor delays will move through the grasp progression on their own timeline.
Individual children’s needs vary, so these are meant to be general guidelines. Try them with your child at home and get those coloring pages out! If you have any specific questions about your child’s grasp, an occupational therapist will be able to help.
This article was featured in Issue 100 – Best Tools And Strategies For Autism