Hand strengthening for kids. Q-tips, clothes pegs and broken crayons.

I have always enjoyed analysing popular hand strengthening activities for kids to see if they offer the benefits they claim to. Are broken crayons all they are cracked up to be? Do q-tips develop the small muscles of the hands, and are clothes pegs doing the job they claim? Do these activities get the thumbs up for hand strengthening activities for kids?

Let’s start analysing!

I have grouped these three unlikely activities because of their impact on the thumb.

Children often assume a hyperextended thumb to compensate for reduced hand strength, a lack of endurance, or poor stability. By locking the thumb joint into hyperextension, our children gain stability. The locked position does not require the ongoing active muscle work that the flexed position requires. Instead, it is locked there, so the muscles get a pass.

Hand strengthening for kids can promote the hyperextended thumb position. We need to keep this in mind when working with our children.

Why does a hyperextended thumb matter?

As soon as the thumb assumes this locked hyperextended position, the pencil grasp shifts into the category of an inefficient grasp. We know an efficient grasp requires the presence of finger movements which offer speed and quality to handwriting.  But lock that thumb into hyperextension, and movement for writing is no longer achieved from the movement of the thumb.  The only way movement can be achieved is from subtle movements of the wrist.  On a biomechanical level, they are simply unable to move their fingers if their thumb is locked into this position.  When children present with this grasp, we do everything we can to encourage repositioning of the thumb into the bent (or flexed) position.  I have said before that I believe handwriting should have been called finger writing because it is the finger movements that facilitate the speed and refined pencil control required for fluency of handwriting.  As soon as a child relies on wrist movements, the degree of precision, along with handwriting speed, is compromised.

And image from a blog post by Bunty McDougall from The Happy Handwriter on hand strengthening for kids. It highlights that it is the movement of the fingers which promotes speed and quality of handwriting.

Q-tips, broken crayons, and clothes pegs are billed as ideal hand strengthening activities for kids

Years ago, I had every conceivable type of clothes peg in my occupational therapy practice.  We made Lion King ones, Nemos, and of course, Disney princesses.  We picked up jelly tots and every other imaginable item. We were working on the-three-friends®.  For those of you who don’t know, the-three-friends – the thumb, index, and middle fingers – are my best friends when it comes to handwriting.  You could even call them my bff’s.  These are the fingers that hold and manipulate the pencil.  I continue to be alarmed by how children struggle to use them co-operatively together in activities – be it paper tearing, scrunching paper, or rolling modeling clay balls.  It is clear from this that our children need finger strengthening exercises to limit difficulties manipulating their pencils, and to develop good pencil control.

So, determined to give them a good workout, I turned to the humble clothes peg.  And the clothes peg did develop the bundle of muscles at the base of the thumb – I could see them developing, and I could see the children’s strength improve.  They were great exercises for hand strengthening activities for kids.

But there was one downside.  And that was the hyperextended or “over straightened thumb.”  It bends backward like a banana rather than assuming the bent forwards, or flexed position.  For those children who hold their pencils with this grasp, clothes pegs were not a good thing at all.

The degree of tension of the peg, the very thing that strengthens the muscles, frequently has the unfortunate consequence of forcing the thumb into hyperextension.  And while we are benefiting from hand strengthening for kids in one way, we are also reinforcing the position we are trying so hard to remediate.

Social media and hand strengthening activities for kids

I have seen countless numbers of photos on various social media platforms advocating for broken crayons and q-tip activities for hand strengthening for kids.  And so very often, they share one thing in common: a hyperextended thumb.

These activities do deliver what they promise.  They promise to develop the small muscles of the hands on account of them being thinner and smaller.  And it’s true.  They do.  But along with this small muscle development, they promote the hyperextend thumb position.  A simple: “hold with the tip of your thumb,” can place the thumb into the correct position when holding a q-tip.  But I am a champion of reducing the amount of external structure we superimpose on an activity, and I prefer if the position we want is inherently assumed.

If this is so, are these activities suitable for hand strengthening for kids?

Can we use these activities for hand strengthening for kids?

Some kids will hold these smaller, finer objects with a flexed thumb and and then you are good to go.  If they use the hyperextended thumb position your child will not suffer irreparable damage if they engage in the odd q-tip or broken crayons activity.  Picking up some treasures with a clothes peg will not cause a problem.  But if we are looking to develop the foundations for pencil grasp and pencil control in a vulnerable child, overusing these is not ideal.

Hand strengthening activities for kids can sometimes result in a hyperextended position of the thumb. Overuse of these with a vulnerable child are not ideal.

No blanket ban, just a caution to keep an eye out!

The hyperextended thumb is just something we need to look out for.  All you need to do is keep that thumb position in mind.  Something to be aware of so we don’t promote the very position we are hoping to avoid.  But for many of your children, using q-tips, clothes pegs and broken crayons is just fine.

What can we do to remediate the hyperextended thumb position?

Tip Grip Protocol

Don’t you just love it when the experts agree with your humble opinion?!  It seems occupational therapist, Jan McClesky from The Handwriting Clinic, feels the same way about the thumb as I do!  Her tip grip protocol is fantastic for remediating the hyperextended thumb.

Start Right Pencil Grip

The Start Right pencil grip developed by occupational therapist, Barbara Nichols is also one of my favourites for repositioning the hyperextended thumb.  The disc on the top repositions an hyperextended thumb.

Ark Butter Pencil Grip

The Ark Butter Pencil grip does the same.  Another occupational therapist, Tina Butterfield was instrumental in its design.  It was actually designed to open the web space but has the secondary benefit of flexing the IP joint of the thumb.

Toddler Easy Grip Crayons

Chunky toddler easy grip crayons with a bulb (for want of a better word) at the top also promote the flexed thumb position.

In closing about hand strengthening for kids

We need to be vigilant and constantly analysing to ensure our hand strengthening activities for kids are doing the exact job we hope they are. Watching out for a hyperextended thumb in q-tip, clothes peg, and broken crayon activities will ensure we don’t enforce the very patterns we are trying to avoid.

©Bunty McDougall
Occupational Therapist

A tortoise download from The Happy Handwriter for hand strengthening for kids.

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