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Valuable as an end in themselves, activities that encourage the development of fine motor skills are also a prerequisite for writing, says Judith Stevens

Fine motor skill development is too important to be left to chance, and while there are clearly many opportunities throughout the early years environment to foster children's fine motor development (see bottom box page 22), early years practitioners need to assess the opportunities that can be capitalised on throughout the learning environment. Some settings even choose to provide a designated area for enhancing fine motor skills as part of their provision (see top box page 22).

Construction area

Construction is an obvious activity in which children can develop their fine motor control. As with other areas of the setting, practitioners need to monitor the range of equipment available. For example, are there kits that stack, screw together and interlock in different ways? Practitioners should also plan to spend time with construction activities, helping children to develop their capacity to build models.

Creative workshop

Children also need opportunities to construct using an assortment of reclaimed items, and to use a wide range of collage materials, either in the creative workshop or, if on a very large scale, outdoors. Additionally, there should be adult-initiated activities involving woodworking tools, such as pliers, saws, screwdrivers and hammers.

Activities in the creative workshop are intrinsically linked to physical development. There are numerous opportunities to cut, tear, sort and fix assorted materials in collage activities and to pour water to mix paints which can be applied with a varied selection of tools. (see 'Hands on', Anne O'Connor, Nursery World, 13 June 2002).

Imaginative and role play

Imaginative and role play situations offer opportunities for children to manipulate fastenings with dolls' clothes and dressing-up clothes - press-studs, buttons, zips, laces and belts.

Practitioners should also plan to include threading, sewing and weaving as a regular part of the curriculum. Children enjoy weaving with paper and threading fabric, ribbon and wool through open-meshed materials. Similarly, sewing can progress from simply lacing through large punched-out holes in cardboard shapes, to sewing using binca, hessian and large blunt-ended tapestry needles.

Outdoors

Physical activities outdoors need to be carefully planned to offer children the chance to develop control of different parts of their bodies. These activities should offer challenge within a safe, controlled environment and include opportunities to:

* gain spatial awareness by moving up, under, over, through, inside or around

* develop arm strength by pushing, pulling, carrying, or rolling large objects such as barrels, trolleys, balls and blocks

* develop use of specific small apparatus - bats, balls, quoits, beanbags

* gain control of wheeled equipment.

Practical support

It is not enough to simply provide resources and 'supervise' their use.

Practitioners should plan to set up 'obstacle courses' or 'targets', and interact with children, offering verbal encouragement and practical support.

Target games. Resources

Skittles made from plastic bottles weighted with water or sand, boxes or tins and assorted objects to throw

* Children love to throw things and many natural objects or reclaimed materials can be turned into targets or items to be thrown.

* Knock down skittles with balls of wool or fir cones.

* Throw shells, fir cones or pebbles into boxes or tins.

* Knock down sealed coffee, or other, tins with pebbles covered in assorted fabrics.

* Soak used tea-bags in paint and throw them at a large bull's eye on the floor or on a wall. Children can divide into teams, with each team using a different colour paint.

Streamers.

Resources

Long strips of fabric, cellophane or ribbons (particularly light fabrics such as silk or chiffon)

* Get children to follow an adult leader, running, hopping or skipping, pulling streamers behind them. Cellophane has the added advantage of being quite noisy as it blows and the children will enjoy seeing the streamers twisting and twirling.

* Encourage the children to experiment with varying arm movements, such as waving arms up and down, flicking wrists.

* Extend the activity to include 'sky writing' with ribbons and streamers, possibly attached to wooden sticks.

Parachute games. Resources

The correct size parachute, suitable for about eight children

* The children and at least two adults grasp the parachute firmly around the edges, lift it into the air and allow it to fall.

* Give each child the name of an animal. Call out two names and the children with those names run under the parachute to change places.

* Put confetti, leaves or pieces or tissue paper on the parachute, so that as it is lifted into the air, everything gusts upwards.

Playdough - malleable area.

Resources

Cooked playdough, rolling pins, tongs, spoons, tweezers, forks, spoons, chocolate boxes, assorted cutters

* The children will play imaginatively and creatively, but the adult should focus on specific language, such as roll, squeeze, flatten and pull, to emphasise the physical nature of this activity.

* The adult should act as a role model by rolling the dough and then using cutters to make 'sweets'.

* The children can be encouraged to place the 'sweets' in the chocolate boxes using tongs, spoons, forks and tweezers.

* This activity can be extended to include the use of other familiar household objects such as garlic presses, icing bags and plastic graters.

Clothes pegs - maths area.

Resources

Painted wooden clothes pegs, a biscuit tin covered with different coloured paper and divided into sections and marked with the numerals 1 to 5 or 1 to 10. (Make sure there is enough space in each section for the right number of pegs.)

* Children love to use real clothes pegs. Although this activity clearly supports early mathematical development, it is also very good for developing pincer movements that are important for writing.

* Children take turns to fit the pegs to the rim of the tin on the different sections - three to the section marked '3' and so on. The correct number of pegs can be stored in the tin when the activity is finished.

Finger rhymes - music area.

Resources

Variety of finger rhymes

* Group times in early years settings usually include rhymes and songs, but these are often seen as only supporting early language and mathematical development. It is important to see these times as opportunities for children to spend time focusing explicitly on finger movements, while having fun.

* One excellent rhyme that requires children to use each finger individually, is 'Tommy Thumb' (from This Little Puffin compiled by Elizabeth Matterson, Puffin Books, £6.99). The important part here is that staff should bring children's attention to the finger to be used, and encourage them to use the other hand to hold down 'wobbly' fingers if necessary. Children will soon see this as part of the game and the fun of singing finger rhymes.

Activities to develop fine motor control

* Painting, using decorators' brushes and water, on walls and fences

* Bat and ball games

* Action rhymes

* Painting using fingers and a variety of brushes

* Opportunities to sieve, scoop and pour sand and water

* Playdough, clay, real dough, with tools such as garlic presses, scissors and icing bags

* Sprinkling coloured sand or glitter, or sowing seeds

* Using tweezers to pick up and sort small items

* Fixing small construction pieces together

* Finger puppets and fingers for counting rhymes

* Using tools - pliers, screwdrivers and hammers

* Using clothes pegs

* Threading, sewing and weaving opportunities

* Using small and large pegs with pegboards

* Chopping and peeling to prepare snacks and cooking ingredients.

Designated area

Practitioners in some early years settings choose to designate a specific area, made available to children every session, with activities that are designed to enhance fine motor skills. The emphasis can be on sensory exploration, transportation or mark-making.

The area is often small, and will include activities such as threading, sorting, small-scale graphical/creative activities and 'fixing'

activities.

In addition, a wide variety of tactile experiences are made available, including opportunities to experiment with coloured sand, salt, gravel (including metallic gravel available from aquatic suppliers), dissolved soap flakes, sand mousse (wet sand mixed with washing-up liquid), shaving foam, tiny pebbles/shells, cocoa shells, bark chips and wood shavings.

It is important to organise the area so that children are motivated to work on a small scale. This can be promoted by providing shallow trays, a wide variety of tiny objects to fill and tiny tools to work with.

Practitioners need to assess how they can support the development of children's fine motor control across the nursery.