Hand dominance development has such a broad range that it is no wonder that parents and teachers often have questions about the topic.
The accepted developmental standards for hand dominance are:
- Between 2-3 years: A dominant hand will begin emerging. Before this time, you want to see your infant/toddler learning to use both sides of his or her body together.
- Between the ages of 4-6: Hand dominance should be completely established.
While there are varying opinions on hand dominance or preference, many Occupational Therapists and child development specialists feel that as a culture we are placing writing utensils into children’s hands before their hands have developed the basic coordination necessary to successfully learn to write.
One reason is that the amount of writing now required by educational standards at an early age causes many children to learn to write complete sentences before their hand dominance is fully established. Another factor is that some cultures view the use of the left hand for completing any task to be offensive, and not so long ago children were taught only to use their right hand when learning to write.
However, we now know that hand dominance is not a taught skill but a neurologically established trait. For this reason, children should never be forced to use one hand or the other but should be given activities to help them recognize their hand preference or to decrease deficits that may be preventing hand dominance establishment.
If a child is switching hands frequently during a writing task, try encouraging some of the below activities during play time.
The key here is forceful gross motor work while the child is holding a tool, thus eliminating the tedious work of controlling smaller muscles in the hand. Better control of the fine muscles will come once the dominance is more established.
› Hammer • For younger children, provide play time with a wooden peg hammer toy. For slightly older children, a hammering activity is to use a rubber mallet to drive golf tees into styrofoam.
› Egg carton smash • Wash an empty egg carton and give it to your child upside-down with a wooden spoon. Allow the child to use the spoon to smash the raised parts flat.
› Play an instrument • I know it’s noisy, but let your child bang on a xylophone with a mallet or on a drum with a drumstick.
> SHOULDER STRENGTHENING
The idea here is to give a child a stable base of support to work from, so that he/she knows which hand has more control. If the child’s shoulder girdle is weak, both hands feel ineffective, making it hard for him/her to recognize the dominant side.
› Zoom ball • This toy is so fun children won’t even realize they are having a shoulder work-out.
› Donkey kicks or hand-stands • Although most children enjoy learning these motor tasks, a child who has shoulder weakness may find the task hard or frustrating, so start with low kicks.
› Tug of war • This game is good for strengthening because it requires a sustained pull backwards. But beware: If your child is a bit competitive, you may find yourself playing tug of war more frequently than you wish!
› Bearing weight through shoulders • Try encouraging your child to watch their favorite show or read from their stomach on propped elbows instead of slouched on the couch.
› Extracurricular activities • Gymnastics, karate, or swimming are great activities for increasing proximal strength and muscle stability.
> HAND ENDURANCE
The idea here is to build endurance in the intrinsic muscles of the hands to enable children to be able to write for longer periods of time with the chosen hand. These activities are helpful if children are switching hands because their hands get tired.
› Help in the kitchen • Stir, kneed, or slice to allow children to use their hands for longer periods of time. This kind of action is especially good if a child is frustrated by fine motor or table-top tasks. Obviously, use discretion and supervise your child in the kitchen. Remember that kitchen utensils like a butter knife or plastic knife can slice things like cookie dough, cucumbers, or cooked veggies.
› Take some time to color or paint • The small muscles used for holding a paint brush or crayon are the same muscles used for writing, but artistic tasks may be less tedious or frustrating than forming letters.
› Play-doh search and find • Combine 3-4 containers of Play-doh (or make your own) to get a large amount. Hide things (like jewels or small dinosaurs) in the Play-doh for your child to find.
**Don’t forget to discuss your concerns with your pediatrician. If you have further concerns, request an evaluation by a Pediatric Occupational Therapist.