Whether you are teaching a younger child to grip a toddler spoon or teaching an older child to hold a spoon in the mature pattern, kids can resist practicing this important skill. I created a game that makes it really fun and builds a warm connection with your child. You share a laugh and allow your toddler or preschooler to be “the baby” for a few minutes instead of giving in to all the whining that children can generate when they are challenged. This is especially important if your child has motor delays, is on the spectrum, or has a spirited temperament. Let me explain why developing self-feeding skills are important, and then I will describe the game.
Mealtime utensil use is the first time that your child uses a tool to obtain something. Tool use is a visual-motor skill milestone. Some children grab the spoon from you at 8-9 months. Some avoid even trying, preferring to be fed. Take a look at Want Pincer Grasp Before Her First Birthday? Bet You’ll Be Surprised At What Moves (Hint) Build Hand Control! for some hidden (but not to OTs and PTs!) activities that build pincer grasp for self-feeding before 12 months. And some older kids with fine motor challenges will use that “fisted” grasp well into preschool and kindergarten. Here is a thought: Your child’s fine motor skills can expand daily when mealtime gives them a chance to practice grasp and grading movement! Want more motivation? Take a look at this recent post Using Utensils To Eat Prepares Your Child To Write . Feeding yourself gives you clear feedback on your success or failure. You either get your food in your mouth or not, get the spoon into your mouth smoothly or awkwardly, etc. All immediate feedback, and not from an adult. No criticism, no pressure from anyone. I love it when I can recommend strategies that don’t involve an adult making judgements or demands! In this case, the circumstances and the game do all the work. You are going to add a social component and make practice really fun!
You need: two plastic bowls and two spoons and a scoop-able food. Use toddler spoons if you have them for better grasp and control. Toddler spoons typically have a non-slip handle and a slightly smaller “bowl” (where the food rests.) Metal spoons with thin handles are the most challenging, and we are trying to make this easy and fun, remember? The only reason to use a larger utensil would be if your child is older and their hand clearly is too large for a toddler spoon. Choose a bowl that is shallow and has straighter sides, the better to scoop up a spoonful. They also tend to be less tippy than a deeper bowl with angled sides. Select a food that your child likes, and one that stays on the spoon easily. A bad choice? Peas or dry cooked macaroni. A good choice? Oatmeal, mashed potatoes, Greek yogurt, pudding, ice cream. You might want a few damp paper towels as well.
Your approach: this is fun but it could be messy. Don’t wear your best clothes, and don’t react immediately or negatively to a bit of dripping. Wipe it if you need to for your child’s comfort, but try not to give the impression that spillage is bad. What child would try this if failure was embarrassing or distressing? This is going to be silly, so get ready to smile and laugh at yourself. Most of us need to do more of that anyway.
Help your child by placing his hand on the spoon in the fisted grasp for a small child or the mature grasp (thumb on top, all fingers curled slightly under the handle, index finger may come on the side of the handle) for a 3 year-old child with fair control or an older child with motor issues. Hold your spoon in a mature grip even if they are not ready yet, because modeling the advanced skill is usually best. You feed your child a scoop from their bowl, THEN YOU ASK YOUR CHILD TO FEED YOU!! Open wide but let them work on their aim. Now you know why you need to wear washable clothes for this one!
Most kids over 2.5 years get the joke and laugh with glee! Go ahead and make baby sounds or use baby talk, and allow them to be “the baby” when you feed them. Children sometimes long for those days when life was easier, when they were fed and carried. Some kids will insist on being carried or behave in an immature way when they feel they need more attention. This is a chance to pretend and remember, but to do it in play and to do it in fun.
Enjoy this little game a few times, and watch spoon grasp just explode!
Looking for more mealtime ideas? Check out OXO for Kids: Great Tableware For Older Kids With Sensory and Motor Issues and Which Spoon Is Best To Teach Grown-Up Grasp?.