Using a spoon to scoop with a mature grasp (thumb on top, fingers curled under) and using a pencil to write are two preschool fine motor skills that last a lifetime. Did you know that the design of the spoon can make teaching mature spoon grasp easier? I had a discussion with a child’s speech therapist that caused me to take another look at the utensils that were being used in the home. Here are the best of the bunch in their house. Can you tell which one I liked the best?
Trick question: Minnie and Hello Kitty are the same great design! Both the Hello Kitty spoon and the Minnie Mouse fork from Zak! have a distinctive swirly design right where the thumb should rest, and the lower handles are a bit textured for extra sensory feedback. Although the dots on the other utensil are very good visual cues for the fisted grasp of 2 year-olds, they are not that helpful for mature grasp. Being able to see the character or feel the swirly spot is more important to get the refinement of a grown-up grip. The Big Bird spoon has no texture and is a bit narrow, providing less tactile information and can get slippery when hands get wet.
If you think that getting a great utensil is only going to build hand control at mealtime, then check out my popular post on how utensils affect handwriting Using Utensils To Eat Prepares Your Child To Write. This is the gift that keeps giving! Children that work on utensil grip are also building the strength and control for using pencils.
The particular child that own these spoons has low tone, poor sensory registration and motor planning issues. She is very bright, but impulsive and highly distractible. A mature grasp pattern is possible for her, but she almost immediately reverts to a fisted grasp out of habit, not loss of control. She needs lots of practice to use a mature grasp, not a fisted grasp.
A fisted grasp at 4 is not an age-appropriate grasp, and it doesn’t allow graded control of a utensil. Unfortunately, like most 4 year-olds, she is more than happy to eat finger food or shovel food into her mouth with a fisted grasp. Just showing her what to do is not going to work. This is what I suggested to her family:
- Use the spoons with the swirly spot placed right where her thumb should rest. It is textured and the design highlights the correct placement.
- Remind her that she should be able to see Hello Kitty or Minnie when she eats. This prevents the end of the spoon ending up tucked under her palm.
- Have her practice by feeding an adult 4-7 scoops of food. It is fun to put food in an adult’s mouth, she doesn’t have to eat the food herself, and she needs the extra practice to develop automaticity about utensil use. Adults do not think about how they hold a spoon. The pattern of movement has become automatic. It needs to be even more automatic for kids that struggle with motor planning issues. Practice, practice, practice.
- Remind her about where her fingers go at the beginning of the meal, and serve the spoon-able portion first. Make it small but delicious.
- Here is my secret move: request the spoon repeatedly for some silly reason. Take it from her, do whatever you came up with, then place it down on the table in an awkward position. She has to pick it up and reposition it correctly in her own hand at least 3 times in a meal. Remind her of the correct position, but let her get it right. Again, practice, practice, practice.
- Always be firm but warm and supportive. Big girls practice this every day. This is how adults use utensils, and of course children want to be adults as soon as they can.
- Find a character or design that makes using utensils a special event. The mom immediately went online and spotted this style of toddler spoon with Rapunzel on the handle! She ordered multiple sets! Her daughter will be so excited to see her favorite princess at every meal.
UPDATE: After 3 weeks of use, this little girl is getting quite good at holding her spoon the grown-up way. She and I play a scooping game with small foam toys, and if she scoops up pieces with a fisted grasp, she has to forfeit her pieces to me! She wants to have more points than I do, so she only has to lose her points once to pay more attention to her grip. The mom and the nanny both report a big difference in how much of her lunch ends up on the table or on her shirt. Yeah!!!
For more strategies to teach utensil use without tears, take a look at Teaching Children To Use Utensils to Eat: Use Good Tools, Good Food, and Good Timing. Wondering about knife skills? Check out How to Teach Your Child to Cut Food With a Knife…Safely! for the best choices to teach safe knife skills and still have fun!