Pediatric Therapy Corner: How to Sneak Fine Motor Skills into Gross Motor Play

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by Christie Kiley, M.A., OTR/L

Parents and teachers often ask me how they can incorporate more fine motor practice into their child’s or student’s day.

Well, try this one thing:
Sneak fine motor practice into their gross motor play!

Many kiddos I work with struggle to sit still, focus, or follow adult-directed tasks, and their fine motor development suffers as a result. That’s why they’re getting OT! Asking them to sit at a table and transfer color-coded clothespins from one paper plate to another for a few minutes? Forget about it! Not gonna work for these movers and wigglers.

When many of my kiddos participate in a gross motor obstacle course at the beginning of their session, I usually make sure to include a fine motor station. This allows me to “chunk” the fine motor activity into smaller pieces in order to facilitate things such as improved attention to task, decreased frustration, and improved overall success with the activity. Plus the other gross motor stuff often serves as a positive reinforcer for them so they know that as soon as they finish their fine motor station (as much as they may hate it), they’ll be able to go do all that fun stuff again! Don’t get me wrong — the ultimate goal is to improve their attention and skill in the fine motor department and eventually get them comfortable and functional working at tabletop. But we’ve gotta meet kids where they’re at if we want to help them move forward. And, hey, we want it to be FUN!!

Don’t forget that fine motor development requires a stable “base”, which means kids need a strong set of abs, back/side muscles, neck muscles, and shoulders to support the development of refined skills in the hands and fingers. So, really, kids are working on the foundations of fine motor development even when they engage in gross motor play. It’s a win-win!

Below is one example of a fine motor/gross motor obstacle course several of my preschool students recently completed during individual school-based sessions.


The obstacle course included the following stations:

1. Climb up the tall side of the blue blocks
Fine Motor Relation: Upper body/core strength; bonus of working on motor planning for those who struggle with it

2. Swing on trapeze and kick down foam blocks
Fine Motor Relation: Hand, forearm, and shoulder strength to hang; core strength to lift legs and kick; bonus of working on attention, timing, and providing vestibular input while swinging

3. Jump on trampoline
Fine Motor Relation: Core strength; neck strength; shoulder and wrist stability if holding therapist’s hands and bearing weight down into them while jumping; bonus of providing proprioceptive and vestibular input to calm and focus the mover or alert the sluggish child

4. Crawl through tunnel
Fine Motor Relation: Shoulder and wrist stability; neck strength; bonus of working on motor planning and bilateral coordination for those who struggle with it

5. Sit on hippity hop ball while using tongs or kiddie chopsticks to place all poms of one color into bucket (Find 50 ways to play with tongs by clicking here, and one tip for facilitating good grasp on tongs here.)
Fine Motor Relation: Hand and finger strengthening; practicing grasp pattern for crayon, pencil, or scissors; core stability while sitting on ball; bonus of providing vestibular input if bouncing and challenging visual scanning and discrimination to find desired color

6. Re-set foam blocks for trapeze by setting them up so they are lined up evenly spaced next to each other and “sit” just above the little white line (just like letters when they are written on paper)
Fine Motor Relation: Upper body strength to lift blocks; bonus of working on motor planning to raise them up and visual perception to accurately place them next to each other and on the line

*Repeat obstacle course until all colors of poms have been placed in the bucket while using the tongs. This means they get to go around the obstacle course four or five times, depending on how many colors of poms are included. It also provides a natural ending point for the obstacle course and eases the transition for many students because they know it’s “all done” when there are no more poms left. Minimizing tantrums during transitions is always good!

Don’t you wish you got to do this when you were in preschool?!

OC 4

OC 2

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Some other good fine motor or pre-writing activities to incorporate into obstacle courses for young ones include lacing beads, pushing puff balls into small holes, placing toothpicks into the small holes of a spice container, operating shape sorters or puzzles with pegs, assembling Mr. Potato Head, or building Mat Man one body part at a time as they go around (see short video of kids building Mat Man by clicking here).

So the next time you think there’s no way you can possibly get your kiddo to work on fine motor skills, or you think you just don’t have time for it, remember this! Squeeze fine motor practice into their gross motor play and you might just be surprised at how effective it is. Let your child be your guide when it comes to the appropriate level of fine motor challenge. Have fun!


Featured Contributor:  Christie Kiley, MA, OTR/L,

Christie Kiley is a pediatric occupational therapist who is committed to helping children succeed. In addition to being an OT, she has a background in gymnastics, psychology, and education, and she is passionate about using gymnastics as a tool for pediatric therapy. Christie is a proud mom and enthusiastic advocate for the OT profession. She is the author of the blog Mama OT: Tips and tricks for those who care for children, and can be followed at

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3 Responses to Pediatric Therapy Corner: How to Sneak Fine Motor Skills into Gross Motor Play

  1. Loren Shlaes says:

    While the kids are jumping on the trampoline, toss them beanbags to shoot at targets. Practices grasp/release and stabilizes the eyes, which are often weak in a low tone child.

  2. Great ideas! The stable base you refer to includes the all-important inner core team of muscles – respiratory diaphragm, pelvic floor, transversus abdominus and multifidus. These provide anticipatory central stability in advance of movement and anchor all the outer core muscles you mentioned.

  3. Stacy Menz says:

    Love this! We use fine motor activities during PT because it sneaks in extra reps! Thanks for sharing.