Practicing Fine Motor Skills in the Outdoor Classroom.
Lately, we have been focusing on developing fine motor skills in our nature school program. Fine motor skills encompass both small precision movements of the hand and the strength necessary to perform those tasks. Fine motor skills are important for self-help activities like zipping a coat and for academic progress in writing letters, numbers and drawing.
In preschool, especially in the younger preschool years, children need to develop hand eye coordination and strengthen small hand muscles before they are asked to properly grip a pencil to write. Outdoor nature play presents a number of ways to incorporate fine motor practice into the preschool day.
Al Fresco Art
Simply bringing art materials outside is a great way to encourage fine motor practice in nature. Holding a paintbrush requires the same grip as holding a pencil, so when children paint, they are getting their hands ready to write. Chunky chalk creates a drag when drawing on a rough surface like a sidewalk, so children can feel how much pressure they are using. We have a traditional easel as well as transparent acrylic sheets along the garden fence that children can use for painting and sometimes bring out old sheets and tarps to use as canvases. Children can also chalk or paint on rocks, leaves, and large sheets of bark.
Weaving and Threading
Weaving and threading require concentration to fit one small object inside a
larger one, and there are several quick and easy ways to sew with natural materials. Almost any slotted item can be recycled into a loom for weaving. This summer, we used discarded plant trays, plastic strawberry baskets, the holes in wire fencing, and homemade looms made from cardboard or sticks as bases for weaving grass, flowers, twigs and other long plants. In the fall, we repurposed an old art project as a weaving base. Many years ago, the children had nailed some 3 inch long outdoor nails into tree stumps to practice using a hammer. This past week, the children wrapped yarn around the nail heads to make spider webs.
Just like weaving, threading is easily adapted to whatever materials you have on hand. Leaves and flower petals work well for stringing. We use large plastic needles and embroidery floss for threading, but any string, needle or wire combination – or even a pipe cleaner with the fuzz pulled back a little to reveal the wire tip – works for threading.
Hole Punching Leaves
Hole punches are among my favorite tools to use with children. The children love the novelty, and it takes strong hand muscles to make them work. We use both traditional circle hand punches and the larger craft hole punch shapes that just require pushing with the palm of the hand. In addition to paper, the children punch holes in leaves. This year, they used the shapes they punched out to create faces on jack-o-lantern art.
Another child stumbled upon an extension to the hole punch activity when she methodically punched holes about an inch apart all along the border of a large leaf. She proudly declared that she had made a lacing card. So, we gathered up some yarn and put the children’s punched leaves out as an invitation for others to string the yarn through the holes.
Knot tying is a complicated fine motor skill that requires a pincer grasp and coordination of both hands together. A few weeks ago, the children practiced tying knots by decorating the “dragon tree” with long strips of fabric. Some of the children said they were decorating for Halloween, others were already preparing for Christmas, and others just wanted to make the dragon look fancy. We left the “decorations” in place for a while, until the children expressed interested in untying the strips. For many of the children, untying the knots was an even greater fine motor challenge than tying them.
Fine motor skills include not just pinching and squeezing, but also pressing. Children can practice pressing and peeling small objects as they create collages from natural materials. At Wildwood Nature School, we like to use contact paper mounted sticky side out on cardboard as a base for our collages. The contact paper allows children to remove and rearrange items as they see fit. Collages can be covered with an additional sheet of contact paper to save them, or the design can be removed so the bases can be reused another day.
When planning fine motor invitations for an outdoor classroom, start simply by bringing outside the art materials, play dough, beads and other materials the class uses for indoor fine motor practice. As the class spends more time outside, teachers and children will find creative ways to use what nature provides to strengthen small hand muscles and build coordination.
Wildwood Nature School