Is it OK for my child to swap hands when writing?
Hand dominance is just a fancy term used to describe the fact that most children gravitate toward one hand or the other as their “strong” hand. Their “dominant” hand. Whether it’s left or right, this is the hand that is better at performing complex tasks like cutting, picking up small objects, handwriting, or using a fork or spoon. Try brushing your teeth using the “wrong” hand and you’ll quickly realise what hand dominance is all about.
Switching hands is often seen in young children. Coloured crayons, slobbery wooden blocks with bite marks along the edges, you name it! Littlies are constantly swapping objects between their left and right hands. This is completely normal. It’s a very important trial and error phase with those little hands of theirs!
As for toddlers, they’re still growing and learning how to use their hands well together. Some children discover their dominant hand very early on, however it is still not a concern when they continue to swap hands while painting, colouring or eating with a fork or spoon. They’re still working out what feels right for them through constant exploration and play.
At around 3 - 4 years of age, children begin to show a stronger preference for either their left or right hand.
Between the ages of 4 - 6 years, we find that children have established a dominant hand. This dominant hand becomes specialised at doing the main job, whether it be controlling the pencil, scooping with the spoon, or spreading the vegemite.
And, that other hand? That non-dominant hand? Is it just bludging while the other one works tirelessly? No way! The “other” hand, that non-dominant side, has the important job of being the “assistant”. We love to call it our “Helper Hand”. Its job is to stabilise, to hold, to turn- and ultimately help the dominant hand to do its work most effectively. Try sitting on the couch while eating a bowl of ice-cream without your “helper hand” stabilising the bowl from underneath- are you now wearing the ice cream? Did it seem unnecessarily awkward?
If you or your child’s teacher are concerned about your child’s hand dominance, and feel that it’s interfering with the development of skills that they need for school and/or self-care, we’d encourage you to make an appointment for an occupational therapy assessment.
In the meantime, here are some useful tips to get started:
- Work on strengthening shoulder girdle stability and core muscles, i.e. have some fun with wheelbarrow walks.
- Wake up those hands! Make the brain aware of where the hands are, i.e. through massage, rolling opened palms on marbles, clapping games, pushing and pulling exercises.
- Observe your child during fine motor games. Which hand seems to find the activities/movements easier? Which hand tends to starts first?
- Position the child so that objects or activities are presented to them at the centre of your child’s body- at their midline. Observe which hand reaches first.
- Perhaps try using both hands equally in fine motor activities, i.e. rolling playdough, scrunching up paper, Lego building, etc. This helps to strengthen both hands (which is an important step in establishing hand dominance).
- Does your child use the left hand when things are presented on the left side? And the right hand when things are presented on the right side? They may have trouble crossing that “midline”.
And! Here are some extra activities you can do with your children at home to help strengthen and promote that hand dominance:
1. Push a toy car around a track on the floor; hold the car with one hand and the track with the other hand.
2. Screw lids on and off jars or bottles, or assemble nuts and bolts.
3. Peel stickers.
4. Thread beads on a string or use lacing cards with yarn or shoe laces.
5. Draw or colour in small pieces of paper; the non-dominant hand has to stabilise the paper so that it doesn’t move.
6. Play with play-dough and cut it into pieces with scissors.