Thumb. What a funny sounding word for a finger. You probably don’t think twice about how critical the thumb is during every day activities. As a pediatric occupational therapist, in a school-based setting, I look at the thumb on a daily basis. In fact, I find the thumb quite interesting because humans are the only primate that can oppose the thumb. This means that we have the ability to isolate, rotate, and position our thumb, to touch the tip of our thumb and fingers together. Think of the “OK” sign that you make with your thumb and index finger. That hand position is thumb opposition. Having a strong and mobile thumb, allows humans to have a refined pincer pattern. This pattern allows use to pick up and manipulate objects, such as beads, coins, food, scissors, buttons, zippers, writing utensils and more.
Without this thumb position, we would have to use a raking motion, using the other four fingers, just to pick up and manipulate objects. Therefore, we wouldn’t efficiently be able to complete daily tasks, such as buttoning pants, turning a key to unlock a door, write, turn pages in a book, open/close containers and bags, cook, and more. If you notice that your child has difficulty isolating and opposing the thumb, then the child might be at risk for not developing critical fine motor milestones.
Below are some signs that your child might have poor thumb opposition:
- Poor hand strength
- Lack of an open web space (area between thumb and index finger) when using writing utensils or when picking up objects
- Underdeveloped arches of the hand
- Difficulty performing age-appropriate fine motor tasks (i.e. beading, zipping, buttons, lacing, etc)
Now that you know the signs, here are 5 activities to work on strength and mobility of the thumb for optimal opposition. These activities can all be completed in the comfort of your own home. Try to incorporate at least one activity into your daily play routine. Remember that practice and play is the best way for kids to learn and grow.
1. Tweezer Games
Tweezer games are great to help develop hand strength, arches of the hand, and encourage an open web space as the child plays. Make sure that the child uses the fingertips with the thumb opposed during the activity. There are plenty of games that use tweezers such as Avalanche-Fruit Stand, Bed Bugs, Operation, and Giggle Wiggle. You can also sort pom-poms or cotton balls and place them into their own containers and tubes.
2. Squeezing activities
Squeezing games and activities will help to develop strength in the child’s hands, develop arches of the hand, and improve an open web space by placing the thumb in opposition, as the child squeezes the object. Games such as Froggy Feeding Fun and ball poppers are great squeezing games. You can also use plastic bottles, such as glue, condiment containers, and shampoo bottles to work on squeezing.
3. Eye droppers
Small eye droppers are great to isolate the index finger and thumb, which will work on creating an opened web space. Kid science boxes can be a fun purchase to use eye droppers with. You can make this tool even more kid friendly by creating a colorful art and science project. All you need is food coloring, water, and a coffee filter. Just mix the water and food coloring into a cup, and then drop different colors on the filter. The colors will blend and mix together. Once the child is finished, you can leave it the filter there to dry.
Clothespins are not just for hanging the clothes out to dry. Using clothespins through play also promotes hand strength, thumb stability and opposition. When a child has hands that are weak, they may compensate their grasp pattern by using the side of the index finger and side of the thumb to squeeze the clothespin open. Encourage the child to use the tips of the long finger, index finger and thumb (pinch fingers) to squeeze the clothespin. The best part, clothespins are highly versatile. You can paint the clothespins or write numbers on them and then have the child match the clothespin on a card, paper plate, a ruler or paint stick. You could also have the child place the clothespin on, you guessed it, clothes.
This is always my favorite activity. Play-Doh is naturally resistive to pull, squish, roll, and twist. There are tons of dough tools that a child can hold and push the dough through with the thumbs. If you don’t own dough tools, that is not a problem. Have the child try to roll the dough into a small ball or snake. From there, have the child smoosh the dough using the pinch fingers. You can also have the child roll big, golf ball size, balls and then have them squeeze the dough into the palm, with the thumb crossed over top of the fingers. This will work on strengthening the whole hand, and promote thumb mobility and stability needed for opposition.
*Remember, the activities above are suggestions on how to improve thumb opposition and should not be used in place your child’s actual occupational therapy services. Be sure to talk to your child’s occupational therapist to ensure that these activities are safe and appropriate for your child’s current skills and abilities.
-Brittany Stout, OTR/L