"Don't open that!" As Mom to two little girls, I hear myself saying this line more times than I care to admit. The lunchbox, the closet door, the snack pouch, and the jar of paint. But as an OT, I'd like to switch the script. Repeat after me:
"Don't Open That...For Your Child."
From a developmental perspective, taking a step back makes sense. It promotes independence and allows little ones to be challenged, face frustration, and problem solve. But there's more: learning to open screw tops, doorknobs, pull tabs, and all of those pesky snack wrappers is a great way to develop and practice essential fine motor skills that we use at school, at home, and at play.
Developing Fine Motor Skills
Fine motor skills allow us to perform the intricate, controlled hand movements required for daily activities. Different types of bottles, packages, and doors strengthen different skills. Here are some essential fine motor skills, along with "opening" examples of each:
Bilateral coordination, the ability to use both hands together, with one hand leading, is required to twist open a jar with one hard while holding it steady with the other.
Hand (and Finger) Strength, the ability to exert force against resistance, is required to grasp and turn a doorknob.
Finger Isolation, the ability to call upon just one or two fingers to complete a task, is required to tear open a package of chips.
Providing the "Just-Right Challenge"
Think of a jar of salsa that just won't open. No matter how hard you try. It is so frustrating! Now think of this in kid terms. So many objects may be just this challenging. As an OT, my role is to help a child succeed by providing the "Just-Right Challenge" - not too much and not too little - and just the right support to go with it. Keep in mind that the "Just-Right Challenge" changes as your child learns new skills. This chart of Fine Motor Milestones is a helpful place to start.
Modeling & Scaffolding for Success
Learning which strategies work best for your child takes some trial and error. That means different methods for different tasks. Generally, techniques to assist young learners fall into two categories: scaffolding and modeling.
Scaffolding is supportive, temporary, and purposeful. Hand-Over-Hand Prompting is the most supportive form of scaffolding. Like the name implies, it requires doing the task with your child from start to finish. The risk is doing too much. Be sure your child is still actively using their muscles in the process and not just "going through the motions" passively, and back off as much as you can. Remember, not too much and not too little. For example, try unscrewing a lid together, with your hand placed over your child, and your fingers intertwined.
Modeling, or Learning Through Observation, is a powerful way to learn. Young children, especially by the second year of life, learn a lot through observation and imitation (as opposed to exploration, as they do in their first year). For example, when you "start" to tear open a bag a fruit snacks, show your child what you're doing and talk through your actions: "I'm holding the wrapper with the tips of these two fingers on both hands, and I'm looking for the tiny cut in the edge. Found it! Now I'm going to pull on either side of the cut really slowly."
Developing Safety Awareness
Along with helping your child open new doors (literally and figuratively) comes the challenge of teaching them when and where to use them safely. The day my two-year-old daughter successfully unlocked and slid open the sliding door to the backyard, I couldn't help but be impressed. The manual manipulation and hand strength required to do this was an accomplishment. I also panicked. Recognizing that both were appropriate reactions allowed me to set clear boundaries for exactly how to use her new fine motor skills.