Heavy Work for the Hands: Viewing Clothespins through Sensory Savvy Lenses

Heavy work. For children with special needs, it is known as the great equalizer. Depending on its use and duration, it can act as a calming tool or an alerting one. Heavy work provides proprioceptive input that helps children become more aware of their bodies positions in space, making them more efficient with grading and planning their movements. It also can be just plain fun!

For many families who have children with sensory integration issues, providing gross motor heavy work is not problem. Pushing, pulling, lifting, jumping and the like easily work themselves into daily activities and play. But what about fine motor heavy work?

Many “sensory kids” benefit from activities that provide:

  • finger strengthening
  • hand strengthening
  • motor planning
  • visual perceptual input
  • fine motor work.

Enter Sensory Savvy Lenses
So what can you do to help your child receive adequate heavy work for the hands, so to speak? Simply put on lenses that help you see the world from the vantage point of sensory needs. Then, take a look at an every day object and come up with savvy ideas for using that object to meet a need.

Challenge: Clothespins as a Sensory Tool     Original Purpose: Hanging up clothes to dry

With Sensory Savvy Lenses: A tool for providing heavy work for the hands while also offering fun ways to work developmental and/or academic skills

Clothespins are well-known as a tool used by occupational therapists and early education teachers for fine motor resistance and pincer grasp work. Through using the pads of the thumb and index fingers to pinch open clothespins, children work on their pincer grasps, coordination and hand strength – all important skills for writing and other daily activities.

But give any child the task of opening and closing clothespins for too long and what will you hear? “Bo-ring!” Undoubtedly, maneuvering clothespins in and of itself can get a bit dull and no child is going to happily engage in such an activity for long. So, the challenge becomes discovering ways to use clothespins to meet a child’s developmental and sensory needs while ensuring good old-fashioned fun, too.

With Sensory Savvy Lenses on, you can be ready to meet that challenge!

The Sound Sort
A classic clothespin activity is to use clothespins as tongs in order to transfer objects such as cotton balls, crumpled paper or pegs from one bowl to another. Add an auditory dimension to this time-tested challenge by having a child listen to how each object sounds as it is dropped from the clamp of a clothespin onto a dish or table. Then, have the child sort the objects onto plates that are labeled with words or pictures to indicate soft sounds, louder sounds and loudest sounds.

The Clothespin Engineer
Got a Lego fan or other builder in the family? Challenge your child to build structures with clothespins, too. To do so, first have the child place clothespins all around the rim of one or more cans or other stable containers. Then, the child should try to top these clothespins by clipping others onto them, thus, building towers, making bridges or just creating an interesting design.

Color Cards
Want to work the memory or provide some visual input? Matching games are easy to make using clothespins. For example, to help children to visually grade colors, take two strips of matching paint samples that have colors that go from light to dark. Snip a small sample of each color off one strip and tape or glue these samples to separate clothespins. Then, place these clothespins on a tray with the other sample strip. Challenge children to match the clothespins to the strip by attaching corresponding colors together.

ABC’s and 123’s
Need to adapt and enliven early literacy and numeracy lessons? Any variety of games and activities can be played with a set of clothespins, which have capital letters, lower case letters and numbers written on them. For example, challenge a child to clip clothespins to a clothesline or long piece of cardboard in ABC order, numerical order, by skip counting by 5’s, etc. Or, make picture cards with dots on the top in place of letters (such as three dots for the word “cat.) Then, have children spell corresponding words by clipping appropriate letter clothespins to the card. Alternately, work word families by putting the word family letters on a card (such as “an”) and having children clip different letters on to create new words (sch as “c-an”, “m- an” or “t-an”). Or, match upper and lower case letters by clipping clothespins with upper class letters onto the tail ends of corresponding ones with lower case letters written on them. Likewise, create sentence snakes by clipping clothespins together to make words. Truly, almost any spelling or math skill can become a clothespin challenge.

Endurance Challenge
Does your child like a physical challenge? Here’s one to build strength: How long can you use two fingers to pinch open a clothespin with arms held outstretched? Play over the course of several days or weeks to see if endurance builds.

Tips and Notes

  1. Light, wooden clothespins are often easier to manipulate than plastic ones. So, consider your child’s needs when beginning clothespin activities. Test clothespins out yourself before offering them to a child and, then, mix, match and graduate the types you use depending on the child’s growing hand strength.
  2. Be aware that some children may need to begin clothespin activities by using fingers from both hands to open them. As hand strength and stability (as well as personal confidence!) increase, they can be encouraged to use only one hand to manipulate clothespins
  3. Some children have difficulty knowing where to place the pads of their thumbs and index fingers in order to manipulate clothespins. Drawing colored circles on the clothespins, or putting stickers with a theme that interests a particular child, exactly where thumbs and index fingers should be placed can help with this.
  4. Be aware that clothespin activities may be too difficult for certain children. A good indicator that a child is not ready for them yet is if you see a child clutching a clothespin into the palm of the hand, with the thumb pressing into the palm, or the thumb tip hyper-extended (bent backwards). This can be a result of the child compensating for weak hands and/or coordination. It can also mean that too much demand is being placed on the finger muscles. If you witness such things, other hand strengthening activities should be considered before presenting further clothespin ones.
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Martianne Stanger About Martianne Stanger

Martianne is a homeschooling mom with over 20 years of experience in education, youth work and dramatic arts both in the United States and abroad. With certifications as a Middle School Generalist and English 8-12 teacher, plus a drawer full of certificates from a wide variety of professional development workshops and graduate courses, she brings a comprehensive "traditional" background to her present-day creative pursuits. Visit Martianne at Training Happy Hearts.