Developmental Process in Learning to Grasp

In her book The Comprehending Hand, Dr. Lilli Nielsen lists the various steps in the developmental process involved in the ability to grasp:

hanging position board2

  • hand to mouth
  • hand to hand
  • objects held in hand
  • objects held in hand put to mouth
  • losing objects
  • objects transferred from one hand to the other
  • reaching out for objects
  • knocking objects on the table
  • handling of objects
  • throwing objects
  • knocking two objects against each other
  • pincer grasp -- for beginners
  • pointing to objects
  • taking objects
  • putting objects inside each other
  • building with objects

Activities for Developing Finger Movements and Finger Strength

items to poke

  • Crumpling large pieces of paper (newspaper, brown paper)
  • Crumpling small pieces of paper (tissue)
  • Squeezing an ear-syringe (with and without water)
  • Zipping zippers
  • Flattening balls of clay with hands, fists
  • Flattening balls of clay with a flat piece of wood
  • Rolling out balls of clay with a pastry roller
  • Pressing on push-buttons (which can give different sounds)
  • Turning keys in locks
  • Taking tops off tins
  • Making holes in lumps of clay with fingers
  • Putting matches, different kinds of sticks, in clay
  • Pushing thumb-tacks into cardboard, flamingo, softer/harder pieces of wood)zipper
  • Cutting with scissors -- first in the air, then drinking straws, paper, cardboard
  • Using a perforator, stapling machine
  • Opening and closing files
  • Putting clothed pegs on cardboard, wooden slats, lines
  • Winding elastic between and around pegs, hooks, legs of stool, etc.
  • Winding elastic around objects (cardboard rolls, boxes)
  • Putting rubber bands on cardboard rolls, tubes, etc.
  • Matching stockings, turning them inside out
  • Opening and shutting purses, bags with different kinds of clasps, snap fasteners, etc.
  • Fastening and unfastening belts
  • Breaking macaroni, twigs, ice-cream sticks
  • Playing tiddlywinks
  • Opening small packets of raisins
  • Opening small face-cream bottles, yubes, jars and rubbing contents on fingers, legs, face
  • Scrubbing with brushespeeling orange
  • "Sewing" wire through holes in hard board
  • Sewing with needle and thread through holes in hard board
  • Putting things in pockets and taking them out
  • Turning pepper mill (use salt), musical boxes, ratchet toys, parsley rollers (empty, later full)
  • Using dustpan and brush
  • Inflating inner tubes or balls with a pump
  • Plucking grass
  • Wringing water from sponges, cloths (wash-, floor-, etc.)
  • Watering with toy, small and large watering cans
  • Peeling oranges
  • Grating carrots, apples
  • Screwing and unscrewing large and small nuts and bolts (start with wing nuts)
  • Winding up kitchen timers, alarm clocks
  • Pulling paper off kitchen paper rolls (paper towel), etc.
  • Using rubber bulb-horns
  • Ringing bicycle bells
  • Winding up musical toys


Nielsen, Lilli.  The Comprehending Hand.  SIKON: 1994.


Arm Movements with Slinky on a Resonance Board

Description: This boy moves through stages one and two of the Dynamic Learning Circle. He is aware of the Slinky and his own arm movements. By moving his arm up and down, he is actively experimenting in stage two of the Dynamic Learning Circle. He appears to be experimenting with, and comparing, the different feedback he received from the movement of each extremity, either with or without the slinky.


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Interacting with an Outdoor Activity Wall

Description: This video illustrates the importance of allowing ample response time for the child to process an activity. Notice the boy's left hand making scratching motions on the paddle drum. We see that when one body part of this boy's body moves, it causes motion in other parts of his body.

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Rice Tray with Water

Description: This boy is developmentally at the level of a two month old and providing him with “scratching” activities encourages his participation. This activity provides an opportunity for him to move through a variety of developmental levels, such as potentially grasping the rice, the washcloth, or moving one hand to the other.

rice painting
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Practicing Grasping Skills in a Little Room

Description: This child in a Little Room accidentally, or purposefully, grasps and keeps, or grasps and releases objects. On several occasions, he also grasps and brings an object to his mouth. All of these movements are increasingly higher developmental skills. This child’s pushing and batting motions, with increased opening of the hand, allow grasping to occur. Note that this Little Room is well equipped with materials that respond appropriately to pushing and batting.

Boy on a resonance board in a Little Room
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Massager on Hand

Description: This boy's muscle tone is causing flexion of the wrists and elbows, but he is able to open his index finger and thumb when he is given materials that motivate him to explore. Note that the adult should not move the massager, or “chase” the hand. Instead, allow the child to move the hand independently away from, and toward, an object, like the mini-massager.

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Exploring Kinetic Sand on a Mirror Tray

Description: This boy with cerebral palsy uses a raking motion to explore the objects in the kinetic sand in front of him. As an adult moves the objects, notice the slight changes in the way he uses his hands and fingers. The kinetic sand on the mirror tray allows the objects to stay in place, so that he can more easily find the objects.

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Description: This boy transitions from banging on noise-making surfaces with an open hand, to using a tool to bang on various drums. You will observe that whether or not he uses his hand or the end of a drum stick to contact the surfaces, often depends on the length of the stick, and where the stick is positioned in his hand, as he is still refining this skill.

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Rain Stick and Steel Drum

Description: In this video we see that the boy demonstrates difficulty rotating his wrist in order to activate the rain stick. In the second part of the video, notice how he compares the sound of dropping the beads in the steel drum versus the ping pong balls, and eventually puts the beads down to engage both hands in dropping ping pong balls in the steel drum.

steel drum
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Finding the Hole at the Center of a Massaging Brush

Description: In order for a child to isolate the finger movement necessary to develop a pincer grasp, the child must be given objects with grooves and contours to explore. Watch in this video as a child isolates a finger to find the hole at the center of a massaging brush. Using only the hand and fingers, the child also learns how to stop the brush or slow it down.

massager brush
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Taking Things Apart

Description: A young boy takes things apart, puts things together and bangs objects with two hands. If given the correct environment, he will start to use his hands for more and more constructive activity.

taking apart
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grasp download

Download "Promoting Comprehending Hands Through Active Learning" by Patty Obrzut, M.S., O.T.R/L


grasping collage