As November comes to a close, many of us turn to thoughts of turkey, buttered rolls, mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, and all the other foods that comprise the diverse smorgasbord that will greet us on November 24th. However, for others, it’s hard to look past thoughts surrounding an inevitable mess that can result due to fine motor and utensil control difficulties. This blog post will outline some ideas parents can use to help children with fine motor challenges participate in Thanksgiving preparation and the meal – without the headache and (too much) additional cleanup.
Kids can use utensils outside of meals with a variety of toys – Play-Doh is ideal, as it has the same consistency of many foods that children eat, doesn’t make a mess, and best of all, won’t get in clothes. Have kids practice cutting, scooping, and spearing foods in different shapes to help them get used to the feeling of using utensils in a safe, low-pressure environment.
Adaptations and Modifications
If standard utensils are tricky for kids to use, a variety of options are available.
Handles can be “built-up” (made thicker) to make it easier to grasp and hold onto. Most utensils can be modified to be easier with handles available at local retail stores and online. Materials to increase friction between the hand and the utensil can also be used to improve children’s ability to maintain their grasp while feeding.
If children are unable to sustain a grasp on utensils, but are able to coordinate more general movement from their shoulder or elbow, wrist straps can be fastened with utensils to self-feed.
Additionally, several adaptive utensils are available for use for children who may not be able to benefit from modifications. The list of utensils are varied and each are unique in their design and intended users. Consult with an occupational therapist or other professional for which adaptive utensils would be best for your child to use when self-feeding.
As with any other seated task, positioning affects movement and stability throughout the whole body. Ensuring children are sitting upright, feet planted, with a 90-degree-angle at their knees and their hip will give them a solid base of support. Additionally, though it may be considered impolite in some settings, resting elbows or arms on the table can help provide some stability in the upper extremity. This can help children have an easier time with tasks like spearing peas or that last piece of turkey, as they are able to isolate and focus more on movement in just their hand and wrist, versus their entire upper extremity.
Dycem or any gripping, non-slip surface can be beneficial to put under a plate to avoid sliding and excessive movement of plates when children are interacting with their food. Kids can have a tendency to over-apply pressure when using utensils for the first time, which can translate to accidentally moving plates, which can translate to…plates on the floor. Dycem can help potentially mitigate that risk, reducing the need for kids to stabilize their plate, in addition to picking up food.
Provide physical assistance to children if absolutely necessary, but ensure that you are not doing all the work for them. Use your hands to stabilize and prevent excessive movement as needed, but do your best to refrain from performing the entire utensil pattern for them. In order for children to develop their coordination and improve recognition of the motor patterns required to manipulate utensils in an organized manner, voluntary and active motion on their part is critical.
Challenge Appropriately…and Sometimes, You Just Have to Use Your Hands
Take care to ensure the foods that children are given are easy to manipulate with utensils and if necessary, pre-cut. Mashed potatoes are a great “starter” food to practice feeding with due to its malleability, its consistency to stick together in roughly bite-size pieces, and of course, its tastiness. Foods like peas or foods requiring use of multiple utensils, like turkey, should be introduced gradually and with support.
Utensil use is important for children’s development for promotion of age-appropriate skills, fine motor control, and upper extremity coordination, but it’s important to know when to back off to reduce the odds of avoidance or permanently being resistant to the idea of using utensils. Sometimes, it’s ok to use our hands to feed ourselves if it’s getting excessively frustrating or challenging. For some foods, it’s definitely appropriate – for example, rolls or cornbread. And for other foods, like stuffing or corn, it may not be as appropriate…but who hasn’t quickly grabbed that last morsel after giving up the “keep poking it as it rolls around your plate” game or perhaps enjoyed a piece of food that you just couldn’t wait to eat? Allowing breaks and not pushing too hard are important to avoid burnout.
Hope these tips are of some help to those of you who may have questions or are looking for insight on helping their children with utensil use.
We wish you and your families a restful and enjoyable holiday. Happy Thanksgiving!
Written By: Ismail Umer, MS, OTR/L