Left-handed little ones: Establishing hand dominance in children

Written by Sarah Bugbird – Occupational Therapist

International Left hander’s Day was celebrated back in August, which is a day dedicated to the estimated 5-30% of people worldwide that are NOT right-handed.

Hand dominance in children is a frequently raised topic and one we are often asked questions about here at Ability Focus OT. So let’s explore hand dominance in children a little further and answer some of your frequently asked questions…

What do Leonardo Da Vinci, Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Bill Gates and our very own in-house celebrities – Rhiannon, Tim and Rachel all have in common? They are all part of the Left-hander’s club!

What is Hand Dominance?

Hand dominance, hand preference, handedness – terms that you could say go ‘hand – in – hand’! These are all interchangeable terms used to describe a child’s tendency to use one hand over the other for the completion of skilled activities. For children, some examples of everyday functional activities during which hand preference is often evident include writing, drawing, cutlery use and teeth brushing.

When is hand dominance established?

Typically, children usually begin to develop hand preference between the ages of 2 to 4 years. However, it is common at this stage for children to continue to swap hands during activities. Between the ages of 4 to 6 years, a clear hand preference is usually established.

What are some ‘handy’ strategies for establishing which is my child’s dominant hand?

Remember, time is key. Allow your child the opportunity to explore hand dominance through play and everyday activities. If your child does not use one hand as their preferred hand during play or functional tasks, it is important that you do not choose or force them to use one hand. Instead, try some of these ‘handy’ ideas to establish which may be your child’s dominant hand:

  • Carefully observe your child whilst they are playing or doing everyday activities such as cutting with scissors, drawing and writing, cleaning their teeth, eating with a spoon or fork, brushing their hair and during any other play activities;
  • Keep a diary/notebook and make a note of whether they use one hand more than the other, or if one hand appears more skilled than the other;
  • Encourage participation in a wide range of play and everyday activities to provide ample opportunities for your child to develop their hand skills;
  • Position toys or activities in front, and to the centre, of your child so that they are required to choose which hand to use rather than using the hand closest to the toy. For example, when your child is drawing, position pencils in the front and centre of their body so that they can choose which hand to hold the pencil with, rather than using the hand closest to the pencil;
  • During play activities, turn-taking games and drawing or craft activities, model using your dominant hand and use verbal prompts to reinforce the ‘working hand/helping hand’ concept.

How do I encourage my child to use their dominant hand during everyday activities?

Once your child has clearly established their dominant hand, it is important to encourage your child to consistently use this hand. Ways to encourage your child to use their dominant hand during everyday activities include:

  • When cutting with scissors, encourage them to use their preferred hand to hold the scissors and their other hand to position the paper;
  • Talk to your child about using their preferred hand as their ‘working’ or ‘doing’ hand and the other hand as a “helping” hand.
  • ‘Hand-out’ (pardon the pun) lots of positive verbal feedback and encouragement to your child so that they are aware of which hand they are using and can start to more consistently use one hand as their preferred hand;
  • Encourage your child to finish an activity with the hand they started with. If their hand becomes tired or they try swap hands, encourage them to stop the activity and have a rest (stretching and shaking arms/hands may be helpful). When they reengage in the activity, ensure they do so with their dominant hand;
  • Regular rest breaks may be required until your child builds up the strength and skill to consistently use her preferred hand.

Get in touch if you think your little-one could benefit from Occupational Therapy to assist with hand dominance.

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