Do Apps Help with Fine Motor?

KinderTown is a websites and app that curates apps for young children ages 3-6 years. Their website has reviews of apps, an educational blog for instructional ideas and resources, and is a portal for their KinderTown app,. The KinderTown app, compatible with iPad and iPhone, provides a curated listing of educational apps for young children. There is more posted about the KinderTown app at this link.

While perusing their website I ran across Carolina Nugget’s (Director of Education for KinderTown) recent post entitled,  “Do Apps Help with Fine Motor?” . The post peaked my interest as it addresses  a subject of frequent discussion between therapists on the claim of many apps “work on fine motor skills”. As a OT who has worked with special needs students for many years, I thought she did a great job of addressing what we as OT’s already know but perhaps assume to be known by others. In the frenzy of mobile device use, app adoption and consumption, the true benefits of use of the device or specific apps for fine motor skill development might be somewhat over represented.

Here is a repost by permission of Carolina’s  Do Apps Help with Fine Motor ?

Children develop strong fine motor skills through a variety of everyday activities:

  • Getting dressed in the morning
  • Coloring with a crayon
  • Putting together puzzles
  • Picking up and manipulating small objects
  • Preparing food and feeding themselves by hand or with a utensil
  • Building with blocks or Lego bricks

Your classroom teacher supports fine motor development with activities like:

  • picking up cotton balls with tweezers
  • adding clothespins to objects
  • using push pins to create an outline of a picture
  • stringing beads onto shoelaces

These are all activities that children need to do repeatedly to develop control, dexterity and strength.

So what about apps? Are their apps that support fine motor development?

These questions I have asked and debated over myself.

I struggle with understanding how tapping and dragging on a screen is going to develop fine motor skills better than building a giant tower with blocks or finger painting with 10 fingers in a big colorful “mess.”  Just think about how much fine motor strength it takes to construct with Play-Doh. How can an app claim to meaningfully develop fine motor skills when we have these kind of activities already for our kids?

After discussions with OTs (Occupational Therapists) and reading blogs about how parents and teachers are having success with apps, I am not sure I have the final answers but I do have some ideas and resources to share. 

1. Apps are tools. Apps do not replace hands-on experiences for motor development. Apps only are one more experience for children to have in addition to Playdoh and blocks. That is why it is important to regulate the time your child spends on devices and in front of screens

Advice: Choose your apps carefully to make sure their time on the device is meaningful.

iLuv Drawing Animals is an excellent addition to your child’s toys. This app is an amazing drawing tool with easy to follow step by step instructions. Fine motor is developed through sustained, controlled movement and pressure on the screen. Best part is that anything done on the app can easily be replicated with markers, crayons, finger paints and paper.

2. Fine motor and visual motor (the ability to coordinate vision with the movements of the body) are important to develop together. Examples are: dot to dots, puzzles, drawing, tracing. Apps are a wonderful way to encourage visual motor skills in children who still have a difficult time with a crayon or pencil.

Advice: Pick out apps that reinforce plenty of skills well

We love Pirate Scribblebeard’s Treasure with Oscar & Josephine by Kidoodle Apps because while your child is encouraged to be creative they are also interacting with the screen A LOT! The storyline is supportive with lots of choice for your child. A long-lasting app with a fresh, positive take on pirates (who usually get a bad rap).

3. Some kids focus and give more attention to apps. There are a segment of children who struggle with fine motor and also struggle with attention. Apps give therapists, teachers and parents 15 to 20 minutes of practice time with these kiddos, where the activities I mentioned earlier might last 5 minutes. It is important to remember that we need to match the right tool for the right kid.

Advice: If apps motivate your child then use that to your advantage – but as always remember moderation.

Dexteria – Dexteria is great for the child struggling with fine motor development and attention. Learn more about this app and watch a video demonstration at:

From an OT perspective I thought Carolina addressed this topic of fine motor skill development well and from a voice of experience with what young children need.  It made me realize that as a OT, I review apps for their worth through our knowledge base and use them for what they provide to students, not necessarily adopting what the app states it supports. Not all apps citing they work on fine motor skills really benefit the true need of students with fine motor challenges. As she cites, apps can work on visual motor skills and 2D eye hand coordination skills but do not provide the manipulative, interactive or  3 D activities that inserting pegs, pinching clothespins, turning and rotating blocks, using scissors, finger painting, gripping and feeling real objects of different textures and shapes do. Moderation, as Carolina mentions, and balance in the types of activities offered children is important to develop well-rounded skills. Activities with a wide variety of haptic experiences, tools, positions and movement qualities benefit the students to develop cognitive, perceptual, motor and social skills.

When speaking of moderation, a recent position statement by the American Academy of Pediatricians provides specific recommendations for screen time that is healthy for children address the issue of moderation and the developmental needs of children:

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) position on media use states that kids under 2 years old not watch any TV and that those older than 2 watch no more than 1 to 2 hours a day of quality programming.

So, despite the iDevice and app frenzy, it is good to reflect on the appropriateness of the use of these new devices and applications and realize that they are just another tool in our OT tool kit. Our bags are full of all kinds of tools and tricks with the iDevices are just one more. Professional judgement regarding problem solving the right activity and tool that is just the right fit for our student(s) is our job. Teachers and therapists both have great backgrounds to make those decisions. It is important to share that discussion with families that may not have child development background to balance the developmental, motivational, sensory, motor and cognitive needs of needs of their children.

Thank you Carolina for this post to help us be mindful of moderation, balance and using our professional skills to best service our students. Don’t throwing the baby out with the bath water!

Carolina Nugent is an experienced educator and the Director of Education for KinderTown, an educational app store that helps busy parents find the best apps for young kids. Sometimes referred to as the “Chief Curation Officer,” she’s evaluated more than 1,000 apps for kids. See more of her reviews in the FREE KinderTown App, available for the iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch.

How do you balance the use of your OT tools?


About Carol Leynse Harpold, MS, OTR/L, SCLV, ATP, CATIS

OTR/L with more than 35 years experience in pediatrics, school based therapy and adult rehabilitation. Masters of Science in Adaptive Education/Assistive Technology with 20 years experience in AT in education of elementary, middle school, secondary, post secondary students and work environments for adult clients. A RESNA Assistive Technology Practitioner with ACVREP CATIS credentials, AOTA Specialty Certification in Low Vision, USC Davis Executive Certificate in Home Modifications, servicing adults and students with disabilities in employment, education, and home environments. A 2020 graduate of the University of Alabama Birmingham Low Vision Certification Program.
This entry was posted in App Reviews, Appropriate use of Technology and Media with Early Childhood, Apps for Special Needs, Early Childhood, Fine Motor Development, iPad, iPhone, iPod, Occupational Therapy, Special Needs, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Do Apps Help with Fine Motor?

  1. Patty Soldner says:

    Great information regarding the use of iDevices providing the right fine motor ‘fit’ for developing hands. As with anything, balance is the key to any activitiy. As an OT, I find using well-developed apps along with ‘true’ fine motor activities involving manipulation skills provides my students with a variety of interventions that produce best outcomes. I really like the APA recommendations for how much screen time children should be (not be) exposed to.
    Thanks, Carol for keeping OT’s updated and moving forward…..
    Patty Soldner, MOT, OTR/L

    • Patti, Thank you for your well thought out response! I like your comment on “true” fine motor activities, certainly that is our expertise as OT’s and how to offer the just right activities to faciliate development.
      I appreciate you taking the time to respond!


  2. Great post and I also struggle with this. I am very concerned that children already are falling behind with fine motor skills due to excessive amounts of television watching, car seat and stroller confinement. I see many children’s apps geared towards the very young (about 18 months+). I think there needs to be a good balance. Speaking from personal experience, I have five children of which the first four were born before i-devices. They did not watch television until after age two and always in moderation. Now with my youngest who is currently 19 months old, I do allow her to use the iPad. She loves Peek A Boo barn, interactive books (i.e. Barnyard Dance) and watching short videos of herself. We read the “real” book many times before we use the interactive app. I feel that it adds an extra intrigue to the book. I digress about fine motor skills though….

    I do not believe that it enhances her fine motor skills at all. BUT I do think using the iPad helps her visual motor and visual perceptual skills. I also believe that it has assisted in her speech development. She receives speech therapy and there are several apps that help to support her goals of vocalizing animal sounds.

    Nothing can replace actually manipulating real objects in terms of motor development.

    My latest concern is the apps that state they encourage the pincer grasp. I just reviewed Chalk Walk which does encourage the pincer grasp in typical developing children but for children who struggle with a pincer grasp to begin with, will get extremely frustrated with this app because it just won’t work. Yes, you bring your two fingers together but the bottom line is you are not really grasping anything between the two fingers.

    I see research studies that are indicating the i-devices are great for reading instruction for kindergarteners using pre and post testing. I wish that they also measured fine motor skill development pre and post intervention. I guess I will just add that to my list of research I wish I had the time to carry out…

    Great topic – hope to see more discussion on this. Another topic for discussion would be carry over of letter formation apps to actual handwriting. Guess I should add that to my list as well…

    • Thank you Margaret for your voice of experience. I would agree with you that nothing can actually work on fine motor like manipulating, feeling and handling different objects of different weights, sizes, shapes and textures! It has appeared to me that many of the apps that state they work on pincer grasp due to the flat dimension of the iPad really work on a lateral pinch something that students often easily adaptively adopt rather than a mature opposition (not something you could achieve on an iPad) and open webspace. I do believe the iPad is wonderful for 2D visual motor tasks such as learning letter strokes, writing, drawing, mazes, dot to dots, learning how to draw shapes and perceptual activities. A combination of working with read objects, different types of drawing tools. surfaces and mediums (some students really need more feedback such as a chalk board, clay, playdough, shaving cream as proprioceptive input to register the movements) are important for those students who are capable.

      Your idea of research is an interesting one. I am thinking that perhaps doing a survey might be interesting to take a poll about the subject- that would be very possible through this blog- I may do that!

  3. Fiona says:

    Great comments above which tend to reflect how I have developed the use of my idevice in therapy sessions. I now tend to use the ipad for pre-writing skill rehearsal, visual perceptual and cognitive skill activities and most definately as a tool to reward and engage children who are little dis-engaged in sessions. The device also provides some opportunity to work on wrist extension, finger isolation and visual motor integration. However, I fail to see how the 2D virtual interface can replace the benefits of real activity for the development of fine motor dexterity, manipulation, opposition, strength and differientaiton of the working vs stabilising side of the hand.

    The Australian Govt has also released similar restricitions around times for children of different ages to be engaged in ‘screen based’ activties. Which I feel is important to include idevices in these ‘screen’ restrictions.

    My concern with the proliferation of using apps for toddlers <2yrs is the substitution of electronic devices/ virtual activities in place of objects for toddlers to manipulate, mouth, bang, shake, throw – exploring which is essential not only for fine, gross motor development but also the basic building blocks of play abilities ……. imaginative play skills & social skill development.

    I love this technology and the possibilities it delivers. Particularly for primary school aged children with a diagnosis that inhibitis their ability to engage in learning experiences as typically developing children do in mainstream classrooms. However, I consider my idevice an important part of my OT tool box, which I will use at different times for each individual client. I use my ipad in moderation as not all families can afford this technology – so I don't want to be sending a message to families that it's use is essential to success in therapy.

    I agree with Your Therapy Source comments in that there are many research possiblities regarding investigating the use of this new interface & technologies with various student populations. Perhaps we will start to see some published material soon ???

    • Fiona,
      I really appreciate your comment. The original article from Christina really made me think and reflect on iPad use from a developmental prespective as well. The OT responses have been interesting and faciliated some meaningful discussion with what appears to me thus far great reflection on what I believe is appropriate developmental use of the iPad in terms of activities selected and balance of time it is used!

      It is interesting that the Australian Government also has released similiar restrictions on screen time, it would be interesting to know culturally, what is happening internationally for developed countries where the iPad phenomenon is occurring.

      Margaret’s, thoughts from Your Therapy Source of research possibilities springboards a myriad of potential investigations. I hope to product a survey to gather some information on application of the devices. I did a brief one at my school which provided interesting information on the myriad of purposes the mobile iPad provides to students with special needs. I am open to suggestions… however I am thinking about who, the type of apps, tasks/skills worked on, how much time, what the balance of time iPad vs other tasks are used in sessions with the iPad would be a start.

      Thank you again for taking time to share your insights and expertise!


  4. Carolina says:

    Thanks Carol for reposting our blog and your kind words. We really do have a responsibility to think critically about the “uncharted territory” that apps are taking our kids. I am glad there are sites like yours to help keep these conversations going – and to get lots of ideas and inspiration too!

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