Most people are inclined to use one hand over the other. Repeated use of the preferred hand leads to hand dominance. Your dominant hand is your skilled hand, the hand that is better at performing intricate tasks like drawing, handwriting, and using a fork or a spoon. Try writing a note or spreading peanut butter on a piece of bread using your non-dominant hand. You will quickly see how one hand is more skilled than the other.
When completing most fine motor tasks, one hand acts as an anchor, stabilizing the object in use while the other hand carries out the work. In the picture above, the child is drawing with their dominant hand while holding the paper in place with the opposite hand. The non-dominant hand is sometimes referred to as the “helper” hand as both hands work together to complete the task.
Developmentally, many steps happen before this milestone is reached. Babies will discover their hands during the infant stage. You may see them marvel at their hands while held in front of them. Infants are born with a grasping reflex. When you stroke the palm of their hand, they will immediately grip your finger (this reflex disappears around 9-12 months). Babies will place their fisted hands in their mouths. As development continues the baby will be able to use their hands more intentionally to grasp and release objects. Soon they will bring their hands together and play with their fingers. Eventually, they will learn how to clap their hands together. Singing the Patty-Cake song is a good way to encourage this to happen. Babies will begin to use both hands to hold a toy or drink their bottle. As infants transition into the toddler stage, they’ll begin to engage in more complex tasks requiring the use of two hands together. Building with blocks, completing inset puzzles, and turning the pages of a book are a few examples. Soon they will begin to use crayons to scribble and scissors to snip paper. As children gain more experience with using their hands, they will begin to get a sense of which hand works better than the other. One hand will become the preferred hand and the other the “helper” hand. As the child uses the preferred hand most often, it will then become the more skilled hand, the stronger hand, and the dominant hand.
When should you expect to see hand dominance emerge in children?
You can begin to see a hand preference as early as age 2.
Typically, by the time a child enters kindergarten (or age 5-6), you will begin to see consistent use of one hand versus the other.
If not, here are some factors that may be impeding development.
- Crossing the Midline: Midline crossing, or being able to use one hand to work on the opposite side of the body, is a very important developmental skill. Imagine a line drawn down the middle of the body, from head to toe. Reaching your arm or leg across this imaginary line is called midline crossing. This very important skill fosters communication between the left and right hemispheres of the brain, allowing them to work together efficiently. Midline crossing also encourages bilateral coordination, the maturation of fine motor skills, and hand dominance. Being able to use the preferred hand on both sides of the body allows for steady practice and refinement, allowing the preferred hand to become stronger and dominant. Once children develop hand dominance they will not switch hands to reach across their bodies, instead, they will spontaneously use their dominant hand. For example, when reaching to pick something up from the floor, scratching an itch, getting dressed, and brushing hair. Kids who have difficulty with midline crossing may avoid reaching across their bodies. Instead, they will use their left hand on their left side and their right hand on their right side.
- Hand Strength: Fine motor weakness or poor hand strength, causes a lack of endurance for fine motor tasks like writing, and coloring. Fatigue may cause a child to switch hands. When one hand gets tired, the child may use the other hand.
Could the child switch hands because they are ambidextrous?
This is certainly possible, however, if there are concerns, the factors indicated above should be considered and ruled out first. Truly ambidextrous people only make up about 1 percent of the population. People who have no dominant hand, and can use both hands with equal skill, are about 1 in 100. What matters is whether or not the child is functional and able to engage in fine motor tasks efficiently.
What can you do to help kids who continue to switch hands during fine motor tasks?
Engage in activities that require two hands to work together (one hand’s job is to work while the other hand’s job is to stabilize). This is called asymmetrical bilateral coordination. When both hands are working together, but doing different functions, with one side leading and the other side helping. Be observant and take notice of which hand the child tends to lead with.
- cutting with scissors
- pouring (pour sand into containers during sandbox play, pour water into various- sized cups, allow kids to help cook)
- lacing activities
- stirring (pretend play stirring a spoon in a bowl, mix two different colors of Kinetic sand in a bowl using a spoon)
- place items of interest inside ziplock bags and have the child open the bag to get it out
- peel off stickers
- play dress-up using garments containing buttons, zippers, and snaps
- stringing beads
- place clothespins on objects
- play with toys that require two hands (one hand does the work while the other hand stabilizes the object) e.g Legos, Mr. Potato Head, and Duplo Blocks.
Play games that aim for a target e.g. ring toss, bullseye, bean bag toss/cornhole to help kids get a sense of what hand works better.
Practice midline crossing:
- draw large pictures on pavement using sidewalk chalk
- using an easel, draw a rainbow starting on one side of the easel and ending on the other
- fold laundry, particularly big pieces like towels
- play Simon Says being sure to use lots of moves that require crossing the midline e.g. reach across your body to touch your opposite foot, opposite shoulder, opposite knee
- cross crawls
- have the child reach across midline to place clothespins on his/her person (on sleeves, pants legs, shoelaces)
All of the activities stated above will allow kids to get experience using both hands and by doing so they will start to get a feel for which hand is stronger.
Kids need to discover hand dominance naturally so don’t force it. Allow the child to choose the hand they want to work with and then encourage them to stick with it or use the same hand they started with. Do activities to build hand strength to ensure that weakness isn’t contributing to hand switching during fine motor tasks.
Here’s a simple way to discourage switching hands mid-task. Allow the child to initiate the task, children will typically begin tasks using the emerging dominant hand. Kids need to discover hand dominance naturally so don’t force it. Rather, encourage them to stick with it or use the same hand they started with. When using a whiteboard, place a sock over the hand that is not in use. The sock prompts kids to continue using the hand they’ve started with. Once finished with the writing or drawing task, the sock doubles as an eraser. Have the child take the sock off the opposite hand and place it in their writing hand to erase the board. Socks do a fine job of cleaning the whiteboard and can be used over and over again. Lastly, tasks that require two hands to work together promote hand dominance so be sure to have the child don and doff the sock between tasks!
I hope you find this information useful! Have a question or comment? Please leave a reply below!
(2022, Mar 8) Newborn Reflexes HealthyChildren.org. https://www.healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/baby/Pages/Newborn-Reflexes.aspx
Jones, M., (2022, Mar 7) 10 Fascinating Facts You Never Knew About Ambidextrous People. Readers Digest https://www.rd.com/list/facts-ambidextrous-people/
The Fun Strokes blog is designed for educational and informational use only for teachers, therapists, and parents. It is not intended as medical advice or therapeutic treatment that would be provided in an individualized treatment plan. If you suspect a child has delays, please consult an occupational therapist.