What is hand preference
Hand preference refers to the consistent tendency to use one hand over the other during skilled tasks.
The preferred hand is the one that your child usually uses during activities that only need one hand, such as picking up an object. In two-handed activities, the preferred hand leads while the other hand assists. In drawing, for example, the preferred hand will hold the pencil or crayon while the other hand steadies the paper.
The hand they prefer to use is sometimes also called the ‘dominant’ hand. A child’s hand preference usually develops between the ages of two and four, but they may still swap between hands at this stage.
A clear hand preference is usually obvious by the time your child is four to six years old.
Why it matters
Having a dominant hand is important for when your child starts school, especially for activities using functional tools such as pencils and scissors.
If your child is still swapping between hands, it will be difficult for either hand to get enough practice at different activities. This makes it hard for your child to become proficient at these activities.
When should I seek help?
In young children who don’t seem to be developing a clear hand preference, you can observe whether one hand is used more, or seems more skilled, than the other. Then encourage them to use that hand for ‘doing’ (eg writing) and the other hand for ‘helping’ (eg holding the paper).
In some cases, children will have difficulty establishing a dominant hand. While the cause is unknown, it’s advisable to see an occupational therapist if your child isn’t showing signs of a hand preference before starting school.
It’s also a good idea to see an occupational therapist if your child is struggling to develop fine motor skills such as holding a pencil or picking up small objects.
How you can help
Here’s some of the ways you can help your child to establish hand preference.
Let them choose
When they’re small, start by placing objects in the centre of your child’s body rather than to the right or left. That way, your child will need to decide which hand to use rather than simply using the closest one.
Let them choose which hand to use for activities such as picking up toys, drinking from a cup, drawing, and doing puzzles. Then encourage your child to complete activities using their chosen hand rather than swapping mid-task (but don’t make too big an issue of it).
Teach them to have a ‘doing’ hand and a ‘helping’ hand
Many two-handed activities require one hand for holding something steady (the ‘helping’ hand), while the other hand performs an action (the ‘doing’ hand).
Encourage your child to choose one hand for doing and the other for helping. For example, you could:
- Make a cake – have them mix ingredients with the doing hand and hold the bowl with the other.
- Thread beads – pick up the beads with the doing hand and hold the string with the helping hand.
- Open jars and bottles – hold the container with the helping hand and twist the lid with the doing hand.
- Cut out shapes – hold the paper with the helping hand and use scissors with the doing hand.
Encourage your child to complete the activity with the hand they started with. If that hand gets tired, have them stop the activity and rest.
Over time, their hand and finger strength will increase, and they should be able to cope with longer periods of activity without a break.
Using both hands
It’s also important for your child to learn to use both hands together for some activities, such as throwing and catching balls and using a rolling pin.
Other activities require using both hands together, but in opposite ways. Examples include playing drums, climbing ladders and pouring water from one container to another.
Got a leftie?
Around 10 per cent of people are left-handed. If your child seems to be naturally left-handed, it’s important not to force them into using their right hand.
When possible, try to find another left-handed person to show them how to do activities.
Your child may benefit from holding their pencils etc 2-3 cm from the tip, so they can see their work more easily. You could place a sticker or rubber band on the pencil to help them find the right place. And make sure that they have left-handed scissors available.
Occupational therapy is about helping children complete daily activities, foster independence and participate fully in their natural settings. If your child has difficulty with hand preference or fine motor skills, they may benefit from seeing an occupational therapist.
Find out more on our occupational therapy page, or contact our office on 02 9622 8500