Manipulative Skills

Balloon game - manipulative skills
Johner Images / Getty Images

Manipulative skills are motor skills that involve moving or using an object with the hands or feet to achieve a goal or complete a task. For fine motor skills, that object might be a pencil or button. For gross motor skills, the object might be sporting equipment or toys, such as bats, balls, racquets, or jump ropes. These skills are also sometimes called object control skills, and they are necessary for important motor tasks like writing and playing many sports.

Types of Manipulative Skills

In the gross-motor area, these skills include:

  • Pushing and pulling (the object might be a wheeled toy)
  • Lifting
  • Striking (such as swinging a baseball bat or golf club to hit a ball)
  • Throwing
  • Kicking or rolling (a ball)
  • Volleying (a ball back and forth to another person, either with the hands or a racquet)
  • Bouncing
  • Catching
  • Dribbling (moving a ball with the feet, as in soccer)

When and How Manipulative Skills Develop

These skills are hard for kids to master because they are more complex and challenging than motor skills that don't involve objects. So they develop after other gross motor skills. When children are first learning manipulative skills, it is important to remember that the goal isn't complete accuracy (hitting a ball right at a target, for example, or throwing it to another player in a game). First they have to learn the basic action, say of throwing a ball.

One good way to help kids learn object control skills: Start without an object!

Have kids practice using imaginary things at first. They can pretend to throw a ball, for example, and then move on to using a soft, easy-to-grasp ball. At first, make targets large and easy to hit. As children develop skill and confidence, they can try hitting smaller targets or using balls that are harder to hold or release.

If Your Child Is Struggling

If you are worried about any aspect of your child's physical development, including mastery of manipulative skills, contact his doctor or your school district's early intervention program (in the U.S.). Sometimes physical or occupational therapy is recommended. At the same time, you can try activities like these at home:

Over the line: Divide a playing area in half with a line (use chalk, tape, or a long jump rope to mark it). Put an equal number of soft items, like scarves, rolled-up socks, beach balls, or lightweight bean bags, on either side of the line. Have kids toss the objects over the line, onto the floor on the opposite side. They can then switch sides and throw the items back over the line to the other side. Make it more fun by using small stuffed animals and pretending they are crossing a river.

Kick it: Have kids practice kicking with a large beach ball or soft foam ball. Challenge them to kick with their preferred foot, then switch to their other foot.

See if they can kick their ball from a spot you choose and hit a wall; gradually move them farther from the wall. You can also hold up a jump rope and see if they can kick the ball over it or under it.

Bowling: Start with large, lightweight pins (such as empty 2-liter soda bottles). Then move to smaller plastic bottles, add weight to large bottles, or use a kids' bowling set.

Strike up the band:  Young children often enjoy practicing striking by drumming on pots and pans with spoons, or playing with other toy musical instruments.

Continue Reading