Making Things with our Hands

Many years ago when my son was a baby I saw him ‘discover’ his hands one day, staring for some time at them, turning them over and over in awe. It started the beginning of many creative years using his hands and the start of my own interest in these amazing organs.

Here I look at the benefits of using our hands and in this video I make something really really fast!

The Upper Hand

The human hand is fairly unique; only a few other vertebrates have ‘hands’ as such. The koala, for example, has two opposable thumbs on each ‘hand’ and fingerprints similar to humans. The potential for sophisticated hand movements has been a major part of our evolution beginning with great apes and humans who began to walk on their feet about 3.6 million years ago, freeing their hands for tasks other than moving. 

This development has been supported by human’s frontal eye position, stereoscopic vision and opposable thumbs. So important were opposable thumbs that Julius Caesar ordered the thumbs of captured prisoners to be cut off.

Additionally, sophisticated muscle control has given us the ability to grasp and form a tripod grip. The central nervous system in primates has evolved direct connections between the cortex part of the brain and the motoneurons of the hand muscles. This links the brain closely to the movement of the hands and makes our hands a direct tool of our consciousness and even personalities.

There are more than 27 bones in the hand including the phalanges, metacarpals and carpals. Fingers contain dense nerve endings in the body giving them excellent sensory feedback but fingers themselves don’t have muscles, rather they contain tendons which are moved by the muscles of the forearm. Hands are positioned centrally in the body giving them dominance in our sense of touch. Fingernails link with general health and can indicate a range of health problems when brittle, pale or spotted.

Each hand is dominantly controlled by the opposing brain hemisphere, so children will show preference for a dominant hand at some point in their development. The hand is made up of several parts. The palm contains thick skin which is closely attached to the muscle and contains dermal papillae which increase friction so we can hold things and create our fingerprints. The heel of the hand can bear substantial pressure, for example as children undertake ‘wheelbarrows’, donkey kicks or headstands. Soft, pliable skin on the back of the hand allows the hand to open and close. 

In the Palm of Your Hand

The fingers (index, middle, ring and little finger) and thumb can be folded over the palm to form a claw which is essential for gripping. Opposable thumbs give us wide motor possibilities and our fingerprints are unique, a fact used widely in forensic science. Humans can form fists, presumably originally for fighting but also important in tool use.

Disorders of the hand include being born with additional or missing fingers or the whole hand, fused finger bones (syndactyly), which might affect infants. Autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis (affecting the joints of the hands), nail infections and carpal tunnel syndrome are less likely to affect children. Dyspraxia is a developmental co-ordination disorder which affects many areas of development including bilateral integration. Symptoms involving the hands might include hand-clapping or twisting, hand-tapping and poor handwriting. Recent overuse of technology, predominantly in the home, has led to poor dexterity and lack of fundamental movement skills in some children (Hill, 2018).

Helping Hand: Personal, Social and Emotional Development

People’s hand gestures tell us much about their personalities, often belying different emotions than those being verbalised. This might be exemplified by the image of someone saying sorry while their fists are tense and clenched.

Hand gestures can be used to show appreciation, for example, clapping. Recently Manchester University students controversially voted to replace clapping with the silent ‘jazz hands’ employed by British Sign Language (BSL) users. This was done to respect the auditory difficulties of those with autism, sensory issues or deafness. I have seen schools use silent clapping, pretending they have a marshmallow between their hands so their hands do not meet. Likewise, I have experienced the rather lovely appreciative ‘whoosh’ where hands are used to make a sweeping movement towards a person, accompanied with a ‘whoosh’ sound

Ghandi said that, ‘you cannot shake hands with clenched fists’. The handshake is a mode of greeting between people and varies between cultures which promotes bonding. Interestingly, it is a means of transferring social chemical signals between the shakers (as well as germs!). Alternatives among children include finger snap handshakes, fist bumps and high fives.

Hands can be held together, be used to embrace, stroke or conversely to poke, prod and defend ourselves. Touch has an extremely important social function, raising oxytocin levels and supporting bonding. Hands are involved in many social activities such as waving, ‘peekaboo’ and playful aggression such as thumb war or tickling. A childhood favourite is the game where children take turns to put their hand on top of each other’s building a pile then removing the first one and placing it on top. 

At home we use ‘friend finger’, touching index fingers in the manner of ET or Michelangelo’s ‘The Creation of Adam’ in the Sistine Chapel when we make up after falling out. Silver fingerprint necklaces or framed plaster casts of hands allow parents to hold their child in mind while separated.

Hand-washing is a common activity in Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and hands are often used in the stereotypical ‘stimming’ of people with autistic spectrum disorder. Sometimes our hand gestures seem illogical such as the common desire to squeeze extremely cute things very hard. Interestingly the vein on your ring finger has a direct line with the human heart and is known as the vein of love (hence why it is traditional to wear an engagement ring on the left hand’s finger). 

Hearing it First Hand: Communication and Language

From an early age babies point to achieve joint attention and direct adult’s gaze towards something of interest to them. We use hands to gesticulate or to sign, either informally or using shared systems such as Makaton or BSL or common hand gestures such as used when cycling. Using plan-do-review around children’s (often hand-related) play can support children’s sequential thinking, planning and communication. Listening skills can be honed with the game ‘only clap when I clap’ where children must only copy adult’s clapping (rather than other activities or pausing)!

Get your Hands Dirty: Physical Development

I asked children what they like to do with their hands and they suggested: throwing, writing, bowing, waving, tickling, holding, wrapping, squeezing and playing. Children go through developmental stages regarding hand development:

Birth-11 months. Infants can:

  • observe, explore and play with their hands and feet
  • form fists
  • bring their hands to their mouth
  • swing at targets using their whole arm
  • hold hands together and hold objects in their hands (though their movements might be random and jerky)
  • use a raking grasp to move objects with fingers
  • poke at objects using their index finger
  • beginning to squeeze objects 

We can support this emerging body awareness through touch and movement, for example by clapping the baby’s hands together or gently shaking the baby’s foot. 

8-20 months

Infants begin to pass toys from one hand to the other and pick up small objects using their thumbs and fingers such as food. They may turn pages of a book, put small objects in a cup, use pincer grasp or hold an object in each hand. They begin to hold crayons using a whole hand / palmar grip and make random marks. They might be able to clap, stack blocks, scoop objects using a shovel and wave goodbye. They may bang objects together, demonstrating bilateral coordination. They can put rings on pegs and remove them as well as opening packages. Providing sand, earth, paint and other sensory materials can support this. Toys which need manipulating such as boxes with catches and locks are also useful.

22-36 months 

Children may begin to show preference for a dominant hand and may be able to make scissor snips. Opportunities should be given to safely use scissors and to make palmar and tripod grips in different ways. Activities that might be provided for children include those that involve grasping and letting go as well as turning objects such as doorknobs. Children should have opportunities for: stacking, attempting poppers and buttons, threading, popping bubbles, emptying and filling as well as exploring puzzles and zips. They should have continuous provision enabling them to pick things up using their pincer grips and using tools such as tweezers.

Playdough and other resistant materials afford moulding, battering, twisting, wringing and rolling. Put on some music and try different exercises using dough in a ‘dough disco’. Clay, in particular, allows free exploration of shape and also emotional release and is used widely in play therapy. We can pay attention to the affordances or potential in the environment, ensuring children have opportunities to use their hands in a myriad of ways.

30-50 months 

Children begin to use one-handed tools such as scissors and hold pencils between thumb and two fingers, increasingly near the point and with greater control. Children might explore different shapes using marks, cut paper effectively, thread, sort, complete simple puzzles and fasten and unfasten large buttons. They may be able to dress themselves using effective sequencing skills, feed themselves and touch the tip of each finger to their thumb.

Crawling and activities while in prone position (lying on their front) continues to be valuable through childhood as this supports their growing core strength which in turns assists with hand development. Equipment provided for this age group might include: tweezers, tongs, pipettes, turkey basters, tape, rolling pins, tug-of-war, climbing, paper (to scrunch tear and stamp), cooking equipment, playdough, water pistols or squeezy bottles or sprays, squeeze balls, clothes pegs, hole punches and stamps and chopsticks. 

An Old Hand: At any age 

Through our sense of proprioception humans can gauge the relative position and effort of their hands and other parts of the body, gaining feedback from joints and muscles. Proprioception informs the co-ordinated control of eye movement with hand movement, along with the processing of visual input to guide grasping and reaching. This forms the basis of much motor movement such as tool use, sports and everyday tasks. Providing children with opportunities initially to increase core stability and upper trunk control helps develop sophisticated eye-hand co-ordination. It is useful to ensure that children’s feet are firmly on the floor to aid their core stability before attempting seated motor activities.

Children can be encouraged to tackle a range of motor and self-care activities such as thorough hand washing (supported by visual aids, songs and glitter to mimic bacteria etc), use cups, play with puzzles and handle books. Weight bearing activities support muscle develop in the hand. These might include doing the plank, yoga and donkey kicks, while bearing safety in mind. Children might manipulate (from the Latin manipulus meaning ‘handful’) Puppets, including shadow hands can link hand development with emotional development. Likewise, trying to mirror each other’s movements or draw on each other’s backs link similar skills.

Occupational therapists recommend pulling apart and putting together activities such as LEGO®, DUPLO® or popping beads, Squigz, Pop Toobs, Velcro® type resources (such as the ball and mitt game) or Mr Potato Head. They recommend resistance such as rubber bands (stretching on fingers, or across a board with nails on to create pictures) or throwing hoops, sprinkling activities. Activities which involve children’s hands cross their vertical midline or anything involving rotating hands from the wrists are recommended. Invent warm ups such as the sea warm up: splaying fingers to make a starfish, clicky crab pincers, wobbly jellyfish hands or encourage children to try to touch each finger in turn with their thumb.

Weight bearing and core muscle activities are useful to underpin hand development. ‘Superman’ (lie on your tummy with arms and legs extended up and out) or ‘spiderman’ (all fours with knees off the ground in yoga dog then alternate feet placed beside each hand and then back to starting position) can accompany a superhero story.

Sensory activities involving the hands make use of the dense nerve endings in this area. The sense of touch begins to develop as early as 7 to 8 weeks of pregnancy and can be supported by treasure baskets (heuristic play), infant massage and textured materials (such as feely bags and making potions). Fill rubber gloves with rice, flour, sand, dough, water (and one to freeze into ice), lentils, gloop for children to squish or squeeze. 

Explore bubble wrap with flat hands, fingers, knuckles and fists using commentary to support vocabulary and understanding. Fill a rubber glove with liquid gloop, prick and they then need to squeeze out (like milking a cow!). Wrapping activities such as wrapping presents and bandages also develops eye-hand co-ordination and motor skills. 


Children often injure their hands during play, sports or accidental falls. Injuries around joints need to be looked at as they may damage the growth plates. In the last 40 years, childhood hand and wrist injuries have become progressively more common as children have become heavier and more active in high impact sports. Treatment is not always straightforward. About 30,000 children trap their fingers in doors each year and more than 1,500 of them need surgery (Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents). Huge progress has been made with hand transplants and prosthetics with the development of multi-articulating ‘bionic’ hands and even prosthetics incorporating LEGO®.

It can be fun to try using other body parts instead of hands to highlight the importance of our hands. Painting using toes or even with a paint brush attached to a bike helmet or head band highlights this well!

Hydration is important to keen hand skin supple and it can be helpful to keep children’s nails short.

At Hand: Literacy

Literacy-oriented fine motor can be supported by working with the large muscles first and then working down to the smaller muscles. This means working with distal (muscles farthest away from the ones you are focusing on) and proximal (muscles directly next to or close by the ones you are working on). Activities include swinging arms and rotating them at the shoulders, chair push-ups (sitting on the ground, lifting your body by straightening your arms with hands resting on a chair), shoulder shrugs and full arm crocodile snaps. 

Building on gross motor movements, the hands and fingers can be developed by putting on imaginary gloves, applying pressure to each finger, playing piano fingers (fast, slow, with both hands) and making marks salt, shaving foam, mud, cornflour or any other material. Fingers can be taken for a walk, inventing a story along the way or inched (in tripod grip) up and down a pencil.

Non-verbal storytelling (make believe arts) and ‘storymaking’ (Pie Corbett’s with signs) both make extensive use of hands while incorporating story work. Explore rhyming and hand movements with rhymes such as: ‘Where are you spider? No-one knows! Please come out and tickle our toes!’.

Mark-making opportunities provide children with opportunities towards a good pen grip. The dynamic tripod grip is the most effective (where index and middle fingers work together allowing small, coordinated movements) rather than a thumb-wrap grasp, a five-finger grasp or upright tripod grasp. The National Handwriting Association note, however, that handwriting development is somewhat individual (Hill 2018).

A Good Hand: Mathematics

Finger-counting (dactylonomy) dates back to ancient Greece. While we count numbers 1-10 on our fingers and thumb in the Western world, this is by no means the only system. Other counting systems, such some Asian systems, use the three finger bones in each finger to count to 12 on each hand and other systems include other body parts as well as fingers (such as Papua New Guinea).

There are action songs for:

  • Counting up: Five Little Peas
  • Counting back: Five Little Speckled Frogs, 10 Fat Sausages, 5 Little Ducks, rocket count down
  • Shape: Draw a Square in the Air song… Draw a square in the air x 2 / draw a square in the air and leaving it hanging there / draw a square in the air in the air (to the tune of If You’re Happy and You Know It). Repeat with different shapes.
  • Speed: Slowly, slowly rhyme… slowly, slowly, very slowly creeps the garden snail, slowly, slowly, very slowly up the wooden rail / quickly, quickly, very quickly runs the little mouse, quickly, quickly, very quickly, runs about the house (use appropriate finger actions) or roly poly high / roly poly low / roly poly ever so fast and / roly poly ever so slowly
  • High fives and high tens help children understand that there are five fingers on each hand and they make a total of ten fingers. 

Business at hand: Understanding of the World

Religious and cultural activity is often focussed on the hands. They can be held together in prayer, used to count rosary beads or painted with henna. Dances such as Spanish flamenco, English Morris dancing, Punjabi bhangra or martial arts use clapping, clicking and intricate hand gestures.

Action rhymes explore animals and nature:

  • Once there was a rabbit and a green, green cabbage head. I think I’ll have some breakfast the little rabbit said. So he nibbled and he nibbled then turned around to say, “I think it’s time I should be hopping on my way” (fist is cabbage, index and middle finger form rabbit ears, act out the nibbling).
  • Eat an apple / save the core / plant some seeds / grow some more
  • Incey Wincey Spider

Cap in Hand: Expressive Arts

There are a number of songs and rhymes using the hands including Two Little Dicky Birds, One finger One Thumb Keep Moving, Tommy Thumb, Round and Round the Garden Like a Teddy Bear, Open / Shut Them. Adults can make up rhymes or songs while stroking or pointing to the babies’ hands, feet or cheeks.

There are famous paintings of hands: Praying Hands (Dürer) or Study of hands (Leonardo da Vinci) and adults songs about hands: I Wanna Hold your Hand by the Beatles or Lay Your Hands on Me by Bon Jovi.

Children can explore mannequin hands or look intently at their own hands. Colour mixing can be explored with the activity ‘magic handshake’ which involves a spot of two different colour paints being put on two children’s hands. They vigorously shake hands and ta-da, the paint is magically transformed! Afterwards hands and finger printing can be explored. Painting using spaghetti, exploring sensory materials like tealeaves are all fun and handsy! Make a display, learning story or investigation about hands to share with parents.


Hand development has been essential to our evolutionary development but luckily for early years educators there are plethora of fun ways to develop hand skills.

Key Points

  • The hand is a complex organ which allows humans complex tool use
  • Hands are linked closely with social interactions
  • Action rhymes help children develop language skills
  • Young children need to develop hand skills early on and increasing use of technology is damaging this

Useful Resources

  • Hands are not for Hitting by Martine Agassi. Published by A&C Black Children’s & Educational (ISBN: 9781408110713). Replaces violence with ideas for more positive expressions of emotion.
  • Hand, Hand, Fingers, Thumb by Al Perkins. Published by Random House (ISBN: 9780553539011) colourful illustration and strong rhyming text.
  • Hands Can by Cheryl Willis Hudson. Published by Candlewick Press (ISBN: 9780763632922). ‘Hands can hold things, hands can mould things…’ strong rhyming and photographs.
  • Wriggle and Roar by Julia Donaldson. Published by Macmillan (ISBN: 9781447276654) contains many poems including ‘Handy Work’ with hand-related suggestions including ‘stoke a cat, put on a hat’.


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