Easy Ideas for Motoric Hand Separation

Motoric hand separation

There are many times throughout the day that hand separation in fine motor dexterity is used to stabilize and manipulate objects. But what do we mean by this phrase, “hand separation” and exactly What is Motoric Separation of the Two Sides of the Hand? We’ll get into that here, as well as cover specific separation of the sides of the hand to develop precision and refined fine motor skills.

Motoric hand separation
Hand separation, or motoric separation of the two sides of the hand, plays an important role in fine motor skills.

Motoric Hand Separation

Motoric hand separation is another term for separation of the two sides of the hand and is an important aspect of fine motor skills.

The term “motoric” refers to the motor actions, or the motor skills of the hand. This includes movements, grasp, precision of the fingers, intrinsic muscle strength needed to grasp and manipulate items.

When we refer to motor skills, we are talking about the physical movement of the hand to manipulate, grasp, and use objects by moving the hands.

Motoric skills requires coordination and refined motions of the muscles, joints, skin, and ligaments in the hand. Motoric use occurs in the fingers, palm, and wrist using the following joints:

  • Wrist
  • MCP joints
  • PIP joints
  • DIP joints
in hand manipulation with beads

Definition of Hand Separation

Hand separation refers to the fine motor skill in which the two sides of the hand are separated into a “power side” and and “precision side”.

Refinement of fine motor skills like pencil grasp, manipulation of very small items, and managing zippers, shoe laces, and buttons with the precision half of the hand (the radial side) happens when the power half (the ulnar side) is stabilized.  

You can imagine a line drawn from your wrist directly down the middle of your hand and between your ring finger and middle finger, separating the precision side of the hand (thumb, pointer finger, and middle finger) with the power side of your hand (pinkie finger and ring finger).  

These two sides work together in skilled activities with precision and power grasp in functional activities. This motoric separation of the hands allows for in-hand manipulation skills.

You’ve seen hand separation day in and day out:

  • A child is fumbling to manage the buttons on their sweater.
  • A little one is zipping up their coat and they have the zipper and coat clenched between their pinkie fingers and thumbs.
  • A Kindergarten student is learning to write letters on lines, but they’ve got the pencil in a clenched grasp, using their whole hand.

All of these examples indicate a fine motor need to work on motoric separation of the two sides of the hand.

The fingertips are used in so many small motor activities throughout the day, in functional tasks like self-care, dressing, eating, and everyday tasks. Part of these activities involves holding objects in the palm of the hand, manipulating the small objects, and using those materials in daily tasks. Most of this is done without even thinking about the process. 

An alternative to a flexed position of the ring and pinkie fingers are when theses two digits are fully extended out and stretched out away from the hand (abducted).  This positioning stabilizes the MCP arch and allows for control of the pointer and middle fingers.

Separation of the two sides of the hand allow for more precise use of the thumb.

Try this fun activity to work on separating the sides of the hand, using sponges you might have in your kitchen right now.

Full disclosure: This post contains affiliate links.

Motoric Separation of the hands

Assessing for Hand Separation in an OT Evaluation

As always, when completing an occupational therapy evaluation, the primary focus is on function, or the occupation that the individual needs to or wants to accomplish.

What is functionally happening? This is the main place to look when completing an OT eval.

When it comes to the fine motor aspect of functional performance, hand separation can impact precision, dexterity, refined motor skills, coordination. This can lead to safety issues in daily tasks. It can impact learning or performance of self-care. It can mean the individual can not accomplish a great number of functional tasks.

Hand separation is needed for dexterity. A functional fine motor grasp and manipulation of objects is more accurate when the ring and pinkie fingers are flexed (bent) into the palm.

Another intricate part of this fine motor puzzle is the stability offered through the upper body, including the core, shoulder girdle, elbow, and wrist. These areas can impact function, and as always, you should consider proximal stability before distal mobility.

Important things to consider in an occupational therapy evaluation include:

Motoric separation of the two sides of the hand is needed for precision in fine motor tasks, including activities that require in-hand manipulation. Simple ideas to help work on this important fine motor skill.

How does motoric separation of the hands develop?

Development of hand separation begins at a young age. We cover this progression in our resource on fine motor milestones.

Hand separation starts when a baby bears weight through their arm and ulnar side of the hand while carrying a toy in the radial side.  

This simple activity developmentally lengthens the muscles of the ulnar side.

It’s through play that the separation of the hand develops. As toddlers become more refined at fine motor activities, they gain more dexterity in using just the precision side of the hand.

You’ll see this progression also with the development of pencil grasp.

Whole Hand Grasp- (Typically seen between 12 months-1.5 years) the child holds objects with their whole hand. I​t looks like they are holding a paint stirrer or potato masher.

Digital Pronate Grasp/ Pronated Wrist Grasp- (2-3 years) The child holds objects with a gross grasp and the wrist facing the ground, or in a pronated position.

Four Fingered Grasp- (3.5-4 years)- Items are held in the fingertips but using the thumb and all four fingers. There is not yet a clear separation of the sides of the hand.

Static Separation of the Sides of the Hand- (3.5-4 years)- The child will hold objects with the precision side of the hand, but there is not joint mobility in the precision side: The joints of the thumb, pointer finger, and middle finger do not move in isolation or as a group to manipulate objects. If there is mobility in the joints, it is crude with objects falling at times and manipulation skills needing more refinement. For example, a child at this age can place a coin into the slot of a vending machine, but they will drop the coin.

Dynamic separation of the Sides of the Hand- (4-6/7 years) With age, the child develops more refined motions in the precision side of the hand, and they are able to move the joints in isolation as they manipulate objects within the hand.

Lateral Separation of the Sides of the Hand- As the child gains more experience with precision skills, they are able to use more motor combinations in fine motor tasks. This looks like holding a key with the side of the pointer finger against the pad of the thumb as they insert a key into a door. Still more refined is holding a keychain of keys in the hand and moving the keys around to find the correct key and then position it between the thumb and lateral finger to unlock a door.

separation of the hand activity

Activities to Improve Motoric Separation of the Two Sides of the Hand

  • Flip coins
  • Roll play dough into small balls
  • Squeeze a spray bottle with the pointer and middle fingers
  • Pick up small items and “squirrel them away” into the hands: mini marshmallows, cereal, small beads, coins, waterbeads. (affiliate links) (This is also called translation toward the palm.)
  • Release the items (This is also called translation away from the palm.) Place coins into a piggy bank or beads into a cup.
  • Hold a cotton ball in the palm with the ring and middle fingers while coloring, writing, or cutting with scissors.

Other activities to work on motoric separation of the hand include:

(Amazon affiliate links included below.)

One way to develop hand strength and the refined motor skills needed for motoric separation of the sides of the hand is this beads sorting activity.

You’ll need just a couple of materials to set up this fine motor therapy exercise:

  • Beads
  • Two bowls or containers

This is one of the most simple therapy exercises and it has a powerful impact on developing motoric separation of the sides of the hand.

  1. To set up this therapy exercise, place all of the beads into one of the containers. We used star beads but any beads or small items can work for this activity. You can find the star beads here. (affiliate link)
  2. Next, I placed the beads into a shallow basket and asked my kids to grab only one color that they liked best.  
  3. They then tried to hold as many of that one color in their hand while picking up more beads.  
  4. When they couldn’t possibly hold anymore beads in their cute little hands, I showed them how to drop them into a small cup one at a time, while counting how many beads they had.

This type of activity is a version of in-hand manipulation called translation.


Motoric separation of the two sides of the hand is needed for precision in fine motor tasks, including activities that require in-hand manipulation. Simple ideas to help work on this important fine motor skill.


Motoric separation of the two sides of the hand is needed for precision in fine motor tasks, including activities that require in-hand manipulation. Simple ideas to help work on this important fine motor skill.
More fine motor activities that you will LOVE:

Working on fine motor skills, visual perception, visual motor skills, sensory tolerance, handwriting, or scissor skills? Our Fine Motor Kits cover all of these areas and more.

Check out the seasonal Fine Motor Kits that kids love:

Or, grab one of our themed Fine Motor Kits to target skills with fun themes:

Want access to all of these kits…and more being added each month? Join The OT Toolbox Member’s Club!

Colleen Beck, OTR/L has been an occupational therapist since 2000, working in school-based, hand therapy, outpatient peds, EI, and SNF. Colleen created The OT Toolbox to inspire therapists, teachers, and parents with easy and fun tools to help children thrive. Read her story about going from an OT making $3/hour (after paying for kids’ childcare) to a full-time OT resource creator for millions of readers. Want to collaborate? Send an email to contact@theottoolbox.com.

STEM Fine Motor Activities

Fine motor STEM activities

Occupational therapists work with fine motor development as a cornerstone of treatment.  With the current trend toward STEM education, it makes sense to blend the two into fine motor STEM activities and treatment in order to be more efficient and effective.

Fine motor STEM activities

What is STEM?

STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics.  According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, STEM occupations are growing at 24%, while other occupations are growing at 4%.  Children in the United States score lower on science and math than students in other countries. 

The push for STEM curriculum helps bridge the gap between genders and races, that are sometimes found in science and math fields.  Students with special needs also lag in these academic areas. Research shows there are not enough students pursuing science, technology, engineering, or mathematic degrees, as compared to the available jobs.

According to the National Science Foundation, “In the 21st century, scientific and technological innovations have become increasingly important as we face the benefits and challenges of both globalization and a knowledge-based economy. To succeed in this new information-based and highly technological society, students need to develop their capabilities in STEM to levels much beyond what was considered acceptable in the past.”

Why Fine Motor and STEM?

Science, technology, electronics and mathematics do not just involve cognitive ability. Fine motor skills are needed for STEM careers that involve typing, building, writing, solving equations, experimenting, research, surgery, as well as everyday function. 

STEM fine motor activities are going to be much more important to build these important skills. As technology gets more scientific and advanced, so too will the need for precise fine motor skills.  Surgeries are much more advanced than 100 years ago.  Engineers are working on tiny circuits and micro computers.

I saw a BMW prototype last week that morphs from a car to a plane that can soar over traffic!  Imagine the dexterity it takes to build that kind of machine!

When should I start working on STEM fine motor activities?  

Caregivers start addressing fine motor skills in babyhood. Encouraging a passion for science and technology can start at the same time.

Selecting a few fine motor toys for young learners that address fine motor skills while developing STEM education. 

For example, check out this super cute (Amazon affiliate link) Frog Balancing Game that can be modified for many different levels of learners. This one game involves:

  • math – counting, sorting, adding, number recognition
  • science -measuring weight, comparison
  • fine motor skills – pick up and manipulate the small objects, hold the cards
  • visual motor skills – read the cards and process the information

How do I make this transition to fine motor STEM?

Change is hard. Especially for seasoned therapists who have used a certain system for a long time, or feel that what they are doing works.  The good news is, you have already been doing STEM fine motor activities with your learners. 

Check out this link on Amazon (affiliate link) to toys/activities that address STEM fine motor activities and skills.

On The OT Toolbox, we share tons of fine motor activity ideas to incorporate STEM into fine motor treatment. Occupational therapists do not usually correlate these activities with STEM, but they fit into both categories.  

Remember pegboard Geo Boards?  This classic game builds fine motor strength, following directions, coordination, motor planning, visual motor skills, visual perception, frustration tolerance, and executive function.  It ALSO addresses math using measurement, shape recognition and patterns; science learning about rubber bands and tension; and engineering to create patterns from a picture.

Fine motor STEM and Lego  

Legos are another classic toy. Use activity analysis to break this game down into its fine motor components, as well as incorporating math, engineering, or technology. 

There is more to LEGO bricks than being able to follow a diagram to make a Harry Potter Hogwarts Castle (love this by the way!).  Speaking of the Hogwarts castle, there was definitely math, engineering, AND fine motor skills needed to build that superstructure. 

Learners can also make graphs of their LEGO, use them for adding/subtracting, use engineering to create items with moving parts, and that is just the beginning. 

By thinking outside the box, learners with special needs can find their special ability using Legos also.

classic toys for STEM fine motor activities

The lists of (Amazon affiliate link) classic toys occupational therapists incorporate into treatment plans is endless.  Take another look at these classics to see how they fit into science, technology, engineering or math.  

  • Peg boards
  • Lacing cards
  • Magnets
  • Measuring tape
  • Swings
  • Pop the Pig, Connect 4, Trouble, Candy Land
  • Lincoln Logs, Connex, Erector Set
  • Baking
  • Slime

Fine motor and STEM activities do not have to include experiments, games, and hands-on activities.  Worksheets serve the purpose of addressing both categories very well. 

The OT Toolbox has great fine motor kits for each season that incorporate math and science along with addressing those needed fine motor skills. 

More ideas from the OT Toolbox

As a seasoned therapist myself, I may dig my heels in at the idea of changing the way I do treatment, or learning a new method. I give a heavy sigh of relief knowing I have been doing STEM all along. I just didn’t call it that. 

Even though occupational therapists are providing the right activities to work on goal achievement, they may be running into students with lack of motivation, refusal, and general dislike of many of the treatment ideas asked of them. 

Teachers and therapists need to help bridge this gap early on, and find a way to teach all learners a respect for STEM and fine motor education.

You are doing a great job incorporating what you already know, into something new!

Victoria Wood, OTR/L is a contributor to The OT Toolbox and has been providing Occupational Therapy treatment in pediatrics for more than 25 years. She has practiced in hospital settings (inpatient, outpatient, NICU, PICU), school systems, and outpatient clinics in several states. She has treated hundreds of children with various sensory processing dysfunction in the areas of behavior, gross/fine motor skills, social skills and self-care. Ms. Wood has also been a featured speaker at seminars, webinars, and school staff development training. She is the author of Seeing your Home and Community with Sensory Eyes.

Working on fine motor skills, visual perception, visual motor skills, sensory tolerance, handwriting, or scissor skills? Our Fine Motor Kits cover all of these areas and more.

Check out the seasonal Fine Motor Kits that kids love:

Or, grab one of our themed Fine Motor Kits to target skills with fun themes:

Want access to all of these kits…and more being added each month? Join The OT Toolbox Member’s Club!