Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Clothespin Sight Words Game: Combining Heavy Work for the Hands with Early Reading Work

Earlier this week, when I was at one of my night jobs (tutoring), a student of mine cut something in front of me.  Although I am not an OT, I immediately recognized that her scissor hold is awkward. So, I immediately asked her mom for tweezers and tongs and adapted some planned word work games to Montessori-inspired pre-scissor/ pre-writing work. 

The following day, when it was time to do some word work with my son, I decided to combine the model of the games I had played with my tutoring student with the concept of using clothespins to provide Heavy Work for the Hands (based on a piece I had just written for Special-ism, a newly launched sight that I am excited about and happy to be a voluntary writing for. ) The game was a hit – and made me realize that although my son’s pencil grip has always been good, he definitely is engaged by and can benefit from more clothespin work.  It's an effective twist on similar reading games we sometimes play.

For others that want to try this game out to support a child's sensory diet or reading development, here’s a quick run down:

The Clothespin Sight Words Game
a word work game that requires little preparation and ties together two things many young children need:  sight word repetition and practice and fine motor “heavy work” input

  • slips of paper
  • a writing utensil
  • a collection container (box, tray, basket or similar)
  • a clothespin


  1. To prepare, choose a selection of sight words that your child is working to master.  Write these on slips of paper and fold about ¼  to ½ inch up on one side of the paper, folding up the right side  if your child is a “rightie” or the left if your child is a “leftie”.  (Your child can actually do the writing and folding for some extra handwriting and hand work practice, if you wish.)
  2. Lay these on a table or work mat and place a box, tray, basket or other collection container nearby.
  3. Give your child a clothespin.  Say one of the words aloud and have your child pick the corresponding slip, using the clothespin, and drop it into the collection container.
  4. Continue until all the words are in the container, being sure to note how your child is grasping the clothespin and to coach accordingly.  Below you can note examples of what you might see and say my son and my different rounds of play.

Here, my son is using his “strong” hand almost-effective hang placement.  I suggested he move his finger and thumb tip pads up just a little bit.

Here my son wanted to try to use his “weak” hand.  As you can see by his grasp, he had difficulty manipulating the clothespin with that hand one way.

And another.

So I asked him to try to pinch the clothespin and to use a helper hand if need be.

This worked for him.

 With practice, he was able to use the clothespins single-handedly, too.

  1. Then, to give your child’s hand a break while encouraging him or her to read aloud by asking for the clothespin and taking the word slips out of the collection container one at a time, while asking your child to read them as you do.  Place these back on the table or work mat.
  2. Play several rounds.


  • Reading (Sight Words)
  • Finger/Hand Strengthening
  • Motor Planning
  • Fine Motor

Quick Tips/Extensions

  • Be aware of your child’s hand strength and fatigue level.  Coach as needed, but also consider switching the activity up (say to one with tweezers or tongs!) if your child is struggling too much with clothespin grasp.
  • Work sentence formation by using a variety of words that can make short sentences and have child try to move word slips into logical (or silly!) sentences on a tray instead of into a collection container.
  • Make it more Montessori-inspired by replacing the collection tray with matching word strips or picture cards that match the word strips.  Then, students can play independently with control of error.
  • To add a gross motor (proprioceptive/vestibular) element to the game, place the word slips in one spot and the collection container a distance away.  Ask your child to run, jump, gallop, hop, crawl or otherwise move to the container to deposit each word slip, without dropping it from the clothespin’s grip.
  • Be aware of your child’s focus and reading level.  Select only three to five words for true beginners or for children with difficulty looking at many things at once.  Build up to as many as your child can confidently handle.

Also, as shared in Heavy Work for the Hands at Special-ism, a piece that contains five other fine motor clothespin ideas, please note:

  • Light, wooden clothespins are often easier to manipulate than plastic ones. So, consider your child’s needs when beginning clothespin activities. Test clothespins out yourself before offering them to a child and, then, mix, match and graduate the types you use depending on the child’s growing hand strength.
  • Be aware that some children may need to begin clothespin activities by using fingers from both hands to open them. As hand strength and stability (as well as personal confidence!) increase, they can be encouraged to use only one hand to manipulate clothespins
  • Some children have difficulty knowing where to place the pads of their thumbs and index fingers in order to manipulate clothespins. Drawing colored circles on the clothespins, or putting stickers with a theme that interests a particular child, exactly where thumbs and index fingers should be placed can help with this.
  • Be aware that clothespin activities may be too difficult for certain children. A good indicator that a child is not ready for them yet is if you see a child clutching a clothespin into the palm of the hand, with the thumb pressing into the palm, or the thumb tip hyper-extended (bent backwards). This can be a result of the child compensating for weak hands and/or coordination. It can also mean that too much demand is being placed on the finger muscles. If you witness such things, other hand strengthening activities should be considered before presenting further clothespin ones.
How do you adapt traditional reading goals to your child’s physical and developmental needs?  Do you have any favorite clothespin activities? Please add ideas or links in the comments.


Cris said...

Thanks for sharing this simple, yet useful activity and for this complete post. I agree with you in the fact that altough children may already have a good finger grip, it is appropriate to continue introducing activities involving clothespin/tongs, etc.
What I do with my daughter is encouraging her to help picking things up after playing by offering her some tongs to collect the toys. It sometimes works!

Martianne said...

My children sometimes like to pick up that way, too ( ) It is a great way to add a bit of fun, challenge and just a different angle to clean up time.


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