Scissors: Occupational Therapy Tips

Cutting with scissors is one of the most challenging fine motor skills! Providing the right scissors, teaching correct techniques, and introducing simple, fun activities can all contribute to a 3-4  old child's success.

The following are just a few developmental tips and strategies shared in my books From Flapping To Function:  A Parent's Guide to Autism and Hand Skills  and  From Rattles to Writing: A Parent's Guide to Hand Skills-

When is a Child Ready to Use Scissors?

It is important to introduce scissors when a child is developmentally ready.  Good indicators that a 3-4 year old is ready to use scissors include

  • an interest in cutting rather than ripping paper
  • abilities to hold scissors safely (without putting fingers between blades)
  • development of coordination between the thumb and pinky sides of the hand
  • skills to use one hand to grasp the paper while the other hand cuts.
 Developing Hand Strength
 My books provide lots of strategies to develop hand strength and manipulation skills. One of my favorites is feeding Hungry Harry because its so simple to make and the materials are easy to find.

Cut a slit in a tennis ball and draw a face. Provide pennies or other small objects to feed Harry. Squeezing with one hand requires a lot of force and develops skills to stabilize materials. Pushing pennies through the mouth strengthens fingers and dexterity. 

Developing the Thumb Side of the Hand

Manipulating small objects such as beads or clips, helps children develop coordination between the thumb and pinky sides of the hand. This coordination helps children to effectively cut with scissors and control a pencil. Offer lots of practice playing with toys that reinforce the concepts of opening and closing before actually using scissors-such as

  • children's chopsticks or tongs
  • grabber toys (see photo above)
  • squirt toys
  • clothespins
  • toy pliers

Toy pliers  provide an opportunity to practice manipulating the loop handles (much like scissors) to pickup and move small objects. Tweezers sold with scissor-like handles may be used in the same way.

Different type of adapted Scissors

Using small scissors that fit inside a child's hands will make it easier to open and close the scissors as they move across paper. Many 3-4 year-olds do not, yet demonstrate a hand dominance. Therefore, provide scissors that can be used with either hand so that the child can choose which hand to use. There are various types of adapted scissors sold that make cutting easier for beginners. You may want to experiment with some of the following to see which works best.

My favorite are the Learning scissors designed by occupational therapist, Mary Benbow because they are small enough to fit comfortably inside little hands. Loop scissors are helpful for children who do not, yet have the coordination to open and close the 2 loops. Dual control training scissors enable an adult and child to grasp at the same time for teaching the motions.

How to Grasp Scissors Correctly

When a child is ready to use scissors- it is time to teach how to grasp them properly with the middle finger and thumb in the loops. The thumbnail should be pointed up to the sky. The index finger assists to hold the lower loop steady. It may be helpful to place a sticker on the child's thumb nail to provide a visual cue that the thumb is positioned facing upward.

Try taping one end of a long strip of paper to a wall at about the child's head height. The she will cut in an upward direction along the strip. This helps position the wrist correctly with the thumb facing upwards.

Developing Skills to Stabilize Paper

Offer lots of opportunities to play with toys that require stabilizing with the "helper" hand. For example, a child needs to hold Mr. Potato Head tightly while  pushing his ears into place.  One of my favorite  adaptions is the "Velcro Bottle" or shape sorter because it is difficult to pull the shapes off without stabilizing it.

Furthermore, prepare children to stabilize paper with one hand as they

  • attach or remove clips or clothespins using a plastic placemat.
  • wipe a small dry erase board
  • rip Velcro strips off a Velcro covered board such as the railroad tracks shown below.

Cutting requires using the worker hand to manipulate the scissors and the helper hand to hold the paper while cutting. Many children neglect to move the helper hand as they cut along a line. Placing stickers along the side of a piece of paper shows the child where to move the thumb as the cutting hand moves upward. You can point to or name the next picture the thumb should cover to cue the child to move her hand. 

Note that the girl in the photo is cutting across a manila folder rather than construction paper. Thick paper gives children increased sensory feedback because they need to use more force, plus it is less likely to rip.

Use Sensory Strategies during Challenging Tasks

Explore use of sensory strategies that your child enjoys. Then use d them during special times such as when working on a relatively challenging skill.  Hopefully, your child will develop a positive association between using scissors and perhaps

  • chewing gum or sucking on candy or chewy toy.
  • wearing a weighted vest, lap bag, collar or wrist weights
  • listening to favorite music either in the room or using headphones
  • smelling pleasant scents such as vanilla or peppermint provided by a spray, cotton balls soaked in extract, candles or aroma therapy diffuser.
  • sitting on deep pressure seating such as a bean bag chair

Consider incorporating the visually stimulating fidget spinner to develop grasp and motor control.

Explore use of a visual or auditory timer so that the child knows the session will be brief and has a predictable end.  When finished offer a reward or what I call a sensory reinforcer. My favorite ones involve movement such as time on a swing, rocking chair, scooter board or bungee chair.

Positioning the child to sit on a chair facing backwards (as I am doing in the top feature photo) enables the child to stabilize arms on the back of the chair. I am also getting some deep pressure sensory stimulation by wrapping my legs around the chair legs. Children with sensory processing disorders often have low muscle tone and this can help them maintain their posture while manipulating materials.

Tips to Cut on a Line and Shapes

Children should begin learning how to use scissors by snipping across thin strips of paper before learning how to cut across longer pieces and then on lines. Here are a few more tips:

  • cut on greeting card creases
  • Cut on thick bold lines, then curved lines before cutting circles
  • Provide cues to rotate the paper, not the scissors
  • Offer simple, large shapes to cut.

We all love to create meaningful activities. So consider helping your child to cut index cards to create the following shape matching activity.

These are just a few strategies that may help children with or without special needs to develop hand skills, specifically scissors skills. If you are lucky your house will fill up with lanterns as mine did 30 years ago!!!

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