Manipulation and Handwriting Skills: Translate, Shift and Rotate

How to Improve your Child’s Handwriting Skills: Part 3

We are now in the third part of this series.  Click to read Part 1 and Part 2.

If you have taken to heart the things discussed in the first two parts of this series, then I think you and your child are inching closer to the real stuff, what we’ve been talking about – handwriting. But first, let me present another very important skill that affords the hand to do its very precise jobs.

Manipulation skills

To make sure that the hand possesses the dexterity it needs, it has to be able to manipulate objects used for different purposes, especially in writing.  When we say manipulation skills, we also refer to manual dexterity, it tells about the speed and accuracy by which the hand performs its jobs. 

Review of Milestones

I am sure you know that babies use their hands from as early as 3 months.  But these are crude movements, more of arm-batting motions.  They, then, start holding objects using the palm of their hands by mass grasping or raking, at around 6 to 7 months.  At 9 months, they start to be aware that they can also make use of those chubby little sausages, we call fingers. They practice a lot to execute the different coordination skills and prehension patterns.

The Inspired Treehouse states that at around 2 to 4 years, children typically develop isolated finger (moving a finger individually) control and what we call in-hand manipulation skills.  Through fingers, we can move objects within our hand.  Try it now! Twirl a pen, slide a coin from palm to fingers or climb your hand, up and down a string.  Amazing, right?

At 6 or 7, the hands become more developed and will be better proficient with these skills.  More functionally, they will be able to manipulate not just one but multiple objects at a time.

There are 3 types of in-hand manipulation skills and all of these are useful when we’re writing.


If you tried the simple tasks I gave above.  This is exactly what you did with the coin.  When you told your fingers to move the coin from palm to finger, or back, that is translation.  This is very important, not only in writing, but in a lot of other tasks!  Give your child a pencil.  He will hold it in his hand.  Upon starting to write, he has to translate the pencil from his palm to his fingers, right? If he cannot do it yet, then translation is still being part of the developmental sequence (proximal to distal).  From a fisted grasp your child will eventually hold it with his fingers.

Activities to Improve Translation

Coin banking

Counting play money bills

Crumpling paper

Play dough molding (especially forming snakes using bits of clay)

Picking up small objects

baby, playing, toy cars

Wait, what about Translation with stabilization?

This is leveling up the game.  It is the same translation defined above but while stabilizing something in your palm while doing it.  For example in coin banking, you can give your child 3 coins (put them on her palm), then she has to move them, one by one to her fingers to shoot them in the bank. 

If you have ever been a commuter, like I have, we always do this unconsciously, when we pay coins to the driver and we try to check, at the last minute, if we’re giving the right amount.  If you see other passengers using their fists to drop the coins towards the pinky-side of their hand, then they might just have a problem with translation.  Or they may just want to look cool.. J


Lay your hand, palm up in front of you, with your fingers pointing forward. Imagine a vertical line, this is the direction translation moves.  Now, imagine a horizontal line, this is shifting’s direction of movement.  How do you do this? Through your fingers, of course!  Thanks to your hand muscles, your fingers afford small lateral movements to move objects across your hand.  The busiest is your thumb! 

When I asked you to climb your fingers up and down a string, I hope you did not make walking motion with your index and middle finger, because that would not be shifting!  When you eat pandesal or polvoron and there are crumbs left on your finger pads, you rub them off with your thumb – that is shifting.  In writing this is commonly used in pencil adjustment, at the start or during the process itself.  If your child picks up the pencil, held it with her fingers but felt tip is too far or too close.  She would just need to shift it within her hand (without the help of the other hand).

Activities to Improve Shifting

Spooling (especially in inserting and adjusting the string)

Page turning

Spinning tops (manual ones with thin rods) and wind up toys (small circular knob)

Playdough molding (especially forming balls using bits of clay)

Card games (especially in arranging and holding a fan of cards)


Twirling or rotating the pen or pencil is the classic example.  This also demonstrates its importance in the writing process, when your child needs to erase something and he needs to access the eraser.  Without the use of the other hand, he turns the pencil around so he can rub the eraser on the paper.

Activities to Improve Rotation

Opening and closing lids of small-mouthed jars/bottles

Shape sorters

Inset shape or jigsaw puzzles

Card games (especially in flipping the cards over)

Spinning tops/disks (manual without rod handles) and wind up toys (small lever knob)

To level up in this manipulation skill, let me tell you that Rotation can either be simple or complex.  Simple rotation is turning an object less than 180 degrees and complex is turning for 180 degrees or more. 

From the activities given above, there is no definite activity for simple or complex.  What we have to consider is the angle your child turned and in how much motion it took.  If she is able to turn the pencil to use the eraser in one swing, then that is 180 degrees, thus, complex rotation.  If he turned a bottle lid of 360 degrees using 4 sets of motion, then that will just be around 90 degrees each, thus simple rotation.  I hope you got that.  Even I and my younger colleagues get confused, sometimes.

Instead of having your child do drills for these tasks, incorporate them into play.  They would have fun while improving their in-hand manipulation skills!

Play Activities for Improving In-hand manipulation skills

Card games:  Crazy 8s, Old Maid, Go Fish

Pretend Tiny Bakery (so you would have to bake tiny pastries) but use regular size of play money and coins for shooting

Wind up Toy race

Spinning Top contest (spinning longest is winner)

Shooting hoops using crumpled paper

Story reading while letting your child be the page turner

Puzzle solving and tangrams

Simple meal preparation (put ingredients in bottles or jars with lids)

beans, canned, food

The next part of this series will be the final one, I promise.  In the meantime, work on your child’s (or may be yours, too!) in-hand manipulation skills using games suggested above.  Enjoy!

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