Hand dominance simply refers to the fact that most children gravitate toward one hand or the other as their “strong” hand – the hand that is better at performing complex tasks like handwriting, picking up small objects, or using a fork or a spoon. Try spreading jelly on a piece of toast using the “wrong” hand and you’ll see what hand dominance is all about.
*This post contains affiliate links. Read more.
Will she be a “lefty” or a “righty”?
The all-important question of hand dominance comes up a lot in my occupational therapy practice, especially for my very young incoming preschoolers (usually just turning 3).
My answer to a parent of a young 3-year-old asking me about hand dominance for their child is usually, “Your guess is as good as mine!” Because beginning at birth and continuing sometimes until almost 5 years old, kids make their way through a very important trial and error phase with their hands.
As they play and explore, babies, toddlers, and young children gather information about how their hands work together. First, they begin to bring their hands together in front of them, playing with their fingers and even clapping. Then, they begin to perform activities that involve reciprocal (back and forth) movements of the hands, like crawling and climbing.
Eventually, kids become interested in activities like scribbling on paper, doing puzzles, and cutting with scissors. As they perform these tasks, they quickly realize that one hand needs to act as a stabilizer to hold the object they’re working on while the other hand performs some kind of work.
Kids usually start to feel that one hand is stronger than the other at performing fine motor tasks. This becomes their dominant hand and they use their other hand as a stabilizer or, as we OTs like to call it, a “helper hand”.
“I think my child is ambidextrous!”
When children reach about 5 years old and are not yet showing signs of an emerging dominant hand, parents might start to think that the child is ambidextrous (able to use either hand equally well). I usually caution parents that this is extremely rare and that there is typically a reason that kids aren’t finding their dominant hand.
Sometimes hand strength is the issue. Weak hands mean that kids fatigue faster during fine motor activities like handwriting and cutting with scissors. When one hand gets tired, they simply switch to the other hand. One hand is stronger than the other, it just lacks the strength to show its true colors and make it all the way through a fine motor activity from beginning to end.
Other kids switch hands because they struggle with midline crossing – or the ability to use one hand to work on the opposite side of the body. Kids with an established dominant hand will stick with this hand even when they have to reach across their bodies to reach for something or perform some kind of task on the opposite side of their bodies. Kids who have difficulty with this skill may avoid crossing the midline altogether by using their left hand when they’re working on the left side of their bodies and then switching to their right hand to work on the right side of their bodies. You’ll read more about the important developmental skill of midline crossing when we get to the letter M in our ABCs of Developmental Skills series.
If your child is struggling with establishing a dominant hand, try some of these ideas!
-Activities that require two hands to work together (one to stabilize and one to do the work): stirring, pouring, scooping, coloring, cutting with scissors, sewing or lacing activities, peeling off stickers, clip or clothespin activities
-Don’t force or encourage kids to use one hand or the other. Instead, allow them to choose and then encourage them to complete fine motor activities (e.g. writing their names, cutting on a line) using the same hand they initiated with. This is a good way for kids to get experience with both hands and to start to get a feel for which hand is stronger.
-Work on hand strengthening to ensure that weakness isn’t contributing to hand switching during fine motor tasks.
-Practice midline crossing by having the child draw on a large piece of paper, chalkboard, or marker board.
-Have your child complete chores that encourage midline crossing.
–Practice throwing at a target
–Play with toys that require two hands (one hand to stabilize and one hand to work) like Wind up toys or jack-in-the boxes
Download this handout about hand dominance to share!
Sign up to receive our newsletter, a weekly roundup of our favorite posts and other great finds from around the web delivered right to your inbox!
At The Inspired Treehouse, we believe that information about developmental skills and child development should be accessible to everyone, not just medical professionals. You won’t find a lot of complicated lingo here – we prefer breaking things down into terms that are a little less intimidating. That’s why we’re bringing you this awesome series: The ABCs of Child Development!
Over the next few months, we’ll be making our way through the alphabet, assigning the letters to different developmental skills. From gross motor to fine motor to sensory and more…when it comes to developmental terminology (and easy-to-understand definitions), you’ll find everything you’re looking for all in one place!
Latest posts by Claire Heffron (see all)
- Groundhog Day Activities: Groundhog Obstacle Course - January 26, 2023
- Valentine’s Day Activities for Kids: Hearts & Arrows Visual Game - January 24, 2023
- Snowman Activity for Kids: Snowman Charades - January 22, 2023
My 5 year old writes right and cuts left…his father, uncle and grandmother are have this same trait (using their right hand for some tasks and their left hand for others). Should I be concerned about my son’s hand dominance knowing this?
Hi Amy…no need for concern. My daughter writes left and does EVERYTHING else right handed. As long as he is functional in his fine motor tasks, I wouldn’t be worried at all! Being ambidextrous (able to use both hands) is a great skill to have! :)
Carol Puryear says
Thanks so very much for this great article! It was EXACTLY what I was looking for to share with a parent — thorough but concise and I always love being able to share not only explanations but reinforcement activities as well! Love your site — what a treasure trove!!! :)
What is interesting with my newly turned six year old son is that he writes and draws with his left hand (has been that way since he started drawing), but everything else seems to be with his right hand. When I have him write vertically he gravitates towards his right hand and says that it’s too hard with his left hand. But when he is writing horizontally (or on a flat surface) he uses his left hand and has trouble using his right hand.
Hi, I have 2,4 year old twins, born two months prematurely and with 2nd degree brain bleeds. They were involved in physiotherapy and reached all the milestones. Both showed asymetry. One twin who had right asymetry is using right hand and foot for all activites and is able to use left side, encouraged through therapy, but the right side is always leading. The other twin had left asymetry and now he uses right hand for drawing and eating, but left leg for climbing. At the same time, he always kicks ball with his right foot. Should I be worried as he is using right hand for some activites and left foot for most activities apart from football? Just to mention they both show proprioceptive and vestibular seeking behaviour. Thanks a lot for your answer.
Becky Burns says
Both of my boys (ages 6 and 5) write, cut, and eat with their right hands. But they play most sports like a lefty, even kicking a ball with their left foot! I think it’s so interesting that they both do this.
Hi. I am ambidiextrus. My kids is 6 yeras old and although I indicate him to use write hand to write, when grabbing a spoon or kicking a ball he uses the left foot, but for pooring something from a bottle or using scissors he uses the right hand. Another thing that i cannot take out from him is that he put his left hand on his head when writing.
How can I get him to feel confidence for writing and giving him good habits for that?