Learn some of our favorite playful ideas for helping kids practice the fine motor and hand eye coordination skills needed for self-feeding with utensils!
*All of the activities in this post should only be used with close and constant supervision from an adult due to safety concerns. Never leave young children alone to play with feeding utensils or small objects.
Many occupational therapists get referrals for kids who are struggling at mealtimes. Feeding is such a complex area of practice and feeding issues can take so many forms – from kids who struggle with accepting different tastes and textures to kids who struggle with oral motor skills and chewing. Sensory processing concerns and challenging behaviors can lead to a great deal of frustration surrounding mealtimes.
One other challenge kids face when it comes to self-feeding is using utensils accurately and independently. For many kids using a spoon or fork to scoop or pick up food doesn’t come easily. These kids can often benefit from extra practice and exposure to these skills through play!
When do kids start using utensils?
Babies often start using a spoon by 12 months of age. At this age, self-feeding is likely to be very messy and inaccurate, with most kids becoming more independent and accurate by the age of 2.
Once kids have mastered using a spoon, we can introduce a kid-friendly plastic fork, usually when the child is around 18 months of age. We should start to see kids becoming more independent with using a fork around 2 years old.
Start With the Basics
Before we get into some of our favorite utensil practice ideas, it’s important to take a moment to focus on the basics. As therapists, we know that stability in the center of the body (the core) supports control and accuracy in the movements of our limbs – especially the movements of our arms, hands, and fingers.
This “proximal stability” (stability in the core) is essential for kids to become independent with using utensils for feeding. We can target proximal stability in two different ways.
First, through core strengthening activities, we can support kids in developing these critical muscle groups. Second, we can ensure that kids are positioned properly when they’re eating with supportive seating options and a focus on how they are positioned in their seat. Learn more about the best position for your child during mealtimes.
With these basics about core strength and positioning in mind, we’re ready to move on to fun and creative ways to practice the fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination kids will need for self-feeding with utensils.
How to Help Kids Practice Self-Feeding With Utensils
Practicing With Scooping
Fill a large plastic bin with water and add cups for scooping and pouring.
Fill a large plastic bin with water and a handful of pony beads. Provide the child with a spoon and instruct them to scoop out a specific colored bead. Vary the size of the spoon for more or less of a challenge.
Sensory Bin Play
Fill a large plastic bin with dry black beans or dry rice. Include cups and spoons for kids to practice scooping and pouring.
Fishing Sensory Bin
Cut several pipe cleaners in half and bend them into fish shapes. Fill a large plastic bin with water and add the fish to the bin. Give kids small wooden dowel rods or wooden skewers to use as fishing rods to catch the fish.
Provide kids with plastic spoons and pudding or yogurt. Allow them to dip their spoon into the pudding or yogurt and then use the utensil to paint on a piece of card stock.
Cooking and Food Preparation
Having kids help in the kitchen is a great way to work on utensil practice. Have them help stir batter in a bowl. Ask them to help scoop batter into a muffin tin. Have them place scoops of cookie dough onto a baking sheet.
Play Dough Practice
Add plastic utensils to your bin of play dough tools. Kids can practice picking up small pieces of play dough with a fork or scooping up pieces of play dough with a spoon. You can also practice these skills with mini marshmallows as an alternative to play dough.
Practicing With Bringing a Utensil to the Mouth
These ideas are perfect for working with kids on motor planning the action of bringing a utensil to their mouth or face.
Rubbing lotion on face
Play with a regular or vibrating toothbrush
Play with a vibrating oral sensory toy
Making music with harmonicas and whistles
Eating popsicles or suckers
Additional ideas for self-feeding and feeding concerns:
Once kids have had a chance to practice with these foundational skills and movements, check out these posts from our friend Alisha at Your Kids Table:
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