hand preference

From an early age, children learn that they can use their hands to play, learn and explore the world around them. At around 2 – 3 years of age, children begin to develop a ‘hand preference’ (also sometimes called ‘hand dominance’ or ‘dominant hand’). This refers to the consistent favouring of one hand over the other when doing the more difficult part of a skilled activity. For example, when opening a jar, the preferred hand will unscrew the lid and the opposite hand will hold onto the jar.

The dominant side of the brain determines which hand becomes the preferred hand. Between the ages of 2 – 3, it is common for children to swap hands. By the time children reach 4 – 6 years of age, a clear definite hand preference is usually established.

If your child does not show a hand preference, do not choose or force your child to use one hand. Children who are forced to use their non-preferred hand as their preferred hand often experience many difficulties with drawing, cutting and handwriting skills. This is commonly seen in children who show a left-hand preference but are encouraged to use their right hand instead.

Strategies to help your child establish a hand preference

Carefully observe your child when playing and doing everyday activities. Notice whether your child is using one hand more than the other and which hand appears to be more skillful at completing the task. These everyday activities can include:

  • Using a spoon
  • Brushing teeth
  • Combing hair
  • Playing on the iPad
  • Turning a book
  • Turning a doorknob
  • Drawing/colouring
  • Pointing
  • Taking an object handed to your child

Place objects (such as a spoon, pencil or favourite toy) directly in the middle of your child. This will enable your child to freely choose which hand to use as well as to try out which hand feels most comfortable for your child.

When your child reaches for an object, encourage your child to keep using the same hand until your child has finished the activity. This process can be repeated with each new activity and documented to determine which hand is more dominant. If your child appears to be tired, allow them to have a rest by shaking their hands and then resuming the activity with the same hand.

Encourage your child to complete a variety of fine motor activities to provide them with many opportunities to determine your child’s hand preference. Examples of fine motor activities include:

  • Drawing with crayons, textas and pencils
  • Cutting out simple shapes and pictures
  • Cooking activities such as baking cupcakes
  • Art and craft activities such as painting, making Birthday cards and making hand puppets
  • Board games
  • Beading using a different beads and pastas to make jewellery

Developing a hand preference can also be achieved through many every day activities. These activities can include:

  • Removing lids off food containers
  • Water activities during bath/shower time such as pouring water, washing self using a face washer and drawing against the shower screen wall
  • Doing buttons and zippers
  • Preparing simple meals such as pouring cereal into the bowl
  • Packing own items into a bag

My child appears to have a left hand preference but keeps swapping to the right hand?

It is common for left-handed children to a take a little longer to consistently use their left-hand in tasks.  This may be the result of the child trying to imitate the movements and actions of a right-handed parent, siblings or peers. Another contributing factor is that many appliances and items are designed especially for right-handed people. This is particularly evident with scissors.

Did you know that…

  • Left-handedness occurs in about 10% of the population.
  • Studies show that the there is no difference between left and right-handed people in terms of overall intelligence, language impairment, and gross & fine motor skills
  • Left-handed in itself is not a problem but it can be difficult for left-handed people to adapt to the equipment that they given to use in the classroom.