Hand dominance and why it’s important

What is hand dominance?

Hand dominance is defined as the consistent favouring of one hand over the other for complex activities that require skills. This would include tasks such as writing, drawing, cutting with scissors and using utensils. It also indicates that one hand is stronger and more coordinated than the other.

Ambidextrous vs mixed dominance?

Ambidextrous: A person who is ambidextrous can perform any task equally well with either hand, which includes the ability to write.

Facts about ambidexterity 

Truly ambidextrous people make up only 1% of the population, which equals out to about 70,000,000 people out of the population of 7 billion.

While 95% of right-handed people and about 20% of left-handed people have highly asymmetric brains, all ambidextrous people have symmetrical brains.

Studies have shown that having an unusually symmetrical brain yields to a higher risk of having difficulties in language, attention, and learning.

Mixed dominance: If we end up gravitating towards using our right side for some tasks and our left for others, we become mixed dominant.  For instance, if you are right-handed, but you are left eye dominant, that is mixed dominance. This would mean that they require a certain amount of dexterity, but it lacks in strength.

Determining dominance
  • Hand Dominance – Put an object such as a pencil or utensil in the child’s midline and observe which hand the child uses to pick it up.
  • Eye Dominance – You can test a child’s eye dominance by asking them to look through a kaleidoscope, camera window, or even a toilet paper tube! Usually, a child will immediately place the object up to their dominant eye.
  • Ear Dominance – Put your phone on the table and have your child pick it up to answer it. Observe which ear they listen with?  When you try to whisper to them, which ear do they lean toward you to hear?  That will be the dominant ear.
  • Foot Dominance – What foot do they kick a ball with most often?
  • At what age should a child develop hand dominance?

A hand preference usually starts to develop between the ages of 2 to 4, however it is common at this stage for children to swap hands. Between the ages of 4 to 6 years a clear hand preference is usually established.

Why is hand dominance important?

Hand dominance is important for the mastery of skills. Each skill requires consistency and repeated attempts using one hand to develop precise hand control, specifically dexterity and strength. This allows the child to develop accuracy and speed with tasks that require fine motor, especially handwriting. It is important for the child to have a coordinated and strong hand that is specialized to do everyday tasks rather than two less efficient hands. Hand dominance is also closely interlinked with brain lateralization; that is that our brain is divided into two hemispheres, left and right. The left hemisphere controls right-handedness and the right hemisphere controls left-handedness.            

Handedness allows for the development of important skills such as language. Research has found that infants who had more consistent use of one hand had superior language skills compared to toddlers who had less consistent use of their dominant hand during infancy.                                                                                                              

How to help child establish and promote hand dominance
  • Provide your child ample opportunities to participate in activities that develop their hand skills. Encourage continuous one-handed activities without direction as to which hand to use, to help establish hand dominance.
  • You can do this by placing materials such as a spoon, pencil or scissors at your child’s midline (directly in front of the middle of their chest) and allow your child to choose which hand they feel most comfortable in using.
  • Posture is key! Ensure your child is sitting with a comfortable and supported posture (e.g. feet on the floor, and elbows resting on the table at a 90 degree angle) or is standing up at a vertical surface.
  • Allow for use of alternate hands and try not to prompt them to use a particular hand or give emphasis on dominant and non-dominant hands.
  • After several weeks of daily undirected hand activity, watch for one hand to be chosen more frequently for one-handed activities or used more consistently.
  • You may occasionally ask the child to switch hands to see the quality and speed of the movement for each hand. Ask the child which hand ‘’feels better’’ to give you both a grasp of an emergence of hand dominance.
  • Moving forward, tailor activities that focus on developing the dominant and helper hand for the two hands to encourage bilateral coordination.
  • Encourage your child to finish an activity with the hand they started with. If they complain of fatigue during an activity and try to swap hands, encourage them to rest. You may teach your child some stretching breaks and have them move their arms and hand to shake it off. Regular rest breaks may be required until your child builds up the strength and skill to consistently use the dominant hand.
Some activities to help establish hand dominance
  • Scribblling activity: Give your child some chalk and let them have fun making large scribbles on a chalkboard or a mahjong paper taped to a wall or floor. One hand should feel more comfortable scribbling than the other (chalk gives a slight resistance), notice which hand they keep switching to.
  • Screwing lids on and off jars: Let them have a go at unscrewing that jar of mayonnaise or jam! Once the content of the jar has been used up, you can clean it up and use it to hide beads, marbles, stickers, or other small objects for them to find.
  • Cooking: Prepare a dish that has a batter-like consistency which gives resistance. They would have to use their preferred hand to stir the mixture and their helper hand to hold the bowl.
  • Tool use: Kitchen tongs, scooper, spoon, clothespin, silicone dropper, you name it! Using these tools forces them to decide which hand to use. If you notice switching, ask them which hand feels more skilled or easier.
  • Colouring: Shred paper into very small pieces. Ask them to colour it, one hand must stabilise it to prevent it from slipping around.
  • Bowling: Use household items to set up a bowling game. Use a weighted bag as the bowling ball.
  • Pushing a car or train around a track: Have your child use one hand to move the vehicle as they stabilize their weight on their other hand.
  • Using a bat, baton, racket, or paddle: Have them hit a suspended ball. They can even use their hands!
To learn more about occupational therapy and how it benefits your child get in touch with our friendly staff at The Energy Source today!

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