Fine Motor Skills

Doodle Animals

In Classical Conversations we spend the first six weeks of the year learning the “OiLS” method of drawing taught in Mona Brookes’ book “Drawing With Children.”  OiLS stands for circles (O), dots (dot of the i), straight lines (line of the i), angled lines (L), and curved lines (S).  The children learn to see these elements in many different pieces of art and drawing.

These same elements are also used in the meditative drawing technique of Zentangles.  We do doodles/tangles in our house almost every day as a way to focus our minds and exercise fine motor muscles (sample day here).

doodle horse

The Idea

Combine OiLS drawing method with other drawing techniques, including Zentangles.


doodle frog

The Execution

Lately we’ve been combining our doodles with regular drawing exercises (from 20 Ways to Draw… books).  For younger children (or those with less drawing experience), you could print a picture off the internet and have them fill in the spaces with doodles.  The pictures on this page took a week or two to complete, working 5-10 minutes each day.

doodle squirrel

The Extension

For older children (or those more advanced in drawing), use doodles as accents and/or shading for 3-dimensional drawings.  Results would be similar to the techniques of hatching, cross-hatching, and stippling.

Learning Fractions Through Art

One of my areas of frustration with early math learning is fractions.  There’s only so many times we can break a candy bar into pieces, or cut a pan of brownies, or slice a pizza.  Why are all the fraction activities based around food?

The Idea

Explore fractions through art projects.

The Execution

Last week we completed two art projects where we incorporated fractions as a natural part of what we were creating.  The first project was based on Ed Emberley’s Picture Pie book.  I used a large 1-inch circle punch and punched a pile of circles in different colors.  The kids helped me cut some of the circles into halves, quarters, and eighths.  First, we made some of the animals in Picture Pie.  I made sure to use “fraction speak” when asking my kids for pieces: “can you hand me three eighths in orange for the bird’s wings and beak?”

Fractions 1

Bird from “Picture Pie.” Age 5

A few days later my daughter asked to do some more Picture Pie.  We looked at some of the fancy mosaic pictures, and she decided to create her own “Christmas Picture.”  Note that after she glued her mosaic, she embellished her picture with some fraction-esque drawings.

Fractions 2

Age 7

Later in the week we incorporated more of fourths and eighths into our daily Doodles.  I taught the kids a new pattern we called “Flying Saucers.”

Fractions 3

Flying Saucers is in the bottom right quadrant.

We practiced Flying Saucers on scrap paper before starting our Doodles.  Even my 5 year was able to “draw an oval, then draw one line down, draw one line across, and draw four lines from the center out,” breaking the oval into eighths.  Before I even mentioned it, the kids had a collective light bulb moment where they shouted out that we were drawing eighths!  None of them chose to use the new pattern in their daily Doodles, but I later discovered this picture that had been created during free time:

Fractions 4


The Extension

We will be returning to these projects later in the year to learn twelfths.  We will also add in fractions from squares and rectangles.

I would like to create some mixed media pieces (cut and paste, markers, pencils, etc) using the ideas we learn from Picture Pie and our Doodles.  Kandinsky is a good inspiration for these pieces.

Composition 8 by Kandinsky





20 Ways to Draw…

The Idea

Find a drawing book to bridge the middle years (ages 9-11).

The Execution

My littlest kids (ages 5-7) have always enjoyed Ed Emberley’s drawing books.  But one by one they would grow out of these books, or simply be ready for something a little more challenging, a little more realistic.  I spent years trying to find a good drawing book for ages 9-11, or even a book with simple drawings that weren’t childish.  One day I was browsing the book section at Cass Art in London when I found it!  A whole series entitled “20 Ways to Draw….”  So far we own 20 Ways to Draw a Tree (nature subjects) and 20 Ways to Draw a Cat (animals).

Art 75 Art 77

The Extension

The realistic nature of these drawings makes them a good reference for nature journaling.  Use these drawing techniques and ideas to learn more about leaf and tree shapes, bark texture, snowflake crystals, etc.

Art 47


Map Tracing

This year I’ve started taking my younger kids to a Classical Conversations group once a week.  I wasn’t sure how they would like it, but we needed a way to meet new friends in a new city.  So far they love it.  In the younger years it’s just memory work set to songs and games.  It’s right up their alley.  One of their favorite subjects is geography.  Each week they spend a few minutes tracing a map of the US in pencil.  It’s always very rushed, so they asked to try it at home, relaxed and with their favorite drawing tools.

The Idea

Trace a map.  This exercise is meant more to familiarize the student with the map, not for specific work in recognizing the states/countries.  That element comes later after familiarity is established.  (Maps below are from 2 of my kids, ages 7 and 9).


The Execution


  • Map
  • Tracing Paper
  • Tape
  • Fine Tipped Markers (we like these Sharpie ones, but any fine-tipped art marker will work)
  • Optional: a flat board, like a cutting board, to make the project moveable.

Tape the tracing paper to the map and trace.  At first, only trace one or two states/countries, especially if the student is still developing fine motor strength.  (My daughter who struggles with handwriting sometimes prefers this exercise to handwriting practice.  I’m completely fine with that, as she will spend longer, and get more muscle practice, with the map.)  Over time, add more pieces as the shapes become more familiar.  If the child has interest, trace the same map multiple times over a few weeks, or even longer.  If you meet any resistance or frustration, put the map away and pull it out later.  Do only one state a week if that pace works!

The Extension

Draw maps of different countries and regions.

Label maps.

Draw maps on clear plastic, such as sheet protectors.  Stack to create layered maps.


Punch Art Fall Trees

I could write a blurb about how great glueing down tiny pieces of paper is for fine motor skills.  But the truth is that this art project was born out of desperation and wanting my kids to just sit still so I could unpack the house after a move!

The Idea

Pull out those craft punches you used for scrapbooking (you know, before your kids were talking) and create a scene for kids to make.  I had leaves, stars, and flowers, so we made a night sky with fall trees.

The Execution


colored paper
craft punches

I punched out the shapes for my kids, as the punches can be quite stubborn.  We used torn brown paper for the trees.

Art 31

Age 4. Gave up and took a nap.

Art 32

Age 5. The conscientious artist.

Art 33,jpeg

Age 7. The kid that has to be different. And also line things up.

The Extension

In spite of its dubious beginnings, we actually really liked this craft.  We used up some leftover bits to make solar system / night sky pictures another day.

Art 6 copy

Art 7 copy

Art 8 copy


Clay Miniatures

One of my goals in teaching my kids to do crafts is to help them discover hobbies they can do for life.  To that end, we don’t do a lot of “kid crafts.”  I try to find simple versions of adult crafts for them to practice, and eventually grow into.  My oldest daughter discovered this form of clay crafting on her own; it has since become a family favorite.

The Idea

Create dollhouse (or fairy-house) sized miniature objects from clay.  These objects can then be used in play or other learning activities.

mini clay pieces

A selection of mini clay projects from my oldest daughter’s collection.

The Execution


  • Sculpey Clay (oven-drying)
    • We usually stock up when Michael’s puts the individual color blocks on sale.
  • Pasta Machine
    • Optional, but lots of fun and very useful; my oldest daughter received the Atlas machine as a Christmas gift one year.
  • Rolling pin if you don’t have a pasta machine
  • Basic clay tools
    • We like plastic ones like these, and these are good for older or more advanced crafters

One fun and simple project to start with is clay “canes.”

  • First “condition” the clay by passing it through the pasta machine (or rolling flat with a rolling pin) several times.  This softens the clay and makes it more pliable.  My kids could spend hours passing clay through the pasta machine.
  • Next, create a cane using one of these Simple Polymer Clay Canes tutorials.  Allow imperfections in the canes for younger kids; they turn out very artsy looking!
  • Slice the canes as described in the above tutorial.  You can make “cookie” slices for dolls, or thicker slices for “beads.”  (If beads, poke a hole through each one with a thick needle before baking.)  Thick slices can also be used as counters for games or math manipulatives.
  • Bake and cool as directed on the package.
mini clay beads

We created a garland out of Jellyroll Cane Beads, perler (hama) beads, and homemade pom-poms.

The Extension

A more complicated cane to make can be found on this Flower Clay Canes tutorial.  Some beautiful and highly complex canes can be found on Polymer Clay Workshop.

Tutorials for making an endless variety of miniature clay food can be found on the internet.  Many of these require additional supplies such as pastels, glazes, and resins. Some of our favorites:

Miniature Clay Food Tutorials (Pinterest)
Simply Stella
Dollhouse Bread and Snow-cones

Another fun project my daughter enjoyed was creating miniature clay koi ponds.  The stones are aquarium gravel, and the “water” is clear resin.  Tutorials for this project can be found on Small Creations and My Tiny World.

mini clay pond

Bits and pieces of clay projects can be reassembled into dioramas, such as this mermaid cavern.

mini clay mermaid

Drawing Spirolaterals

This activity can be done with any young child who can count and draw a straight line.  However, the math behind it is quite advanced, for the curious student who wants to dig deeper.

The Idea

Learn to draw spirolaterals, or “square spirals,” to explore the intersection of pattern and numbers.  A spirolateral starts with a segment of length 1, then turns to create a segment of length 2, then a turn and length of 3, etc.     End results vary based on the length and number of segments.

spiro image

Spirolateral of 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9.  The black dot is the starting point for the square spiral.

The Execution


graph paper
pencil & eraser

Read through this tutorial on How to Draw Spirolaterals.  Draw with pencil until you get the hang of it and start seeing the patterns.

Older children can start with regular graph paper.  Younger ones benefit from larger squares, such as this 1/2″ grid paper from Print Free Graph Paper.

The triangular spirolaterals are best for older children, or in pencil … it took me a few tries to get them right!

Some questions to explore:

Why do the spirolaterals based on multiples of 4 not work out? (Because you are making a square with 4 sides, and thus ending back where you started).

What other patterns do you see?

What happens if you skip numbers? (1, 3, 5 instead of 1, 2, 3, for example)

The Extension

Online software that can plot basic spirolaterals

Mathematical Definition:

From Wolfram: Spirolaterals as a subset of Mathematical Images

Inspiration for further exploration (from Robert Krawczyk, the spirolateral expert)

The Art of Spirolateral Reversals (pdf)

Spirolaterals, Complexity From Simplicity (pdf)

Curved Spirolaterals

Today’s Doodles

Our landlord is doing major renovations when we move out this summer, so many days we have workers measuring, quoting, and digging into parts of my house I really don’t want exposed!  Not a lot of school work gets done.   This morning was one of those days, and a perfect time to corral the kids around the kitchen table and work on our Doodles.

“Real” Zentangles aren’t supposed to have color.  But we like color.  Keep in mind that these are only 2.5 x 3.5 inches (trading card size).

I also created a Master Doodle Template so my littlest ones can practice just filling in patterns. (For best results, print on cardstock paper.  Cut into 2.5 x 3.5 rectangles.)  They like to refer to a page of patterns like our Master Doodle Patterns.

zen patterns 13

Age 8

zen patterns 14

Age 6

zen patterns 11

Age 6

zen patterns

Age 14

Purposeful Doodling

The Idea

If you have a student who enjoys doodling, don’t view it as a waste of time.  Doodling is a gateway to developing fine motor skills.  While letter formation is an important part of handwriting, letters won’t happen until the child develops hand muscle strength, precision, and endurance.   Some children might enjoy writing endless strings of letters to build up hand strength, but if you have a creative little person they will most likely balk at such a waste of time.

Many adults enjoy a meditative type of doodling called Zentangle.  If you search for “zentangle patterns” on the internet, many of the patterns will be too complicated for children.  However, there are plenty of patterns that kids can learn and enjoy.  I have enjoyed a book called One Zentangle a Day.  As I worked through the book, I taught my kids patterns I thought they would like, and made a notebook of favorite patterns for future reference.

Some of our favorite patterns for kids.

The Execution

Start with a small square of paper.  Zentangle uses 3.5″x3.5″.  Personally, I cut cardstock into trading-card sized pieces so that I can store them in trading-card albums.  (Some doodlers prefer a larger piece of paper, but the small size is less intimidating.)  Use a pencil to draw a shape on the paper.  Fill it in with doodles and patterns.  The best pen to use is a black Micron pen, size 01.  However, we often resort to fine Sharpie pens as well, or any other fine tip marker.

See some of our Doodles here.

For very little ones, it might be easier to start with a pre-drawn template (print on cardstock and cut into 2.5 x 3.5in rectangles).

The Extension

Many graphic designers use zentangle-like patterns in their work.  We often find an artist we like and copy their ideas.

ER_08       julia rothman