Developing the skills to use cutlery

Developing the skills to use cutlery

One skill area that many parents and teachers ask about is developing knife and fork skills. Using a knife and fork is an intricate task which involves the coordination of using two hands together to form a smooth an efficient motor plan.

Children who have difficulty with coordination often will have difficulty with cutting, lifting and coordinating using a knife and fork. Additionally children who have decreased *fine motor skills find it difficult to manipulate a fork, knife or spoon to pick up or scoop food to feed themselves. The task can be tiresome and cause stress to the child. Which can result in tantrums and refusal to use cutlery altogether!


Here are some suggestions to help develop cutlery use. Remember every child is different and will have specific needs. There are some terms which have an * marked beside them. There terms are explained in our CLINICAL TERMS section.

To start there are a number of key factors that you can arrange and control that will help your child:

1. Positioning
Positioning is extremely important. The child’s body needs to be supported to help them engage in this skill. Their feet should rest firmly on the ground or on a foot rest, or phone books taped together if their feet cannot reach the ground. The chair should be at an appropriate height so that the child’s navel is above the table. Using a cushion can help achieve this position. Additionally the child’s trunk (body) should be supported by the back of the chair. Facilitating the appropriate seating will ensure that your child is supported so that their hands are free to get busy. The correct positioning will also ensure that the child has a stable base to work from, that they are supported and ready to engage in task to the best of their ability.


2. Cutlery
The size of the cutlery is also important. Consider your child and their stage of development. Children’s cutlery is smaller and therefore easier for them to manipulate and control.  Children- size cutlery is available from Tesco, Ikea, Boots etc.


3. Positive Mealtime experiences
By creating a positive meal time experience, your child will relax and become more comfortable to engage in meal times. Commenting and expressing joy and congratulations on your child’s efforts will encourage them to continue to succeed. Remember your child will follow your lead, by explaining what you are doing and how you are doing it your child will try and copy you.
For example, “Look Daddy is scooping up his soup…..oh well done Daddy! I wonder can Jack Scoop up his soup……I bet he can’t……Oh he did it!! Well done Jack!!!”
Using a star chart may also help motivate your child to use their cutlery during meal times.

4. Social stories
*Social stories may also help your child to understand why it is important and necessary to use cutlery. It may also help a child to understand why sometimes you can use cutlery and why sometimes it is okay to use your hands, for example when eating an apple.

5. The environment
Remove all distractions from the environment including radio, t.v. washing machine . It is important that that your child has the opportunity to sit at a table with others when eating as much as possible. This will support positioning and also so that your child can learn from others who are sitting and eating at the table. Your child will also be exposed to learning the social skills that are required during meal times.

6. Involvement
Involve your child in the meal time routine. Have him or her set the table, or if they have difficulty with setting the table, to put a few items on the table, for example the salt or pepper pot, or glasses. This will help your child mentally prepare for the meal and also gives you an opportunity to praise your child for their efforts, teach a functional skill and also provides a positive meal time experience for your child. Remember you can involve your child in the wash up and clean up and this is just as important!

7. Fine motor activities
By engaging your child in various games and activities you can help strengthen your child’s in hand strength, finger dexterity and coordination. Games include Play-Dough, Blocks, baking, cutting, colouring, or peg games.


At the table

  • Start by using one utensil only. A spoon is a good utensil to start with. Consider the type of food you are going to serve. Consider a food which is easy to scoop and also a bowl that is easy to scoop food out of. Encourage your child to hold the bowl with their other hand. This will encourage *bilateral integration which is key for the development of knife and fork skills.
  • Once your child has mastered using a spoon, progress to using a fork for shovelling or stabbing movements. Again consider the type of food – pasta and sausages are good foods to stab. Continue to encourage your child to hold the plate with their other hand to encourage bilateral integration.
  • To develop knife skills, introduce activities that use a knife only, such as buttering and cutting. Use foods that are easy to spread, like jams or soft butter. You may need to place your hand over your child’s hand to help them to learn the motor pattern of the movement. Demonstrating the movement will also help. During spreading encourage your child to hold the bread with their other hand. For cutting movements firstly practice using play doh and a small knife. You can then progress to using food items that are easy to cut and motivating for child to eat (e.g. banana). This will give them an immediate sense of achievement.
  • When your child has developed sufficient control over the knife and fork you can introduce using the knife and fork together at meal times.

Final tips and advice

Remember that this is a life-long skill and therefore you should allow a lot of time for it’s development. It may take some time to develop these skills. These are broad suggestions – it is key to think about your child and how these suggestions may apply to you and your family considering what the overall goal may be.


If you have any questions about any of the above, please don’t hesitate to contact us.



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