Handwriting is one of the most frustrating activities both for children to learn and parents to teach. It is a highly complex skill that interconnects all of development into one activity (see table below for just some of the required skills to execute handwriting). Therefore, it can be difficult to tease out which components of handwriting are causing the main issues and leading to frustrations. Handwriting involves not only being able to form the letters themselves, but also positioning, strength, writing grasp, hand dominance, attention and a series of pre-writing strokes.
Skills Necessary for Handwriting:
One of the key components to ensuring success in pre-writing is positioning. Your child needs to feel safe, supported and move easily for successful handwriting. Whether sitting in a highchair, at the table, or on a parent’s lap, there are tips to making sure your child is well supported.
Make sure your child’s:
• Back is upright
• Legs are parallel and in neutral position
• Knees are bent with the seat of the chair touching the bend in the knee
• Elbow can rest comfortable on the table
• Feet are touching a stable surface
If you do not have a position in which these all can occur for your child, there are multiple ways to adjust seating to meet these needs.
• Seat height- raise the seat with books, pillows, and seat cushions
• Upright back- add padding to the back of the chair, have your child sit at the edge of the chair
• Feet touching the floor- place a box or stool under your child’s feet, use child sized table and chairs, or connect a piece of wood to the legs of the chair.
If your child is in the proper position, it will set him or her up for success. You may need to get creative in order to have your child properly positioned, but it will be worth it!
In order to be able to initiate working on handwriting, a child must first have the strength to sit up while maintaining control over their arms, wrist, and fingers. If you notice your child having difficulty sitting up straight or lifting their arms to move the writing utensil, they may have an issue with core or upper extremity strengthening.
Activities for strengthening:
Infants and toddlers
• Tummy time Reaching for toys while supporting weight on one side
• Holding self up on hands and knees
• Pulling to sit
• Playing with toys in a tall kneel
Pre-school to young school age
• Wheel barrow walks
• Bear walks
• Playing with a toy while supporting weight through arms with legs on an elevated surface
• Older children 5 years and up
• Monkey bars
Another area of strength that could be lacking is fine motor strength, which can have a significant impact on writing grasp.
Activities for Fine Motor Strengthening:
• Use a clothes pin or chip clip to pick up and move small objects
• Play dough or clay
• Sustained participation in coloring
• Squeezing a glue bottle
• Ball poppers
• Stress balls
• Holding self up on a money bar with caregiver assisting for safety
As you could imagine, hand strength strongly impacts writing grasp and development of the muscles of the hands that allow us to perform the motions necessary for handwriting. A child can begin experimenting with holding writing utensils as early as 12 months, if not earlier! They will typically demonstrate a gross grasp on the utensil with their palm and wrapping all of their fingers around it. Between 2-3 years of age you should begin to see your child use their fingers to hold the writing utensil in various forms with a tripod grasp being established between 3 year 6 months and 4 years of age. At this age, there should be a c-shaped gap in the webspace of the tip of the thumb and pointer finger, holding the sides of the pencil between them. Next, between 4 years 6 months and 6 years of age, children learn to use finger motions by resting the writing arm on the table and using wrist and finger motions to control the writing utensil.
Activities for writing grasp:
12 months – 2 years
• Gripping of thicker writing utensils such as egg-shaped crayons, large crayons, wide triangle crayons and markers
• Scribbling on paper
3- 4 years
• Present writing utensil to thumb side of hand
• Set up fingers in proper position
• Use shortened gold sized pencils
• Hold cotton ball or small toy under ring and pinky fingers
• Skinny markers
4 years and older
• Wrist weights
• Pressure to the forearm for contact to forearm
• Coloring and writing in small defined spaces
• Modeling proper method
While your child is learning to hold the writing utensil, it will be highly important to know which hand is the dominant hand and encourage its use for holding the writing utensil. Typically, hand preference begins to emerge by 18 months and a preference is established by 2 years of age. Once you observe which hand your child tends to be more successful with and tends to choose most often, make sure to support them in using that hand successfully across tasks. If you do not know the hand preference, try presenting various utensils such as pencils, crayons, silverware, and scissors at midline and tracking which hand they choose most frequently. After you see the hand your child is most successful with, begin to present utensils to that side of the body and prompt them to use it for fine motor tasks. By 3-4 years of age hand dominance should be firmly established and consistent throughout activities.
Before you can begin having your child working on imitating your strokes, it is important that you have your child’s attention. He or she needs to want to participate and do his or her best work in order to truly learn and master the strokes. When initiating practicing pre-writing, make it fun! If you do not get buy in from your child, they will be less excited about learning. Be creative and make it fun!
Use mixed media to practice:
• Shaving cream
• Tray covered in salt
• Build letters with wiki sticks or Popsicle sticks
• Finger paint
• Glue cottons balls/beads/ or pasta into the shapes of letters
• Sing songs to draw with such as “Wheels on the Bus”
• Make sound effects that only occur for the stroke o Provide frequent breaks
• Set a specific goal
• Change up the environment
The learning of writing strokes takes place in order based on what the child is able to understand and physically complete at the current skill level. These strokes build off of each other and become more complex with age, eventually leading to writing of letters and numbers. See below for a chart indicating this progression. If your child has difficulty with one of the following strokes, practice them in repetition in short bursts in various ways using strategies from the above attention section.
The ability to write letters typically begins between 4-5 years of age with tracing a child’s first name. This occurs after he or she is able to use a variety of lines to build shapes and recognize the pieces as part of the whole to build the letters. From tracing, development then moves to copying first and last name from 5 years to 5 years 10 months. By 5 years 8 months, your child should be able to copy all lower- and upper-case letters of the alphabet as well as numbers 1-10 and produce them from memory by 6 years of age. The key to making sure to develop writing skills at the appropriate age is practicing it prior to the age your child is supposed to have the skill. Provide multiple opportunities to be exposed to the activity in various ways. Break letters down into the components that make it and teach the letters piece by piece and build off of that to accurately produce the letter as a whole correctly in repetition. The key here is practice, practice, practice!
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