Sticky Hands to Writing Hands

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Help your child develop the motor skills he needs for handwriting — beginning in babyhood.

My newborn daughter struggled to raise her head. I had placed her on her tummy while she was awake. Her little body wriggled about, and as she had raised her head just enough to be able to look around, her little neck muscles gave out and down her head came, causing her to begin her struggle all over again. I was on my belly in front of her, talking softly to her, encouraging her to try again, showering her with smiles and praise for her efforts. She began to cry, so I picked her up, holding her close, knowing that at this tender, young age, I was already laying the foundation for her future handwriting skills.

As the weeks passed and she made it very evident that she did not enjoy “tummy time,” I learned to sit reclined, on the floor, making my upper body a sort of “incline.” I would place her on my chest and sing, call her name, and talk softly — anything I could do to get her to bear weight through her arms and hands while looking up to see my face. I alternated “sessions” like these with gradually increasing periods of tummy time to work on visual skills while strengthening her upper body through weight-bearing, two key pre-writing components. Every developmental stage in a child’s life presents unique opportunities to strengthen upper body muscles, visual perception, and eye-hand coordination, which are skills necessary to enhance future handwriting ability.

Birth – 1 Year
A common “rule of thumb” given to new parents is “back to sleep, tummy to play.” One reason is that tummy time during a baby’s awake hours is key to the strengthening and coordination of the muscles of the upper body, neck and eyes. Newborns work on strength and coordination through learning to hold their head steady and focusing on Mommy’s or Daddy’s face. As babies grow, they begin to push up onto their forearms and then, eventually, their hands. They support the weight of their upper body through their arms, which is often referred to as “weight-bearing.” The strengthening and feedback the small muscles of the hands and the large muscles of the shoulder girdle receive is crucial for normal development of the upper limbs, in preparation for fine motor tasks such as handwriting.

Visual tracking and reaching are other activities that can be incorporated into playtime; these, too, are crucial to the development of future handwriting skills. While the baby is on her back or tummy, hold a favorite soft toy in front of her and slowly move it vertically and horizontally. The baby will watch the toy, giving her practice in visual tracking. As the baby grows she will also begin to reach for the toy. These efforts at reaching for and grasping the toy are simple child’s play but are so important for developing eye-hand coordination.

The Toddler Years
When you begin feeding your child baby food, the baby may reach out for the spoon. Although your instinct may be to stop him and avoid a mess, allow him to place his hand on the spoon as you feed him, being careful that he doesn’t push the spoon too far into his mouth. When your child is able to chew foods such as soft, cooked vegetables, cut them up into small pieces and allow him to feed himself, one piece at a time. This practice in reaching for and grasping small pieces of food will further develop the small muscles of the hand, working toward the ability to properly grasp a crayon or pencil when the child gets older. Yes, it may be messy to allow your child to self-feed, but these experiences are essential to sensory and fine motor development. Little hands that are allowed to get “sticky” often during self-feeding experiences tend to have well-developed muscles, preparing them for the new experiences the preschool years will present.

Preschool Years
The preschool years can provide a whole new world of opportunities for your child to practice visual-motor and fine-motor skills through their play. Some of these activities may be messy, but the benefits far outweigh the cleanup required! In fact, it is much more time-consuming to try to replicate the benefits of these activities through other, less messy activities and often not as effective (or fun).

A prime example of a messy but developmentally supportive activity is the use of play dough. Both strength and coordination are required to manipulate play dough into various shapes. An added benefit is that there are no “lesson plans” required. (Have you ever noticed how a preschooler will occupy himself with his play dough creations for long periods of time?) Creativity and pretend play can also really blossom with play dough, all while enhancing fine-motor strength and eye-hand coordination. Not too many activities can do all that with little preparation by the parent!
Finger painting is another messy yet effective activity for prewriting skills. Through finger painting, children can learn which movements produce which markings (i.e., line, circle). Since writing is described simply as “the trace of movement,” finger painting is one of the most perfect pre-writing activities you can use to teach children how to make lines and shapes — without even picking up a pencil.

As children begin to show an interest in coloring, encourage the use of crayons instead of markers, and demonstrate a proper crayon grip. Crayons provide resistance that markers do not and therefore are more effective at building strength and endurance in the muscles required for writing. A crayon is a “tool for writing,” much like chopsticks are “tools for eating.” It is important to teach your child how to use this “writing tool” properly. Demonstration and positioning the hand on the crayon properly will lead to proper grip of a pencil when your child shows readiness to write letters in the kindergarten and elementary years.

Kindergarten & Elementary Years
The transition to handwriting is made easier for the child and parent when a solid foundation of pre-writing skills has been laid. Before running a race, a wise athlete does some warm-up exercises. In the same way, it is beneficial for the child to warm up the muscles of the hands and arms prior to writing each day. Activities that have been used to develop the muscles of the hands during play, such as the use of play dough, can easily be used to warm up the hands prior to a handwriting lesson.

Developmentally, children typically learn to copy vertical and horizontal lines prior to drawing circles and diagonal lines. Therefore, when using a developmental approach to handwriting, teach letters that utilize only vertical and horizontal lines before introducing letters that contain diagonal lines. For example, teach capital F before capital A. Furthermore, teaching capitals first is an effective way to allow children to focus on developing good letter formation habits with letters of one size and position on the line, prior to introducing lowercase letters. Lowercase letters require children to pay attention to various size and placements on the line, which may be overwhelming for a child’s first introduction to handwriting.

Regardless of the style chosen, demonstration and consistency are crucial when teaching your child handwriting. Demonstrate the proper formation of letters for your child until she is forming the letter consistently each time. Use consistent language when describing letter formation, since some children, especially auditory learners, will “replay” your instructions in their heads while writing on their own. Continue instructing your child in letter formation until handwriting becomes an automatic skill. Otherwise, too much effort will go into remembering how to write the letter and take away effort needed for the spelling or composition lessons you try to teach later on.

The progression to cursive handwriting also requires demonstration and consistency. A key difference is that the connections between letters need to be emphasized as well, for that is what sets cursive apart from print. Regular review until cursive handwriting becomes automatic is also necessary if you want your child to use it every day without it detracting from the effort required for the main purpose of written assignments. Be sure to think through the decision regarding when to start teaching your child cursive as well. Recent research suggests that teaching children to write in slanted manuscript, such as D’Nealian, while learning to read has led to confusion for some children. I have been informed by some parents of the same confusion when the child has been taught to write in cursive first.

Even though my baby did not like “tummy time” or pursue it on her own through her play as she grew, we were able to integrate appropriate, fun activities that enhanced her fine-motor and visual-motor development. Handwriting is now a very automatic skill for her, it is legible, and she enjoys it. With some God-given patience, a structured handwriting curriculum that included consistent demonstration, and a lot of fun fine-motor and visual-motor activities, enhancing handwriting skills, to her, was nothing more than child’s play!

Delia Poythress, an occupational therapist, wife and a homeschooling mom.  She speaks on handwriting, learning styles and fun ways to increase attention during learning tasks.

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