Handwriting is a very complex skill. In this article Kim Griffin, from Griffin Occupational Therapy, explores why fine motor skills are an essential foundation for handwriting readiness.
Motor skill milestones
Motor skill milestones are always a talking point throughout a child’s development. Mothers are always asked if their child is sitting, crawling, walking and talking. Baby books list out important milestones, and health visitors check them off.
These motor skills develop sequentially. Children learn to roll before they sit. They sit before they crawl. Then, typically, children crawl before they walk or run. These large motor movements form the foundation stability required to hold their pencil later on. Crawling helps them child to develop shoulder stability, running helps with postural control.
Aside from the larger movements, before being able to hold a pencil, there are a number of earlier steps. The child begins holding items with a gross grasp, where they use their entire hand. Next, they develop greater dexterity and control. They learn to drop, or release, objects. They learn to play with Duplo, bricks and beads. All of these activities help them to develop the hand skills required to use a pencil for handwriting.
What skills are essential for handwriting?
Postural control and shoulder stability
Before a child can hold their pencil effectively, they need to be able to sit up. Sitting requires adequate postural control. Postural control is our ability to keep our bodies stable when we are stationary and when we move. It is essential for us to be able to use our arms, hands and fingers with good control.
Imagine a building. In order for it to stand up, there needs to be strong foundations underneath. Without strong foundations a building would fall over. Our foundation is postural control. Postural control starts developing from the moment a child is born. Initially, babies have no postural control. Their heads even need support. Over time a baby can hold their head up and then push up on their arms and roll over. Tummy time helps to develop these skills and helps with shoulder stability.
Our shoulders are the next layer of the foundation. They are like the concrete floor on a building. Our shoulders support our arms and hands, in the same way the floor supports the walls. When there is reduced shoulder stability, a child will have less control over their arms and hand.
Finger and hand control
In order to hold their pencil with their fingers children first need to be able to isolate their fingers from their palm. Initially, when they hold a pencil, a child will grasp their entire hand around it. This is because they have not developed the hand control to isolate their fingers from their palm. As they have more experience with fine motor activities, children establish more control over their fingers. This is what allows them to hold their pencil with their fingers.
The other thing they need to be able to do is move their fingers independently of their wrist and shoulder. Again, when holding a pencil with a fisted grasp, usually children make the movements with their shoulder. As their control improves they can move the pencil from their elbow and wrist. Eventually, their control improves and they can just move their fingers. This takes less effort and allows finer control of the pencil.
As mentioned at the beginning, handwriting is a complex activity. Pre-writing skills are the things a child needs to be able to do before they are ready to write. This includes being able to colour and trace inside lines, and to draw certain shapes. Shapes such as vertical and horizontal lines and circles form the foundation of most letters. Think of the letter ‘a’ for example. It starts off as a circle, and then has a vertical line on the side. Additionally, a child needs to be able to draw their oblique lines for letters such a ‘k,’ ‘v,’ ‘w,’ and x.’
How can you help?
Postural control and shoulder stability
Firstly, get off the devices and out into the playground! Climbing is a great way to help to improve shoulder stability. Swings and slides help with postural control. Walking, or running, up and down unstable surfaces also helps with postural control and endurance.
Secondly, crawling is a great way to help with shoulder stability. This includes crawling on hands and knees and also commando crawling where the child keeps their bottom down on the ground. Tunnels can be fun. Chairs and tables can be used to make an obstacle course. Crawling into sleeping bags or duvet covers to find things is also a great game.
Other activities that are good for children as they get older are cycling and gymnastics or martial arts. Martial arts and gymnastics have the added bonus of including movements using the left and right sides and both sides together. This helps with overall coordination and body awareness. There are also a lot of free movement songs (e.g. Go Noodle) and also yoga (e.g. Cosmic Kids) available on YouTube.
Finger and hand control
Before they hold onto a pencil, children need to be playing! Messy play is a great way to help with hand awareness. Sand, shave foam and finger paint are a good starting point. Mud kitchen can be loads of fun. Cooking can also be fun. Making pizzas or cutting out pastry or biscuits are great ways to develop finger and hand control. Playdough and Dough Disco are also an excellent choice.
Finger songs are also a great way to improve the fine motor skills of younger children. There are a number of animated songs on YouTube, this playlist has a good selection. The song ‘Crocodile Snap’ is also written to help children to find their ‘crocodile fingers,’ or the fingers they need to use on their pencil.
Construction toys, such as Duplo, Sticklebrix and Popoids, are great activities to help with finger and hand control. Musical instruments are brilliant as they help with hand control and timing and sequencing. Scissors and craft are also great choices. Many pretend play toys, e.g. doctor sets, dolls houses, trucks and cars, also encourage fine motor skills.
It is really important that children engage in these activities first. They help to facilitate the finger and hand required to hold onto a pencil. Nurseries are full of these activities. However, sometimes children with fine motor skill delays will prefer the outdoor activities and will avoid the fine motor activities tables. It can be helpful to prompt these children to engage with them, to ensure they are getting the experiences. It’s also useful to include these activities at home, where possible.
A useful way to think about pre-writing skills is to call it ‘mark making.’ So, before a child writes they need to be able to use their pencil to make marks and colour. It can be really helpful let the child be as creative at they want to. There are no rules. Old school black boards are also excellent. You just want the child to be holding onto a marker, crayon or pencil and make some marks. This helps with their pencil control.
Next, colouring and drawing are really important foundations for handwriting. Again, these skills help with the pencil control required for handwriting. If a child isn’t that interested in colouring, find colouring sheets of their favourite characters. Use different types of markers and crayons. Bath crayons can also be fun, as can window markers to write on windows and mirrors, and drawing with chalk on the pavement. Activity workbooks with mazes and dot to dots are also good at this stage. If you’re really struggling to engage a child with a pen and paper you could also try a stylus with a tablet. Just make sure they are using the stylus and not their finger, so they are practising holding onto a ‘pen.’
Finally, practicing pre-writing shapes is important. Vertical and horizontal lines, circles, squares and oblique lines (\ /) and crosses (+ x) are the foundation shapes for writing. Unfortunately, the current UK curriculum requires children to write in reception, which in the case of four-year olds, is before they are developmentally ready. It is important for children to practice pre-writing skills first.
Alternatives to pencils
Finally, I’d like to give three tips that can be helpful before using regular pencils. Firstly, finger crayons are excellent to help with developing the arches of the hand. This helps a child get ready to be able to hold a pencil with their fingers. Secondly painting with a paint brush or drawing with chalk can be a fun way for children to again hold onto a tool and make marks. Finally, using short, 3cm pencils, which you can make yourself with a saw, can be a helpful way for children to improve their finger isolation. They can be particularly helpful for children that are holding onto their pencil with their entire hands.
Handwriting is an important skill for success throughout schooling. It is however a very complex skill. In this post Kim Griffin, from GriffinOT, has explored why fine motor skills are essential to support pencil grasp and writing. As an experienced occupational therapist specialising in supporting children with sensory and motor skills challenges, Kim is ideally positioned to provide this advice. You can read more about Kim’s approach to supporting children with additional needs, including how to support pencil grasp, at www.griffinot.com or follow her on Twitter @Griffin_OT or Facebook @GriffinSensoryOT.