“I can’t read that. Do it over.”
“That looks like chicken scratching. What does it say?”
“Maybe you’ll be a doctor. Nobody can read their handwriting, either.”
Guilty? Do you find yourself saying these things to your child? Do you question yourself, wondering why every handwriting curriculum you have bought did not work? It may not be your fault, and it may not be the curriculum’s fault. Really, it is probably not even your child’s fault. What your child may be experiencing is a need for fine motor development.
Fine motor is a fancy term for “small muscles.” Most of the muscles we refer to when using that term are the muscles of the hands. Facial muscles are also fine motor muscles, and a few children whose hands are delayed also have speech issues, but that is not always the case. For the purposes at hand, we will stay with the hand muscles and talk about what to do about handwriting.
A child does not walk before he sits up. Neither does he write before he reads. Development follows a natural progression. Even though a child may produce strokes and make marks on paper, as he begins to imitate shapes he sees he is actually reading those shapes. The production of shapes, and eventually letters, is the result of early reading skills. He sees marks, interprets them, remembers them, and reproduces them. That is the beginning of writing.
Muscle development also follows a natural progression. Large muscles (arms, legs) develop before the small muscles that are attached to them. Hand strength is the result of arm strength. Therefore, helping a child improve his handwriting actually begins with arm development.
Handwriting Improvement Activities
Put away the pencils and paper. This task involves some totally different skills. Writing letters over and over will not improve handwriting as quickly as will gross motor (big muscle) development, so pack away the typical tools and strap on your nerve for some atypical handwriting fun.
Go to the park.
Encourage your child to experiment with the equipment. This can be a challenge for mothers, whose overwhelming instinct is to protect the child from harm. Adopt a dad’s philosophy: “I won’t let them kill themselves, but if they fall, they will learn to do it differently next time.” Resist the temptation to save your child from the first fall. Allow him to do things differently from the norm. Let him hang by his belly from the swing. If younger children or other moms are not watching, let him climb backwards up the slide. Occupational therapists will tell you that it is actually very good for a child.
Do yard work.
Decide that the pile of bricks on the side of the house needs to move to another place in the yard. Get the wagon and have the child fill it with bricks; then have him push it to the new location and unload. Repeat this frequently (though he might suspect something if you want it done daily!). Pushing comes before pulling. Do not encourage pulling the wagon until you see improvement in strength.
Play with a younger child.
Put a little guy in the laundry basket and have your older child push the basket around the house. Who would ever suspect he was working? Have him push a sibling in the swing.
Assign your child reasonable responsibilities that encourage him to use his arms. Ask him to push the laundry basket (full, of course) from one place to another or to bring his hamper from his room. Request help carrying in the groceries, but watch carefully the weight of his bags until he gets stronger.
Bomb juice and rainbows
What? Several years ago we attended a conference where the presenter encouraged filling 2-liter soda bottles about 2/3 full with colored water and putting them outside for a child’s play. We did this. One of our two boys called them “bomb juice” (whatever that is!) and carried them from place to place in the yard, building imaginary forts and using the bottles of “bomb juice” to arm them. His greatest frustration was his brother’s agenda, which was to line up the bottles across the patio, rearranging them as he found more, so that the lineup formed a complete color spectrum. Regardless of your child’s agenda, these soda bottles are relatively free (except for the dental bills that result from drinking the soda!) and very easy to make. Do not bother sealing the caps, as most children who need fine motor work cannot unscrew a parent-tightened cap anyway. Insist that the bottles stay outside, though, in case one gets opened. The spill then stays outdoors. You will be pleasantly surprised by your child’s creativity and imagination. Do not suggest what the bottles can be. Just put them outside and watch what happens.
Paint the house.
Do not use real paint, though! Give your child a bucket of water and a paintbrush. Have him paint the outside of your house with water. Up-and-down strokes are excellent for arm development.
Get the chalk.
Sidewalk chalk is great for motor development. Be prepared for resistance from some children, though, as the sensation of the chalk scraping across concrete bothers their hands as much as fingernails on the chalkboard bother your ears!
No, not really, but do get out the shaving cream. My own sense of staying clean and not making messes is disturbed by this one, but I finally found a way to do this that I can live with. We put shaving cream on the (empty) bathroom counter. The children play in it, make sweeping strokes with their arms, and draw pictures in it. Along the way, I encourage them to imitate me as I make letters in the cream. We wipe them away and start over. Bathroom counters are easily wiped down, and cream-coated children (inevitable) can be stripped down and thrown in the bathtub without walking through the house.
Now for the Paper Activities
Once you have spent some time on building arm muscles, proceed to writing activities with a few suggestions in mind:
Position is important.
Generally speaking, I do not advocate insisting on a certain position for schoolwork. Handwriting is one area in which I make an exception to that rule. Sitting at a table or desk with feet firmly planted (on a box, if they do not reach the floor) is important for the child’s sense of stability. When he is grounded, he can relax and write with more confidence. In the beginning, consider using a slanted surface to ease transition between vertical and horizontal writing. Slant boards can be purchased for sometimes a rather high price. Even better: create your own, using a three-ring notebook. Turn the notebook so it slants toward the child and tape the paper to the notebook so it does not slide.
Use a vertical surface.
Easels are great for painting, coloring, and chalk work. If you do not have an easel, tape paper on a sliding glass door or other smooth surface. Even a slightly textured wall would work, as the bumps would give the child more sensations in his hands as he writes. Vertical writing is actually a gross motor skill, and as such, it aids development of the muscles necessary to write on a flat surface. You can buy an inexpensive roll of newsprint (an end piece) from your local newspaper to have large pieces of paper.
Hide the markers.
Markers are terrible for motor development. Except for removing and replacing the caps, markers offer no resistance, which is essential for the nerves in the hand to get the proper sensations for motor development. Use crayons, pencils, chalk, and paint but not markers. Break crayons and chalk into small pieces to encourage proper grip.
Use rough surfaces to increase sensations as your child writes. Have him practice written work at the card table. Put a piece of sandpaper under his worksheet. Cut letters from sandpaper and have him trace them with his fingers. Look for surfaces that will provide texture and have him color or write on them. Remember how neat it felt to rub a crayon across a paper-covered leaf or coin?
How to Do Other Work in the Meantime
You may now be wondering how to accomplish the child’s other schoolwork while his hands develop. We have encountered this issue with both our boys and have found several ideas to make it all work. First, remember that writing is a separate issue from other skills such as computation and spelling. Encourage your child to continue with other work even if he cannot write well enough to answer in his own handwriting.
Enlist a sibling.
We could not do this because of age proximity and other issues with the younger child. However, if you have a large family, enlist an older child to listen to (but not prompt!) and write what the younger child says.
Write it yourself.
If you feel compelled to avoid this strategy because it might look like you did the work instead of the child, simply write on the paper “Answered by ____ (child); written by Mom.”
Use letter and number stickers.
I have not actually found any that I liked available commercially, so I make my own using the computer and address labels. This is rather labor-intensive, as it involves cutting the labels into smaller pieces after the letters are printed. For one child, I have even gone to the extent of limiting how many letters he sees at once, preparing in advance a sheet for each workbook page so he does not have twenty-six letters (times multiples of each) through which he must scan in order to find the letters he needs. This preparation was important for this particular child, as he has other learning challenges that make it difficult to scan large areas and to remember what he is looking for. Your child may not need such limiting, but consider it before abandoning the stickers.
Use games, flashcards, and other activities that enhance skills without requiring written responses.
School really involves two areas – skills and information. Skills are the “Three Rs”: reading, writing, and arithmetic. Information is everything else. While you are waiting to develop skills, you can certainly enhance information acquisition by reading to the child.
Remember that each child develops at his own pace.
Each child is also created in the image of God, and his needs and differences in development need to be respected. Even in your moments of greatest frustration, resist the temptation to belittle the child or make comments about his delays. Play, laugh, and try lots of activities, but do not let on that you think he is “behind.” When you are frustrated, he is probably frustrated too. He needs you to be the adult, to maintain control, and to model respect, patience, and endurance. Mostly, he needs you to love him – no matter what.
Please note that severe developmental delays always need evaluation by a professional. If you suspect that your child has these, please consult your physician and ask for a referral to a registered Occupational Therapist.
Patsy Arnold – has written 8 posts on this site.