Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the Winter 2010-11 issue of The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, the trade magazine for homeschool families. Read the magazine free at www.TOSMagazine.com or read it on the go and download the free apps at www.TOSApps.com to read the magazine on your mobile devices.

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 my daughter on my chest and sing to her, call her name, and talk to her 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 handwriting ability. 

Birth–One 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.