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,”1 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.