Help with handwriting – 10 ways to help

Writing well  requires well developed fine motor skills. There are a range of small muscles in the hands, arms and shoulders that need to be exercised to support effective handwriting. Thankfully these skills usually get better with practise.

Try some of the activities below to help your child develop the accuracy, balance and eye-hand coordination needed to perform good handwriting.  Many of these activities were just too difficult for my son  when he was young, if you are experiencing the same things it might be worth getting further advice from a health visitor or occupational therapist.

10 activities to improve handwriting:

1. Playdoh is useful for strengthening the small muscles required for handwriting. Roll small balls of playdoh between the thumb and first two fingers only – these are the handwriting tripod fingers and will provide excellent strengthening and coordination. They make a ‘kids soft air drying Fimo’ now so they can keep their creations. You could make a string of beads to wear or counting beads on a string so there is more purpose in the activity. We also made little pots, using the three tripod fingers: Roll Playdoh into a ball and squash it a bit, then pinch the edges upwards to form the walls of your pot. Playdoh play was an early red flag I had as a parent. My son just couldn’t manipulate it, just didn’t have the strength. If this is the case with your child you can buy softer doughs now, increasing the dough resistance as your child’s muscles strengthen. Pull, stretch and squeeze the dough to strengthen finger muscles.

2.  Use window crayons as it really strengthens the shoulder muscles and hand muscles. It’s great fun too. Wiping them clean is also a winning exercise! Washing mum’s car is a win-win exercise too – “wipe on, wipe off,”the famous phrase from Karate Kid!

3. Screwing up paper. Practise tearing paper into quarters and then, with one hand only, screw the quarter into a ball in the palm of your hand using all the fingers to squash it into a ball. You may need to make it easier with tissue paper or tissues before using thicker paper. You can add faces or googly eyes to the balls you make so it doesn’t get too serious.

Another idea is to make tissue paper ball pictures using the playdoh tripod finger rolling technique. Start with a small shape like a star, moon or heart that can be filled in easily with 15 or so tissue paper balls.

3. Play with Meccano, Lego, threading, small cars, minature animals etc. You don’t have to buy everything; nuts and bolts, screw top lids on toothpaste tubes, small bottles; all great for tripod finger grip strengthening. Make macaroni dried pasta necklaces to encourage finger manipulation skills and hand-eye coordination practise.

4. Sponge transporter – get two bowls and fill one with water. Ask your child to dip their sponge into the bowl of water and then squeeze the water-filled sponge out into the empty bowl. Repeat this until all the water has gone from the original bowl. Count how many times and see if it gets better over time. This should really strengthen the hands and forearm.

5. Sort collections of tiny things: Encourage your child to sort button colours or loose change into 1p’s, 2p’s, 5p’s etc.

6. Play games with small pieces, card games, tweezer games  like Operation, or make your own tweezer games. Under adult supervision obviously, with the small parts.

7. Do jigsaws – another red flag for me. Many dyspraxics cannot motor plan well with jigsaws. Start off really simple and slowly progress to more pieces, keeping it successful.

8. Baking, rolling out biscuits, mixing, kneading the dough are all great handwriting muscle builders.

9. Daily crafting: A great activity for the tripod grip is dot painting with cotton buds. Use crayons, scissors, paints, finger paints, stickering, tearing paper. Use scratch off foil books with the wooden pointed scratch-off sticks (Klutz do some good ones), encouraging the child to pivot their wrist on the bone at the base of their hand.

10. Rainbow drawing (more like arcs than rainbows but you will get the idea) – hold arm and wrist straight pivoting the arm at the elbow, move back and forward, changing the colours every now and again to maintain interest. Don’t press down too much, ask them for a feint rainbow in the distance. Get them to turn their paper with their other arm to create a Catherine Wheel type effect on the paper (great for bonfire night!). This will take them some time to master… Now do similar rainbow arcs where only the wrist pivots back and forth, resting on the bone at the base of the hand, lots of them if you can.  Then once this is okay draw a row of circles, one clockwise, one anti-clockwise and repeat the pattern along. Then, with a different colour, go over the circles in the same way, tracing them as exactly as you can. Keep repeating in different colours or the same colour if the child is happy to. This gets the child use to the push and pull of writing. Remember to keep the pressure light.

11. Doing simple mazes encourages the side to side, up and down , push and pull movements required for handwriting.

Also, take advantage of snowy or muddy days! Making snowballs, or, if there is no snow – mud cakes or mud balls that can be thrown to hit a target in the garden – great fun!

Every child will acquire the skills needed for handwriting at different times. The more your child uses their fingers the sooner they are likely to achieve this.

Encourage the tripod grip from an early age, using a triangular barrelled pencil or crayon grip will help your child to establish this. There are some great chunky triangular grips for pencils and crayons to help in the early stages. Try to move away from the chunky crayons once they have mastered the grip onto the Faber Castell thinner triangular barrelled pencil crayons and colouring pens. Staying with the chunky grip for too long restricts some of the movement in the hand and fingers. It’s like an adult trying to write with a tube of smarties, far less movement is possible. Do stick with triangular barrelled pens and pencils though as this makes pencil grip so much more comfortable.

Faber Castell pack of 12 jumbo colour GRIP crayons
Jumbo triangular grip handwriting crayons

In the early stages using a silicone pencil ‘grip’ can also give the young child a feel for how to hold the pencil (don’t allow them to get too used to it that they become dependent upon it though). You are just trying to encourage a natural tripod grip at this stage. Offer the grip every other day so they know they can cope with alternatives.

Want to make your own grip? You could try another trick of mine which is to roll a blue-tack strip around the grip of the pencil. The child then pincers the index finger and thumb in an ‘ok’ type sign around the blue tack grip of the pen and then brings the middle finger in under the pen for support. Blue tack is quite tacky so the fingers will stick and the fingers will mould their own grip points. Plasticine might do the same thing although it doesn’t stick as well to the pen. Some people will use fimo air drying clay to mould their own grip around the pencil, you’d need to glue it onto the shaft to make it stay. It’s not terribly soft once it’s dry but at least it will add some variety to your pencil grip collection!

Posture is very important to achieving good handwriting. Feet flat on the ground (use telephone directories if need be to achieve this), knees at 90 degrees and body sitting upright. Strong tummy muscles influence the body’s posture. The  body should be turned very slightly  to the left for righties and to the right for lefties. The paper should also be positioned carefully – righties should have their paper turned so that the bottom left hand corner points to their tummy button, and lefties should have their paper turned so that the bottom right corner of the paper points to their tummy button. The non writing hand should be used actively in paper orientation, something that often gets ignored. It’s not just a paper weight!

The old Victorian writing desks were perfect for our children, now we have writing slopes which provide the 20 degree writing angle. Slopes support the correct body posture, reduce visual stress and provide a more ergonomic handwriting position.

If handwriting is still concerning you as your child gets older, you should have a quick chat with the teacher or consult an occupational therapist. There are some great handwriting programmes you can try with their support: ‘Write from the Start’ for younger children  and ‘Speed Up!’ For older children. There’s an older programme that OT’s like too, called ‘Handwriting Without Tears’; there are some good ideas in this programme – I especially like the one where you write the letter on the chalkboard, wipe it off with a small square sponge, following the writing path of the letter and then dry it off with a tiny cloth along the writing path of the letter – it really reinforces the way the letter is written in a novel way.

More on this topic soon…

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