A friend who lives overseas sent me an email recently concerned that her 5-year-old’s teacher said the child's hands were too weak to hold a pencil properly. I have not seen her child for some years, but my initial response was that sometimes young children are given writing tools to use before they are ready for them.
Young children from 3-5 years of age use their hands to explore and learn about the environment and themselves. Developing good hand skills is important preparation for pre-writing skills, but I hope the teacher is not expecting too much too soon.
What are pre-writing skills?
Pre-writing skills are concerned with the strength and the dexterity (how well we can handle small objects) in young hands. Both depend on how we use the small muscles of our hands.
However, we also need the muscles in our forearm to provide strength and stability. In fact, we often must coordinate and use both types of muscles to do things such as holding and using a pencil, using scissors, managing buttons, handling coins and using various utensils for eating.
Good sensory information is important for hand skills, as it tells our brain what we feel, how we move and where our hands are as we do a task. The brain must coordinate these sensations with what we see so we can make small changes for precise coordination and muscle control. Children also need to receive and coordinate accurate sensory information when developing pre-writing skills.
Here are some suggestions to help your child develop good pre-writing skills.
Strengthening the shoulder, arm and wrist
- Try tummy-lying on the floor with arms propped on forearms to read books, colour or do puzzles.
- Play games such as tug-of-war, wheelbarrow walking or animal walks.
- Use the playground equipment, such as the climbers and monkey bars.
Develop hand skills
- Change how activities are done to encourage finger use. For example, when playing with Lego have your child rest his forearms on the table so that he uses his fingers to put the pieces together.
- Lace large beads with strings that have small plastic tips on the ends or use easy lacing cards.
- Use small tongs to pick up cotton balls, pom-poms, blocks, etc.
Develop eye-hand coordination
- Roll, throw and catch large-sized balls.
- Play balloon volleyball, scarf toss and catch.
- Draw and scribble.
- Play Simon Says and use terms such as "up & down," "back & forth" and "front & back."
- Sing action songs such as Hokey Pokey, This Old Man, The Wheels on the Bus and Itsy Bitsy Spider.
Pre-writing activities (no pencils required)
- Make lines, shapes and letters by finger painting.
- Play shape and letter matching or recognition games.
- Play with puzzles, magnetic letters and Play-Doh.
Above all, have fun with your child and remember that for a child, play - just like school - is his or her work and can be quite stressful on a day-to-day basis.
Please also note that these activities are general in nature and ones that we are taught to use in the classroom. They are not intended to replace the intervention that may be provided by an occupational therapist.
If you find that your child is genuinely struggling, you may wish to contact an occupational therapist for professional advice and assistance.