Is the secret to teaching handwriting on your playground?

Maybe you’ve started wondering, “How do I get my child to write her name?” or “Why does my child hate writing?” Maybe your friend’s preschooler or your nephew or your babysitter’s kid was drawing people and trees by this age and your child couldn’t care less about coloring. First of all, your child may be at a totally normal spot, developmentally, for her age. This chart from Understood.org shows that it is normal for preschoolers to be scribbling, beginning to copy letters, and maybe learning their names during the preschool years. They say children don’t necessarily learn to hold a pencil correctly until they are school age, between 5 and 7.

This list from Zero to Three is another great resource for the stages of handwriting. Up until 2 1/2, random scribbles are the name of the game. My son was mostly still biting crayons at two. Between 2 1/2 and 3 1/2, kids get more control of their scribbles and patterns – like zigzags and repeated lines – emerge. It’s normal for kids to start drawing recognizable objects and figures between the ages of 3 and 5. (That means some kids will start when they are five and that’s still fine!)

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, what can you do for your kids to help them get ready for writing, especially as you start to get ready for kindergarten? The answer may surprise you!

Think big

Before your kids can master the small muscle movements of writing, they need strength and coordination in their big muscles. This includes core strength and strong muscles in their shoulders and arms. So one of the best things you can do to help your kids learn to write the alphabet or learn to write their names is take them outside to run, jump, climb and swing!

This blog post from Miss Jaime, O.T., explains it nicely. Kids who have weak cores prop themselves up with an arm, lean on furniture, fidget in their chairs and won’t stay in their seats. She recommends a whole list of fun strengthening activities that you can work into your family routine. Some of the ones that I hadn’t thought of before were pumping on a swing, crawling through tunnels, and heavy work like carrying laundry and pushing a broom or shoveling.

Remember tummy time?

My son tolerated tummy time, as long as there was a mirror (he was a vain little creature) or something that made noise. My daughter just got MAD. And the more we tried, the madder she got. She didn’t start to crawl (just scooted around on her bum) until her favorite baby at daycare, who is 6 months younger, started getting mobile. Unfortunately for her, tummy time is the foundation for a lot of the core strength and shoulder strength she will need for good handwriting. The nurse practitioner in our doctor’s office explained that pushing up on their hands helps babies develop the muscles in their hands they need to crawl, but also to grasp objects, including pencils.

So if your child was a tummy time dropout, like my Ladybug, or if they don’t quite have the strength they need yet, think about some of the ways you got them on the floor when they were babies. Break out the floor puzzles. Put large paper and crayons on the floor and draw a huge map. Put blocks or Legos on the floor. Help them build a huge race track for their cars so they have to crawl around the floor to drive. Set up a crawling obstacle course or scavenger hunt that has them crawling on their bellies under chairs, stretching out one arm to grab a clue under the couch, or balancing (with a spotter!) on a yoga ball in the Superman position.

But shouldn’t they sit and practice, too?

OK, yes, preschoolers won’t get good at writing without writing and drawing. But if they hate it, there are lots of ways they can practice those movements without you breaking out the penmanship paper just yet!

Some great ways to get kids using their hands and arms in a way that will help them write are:

  • Playdough – squeezing, rolling, pinching, stamping. All those movements are great for little fingers!
  • Slime or putty – as much as it grosses me out, kids seem to love it!
  • Painting – with fingers, brushes or sponges. On the table, on the floor, on an easel, or with bathtub paints on the shower wall. Painting on a vertical surface like an easel or wall has the benefit of using their shoulder muscles and can help kids work on their grip, too.
  • Stringing beads – Check out the craft store to find the right size beads for your kid’s skill level. Make patterns, make bracelets for everyone they know, or just string and dump.
  • Sidewalk chalk – this has the bonus of getting them on their hands and knees, working their core and shoulders while practicing the BIG drawing movements they can use for handwriting later.
  • Legos – snap them together and pull them apart. Pick out tiny pieces from the pile.
  • Smaller pencils – When they do write, snap crayons in half or use golf pencils to encourage them to grip down near the tip of the tool for better control. Crayola makes little markers called PipSqueaks that are also great for little hands.

Understood.org has another great list of tips for getting kids to practice writing. Read it here.

So if your preschooler hates writing, or if you can’t begin to guess what they drew you, don’t panic! Give them lots of outside play to strengthen their cores, lots of play on the floor when they are stuck inside, and get creative with seated activities that use their finger and wrist muscles. When they have the strength to sit still and hold that pencil, you might be amazed with that they can draw and write!

Did your child hate tummy time? Who cried more, you or the baby? What is your preschooler’s favorite thing to do on the playground? Comment below to share your ideas!

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