As parents we can become worried about what we feel our child should be doing to be keeping up with what we perceive to be in line with normal development and certainly to get them ‘school ready’. What could be better than getting them writing! I mean, they go to school and they write so that is probably one of the things that it’s best to focus on right? So how do we prepare our children to be ready to write? Rather than answering that question, I’m going to say – don’t! Here’s why.
For a child to write effectively long term they first must be able to use what is known as a ‘dynamic tripod grip’. This basically means that they can hold their pencil between 2 fingers and create the movement from their thumb, fingers and finger tips. Most children master this grip between the ages of 6 and seven (another example as evidence that we send our children to school too young in this country.
That is not to say they shouldn’t be encouraged to use pencils and crayons before they’ve grasped this grip (keep them chunky) - they definitely should and there are so many ways to do that without encouraging them to write. This is referred to as ‘mark making’.
Children are developing, and it’s important to understand that if a child hasn’t reached that stage of development not to push them into something they are just not developmentally ready for. They need time to play and explore in different ways to build their strength in both their gross motor skills and their pincer grip.
Supporting your child’s gross motor skills is a fantastic way to help them be ready to write. Think about sitting at a table and writing, just think for a minute of all that’s involved. For us it’s so easy we do it without thinking but children are developing and have not all the finely tuned physical skills that we have as adults so let’s break it down a little.
The gross motor skills involved in handwriting mainly refer to the postural control that is required for writing. Efficient control of the larger muscle groups in the neck, shoulder and trunk is necessary to maintain stability in order for the fingers and hands to move to complete the handwriting task. As children develop, control and stability begins at the trunk, progressing to the elbow, wrist and finally the hand. With normal development, fine motor skills are developed from gross motor skills. For example, a baby will first learn to swat, then reach, then grasp and then manipulate a toy. Children need to develop the proximal muscles (closer to the center of the body) of the trunk and shoulder girdle in order to use the distal muscles (further from the center of the body) in the fingers and hands. These proximal muscles develop in children with gross motor movements such as reaching, tummy time, rolling, all fours position, crawling, standing and walking.
Children also must develop the ability to plan and execute gross motor skill actions. With handwriting tasks, this motor planning requires muscle groups to work together with the proper force, timing and actions to produce an acceptable outcome (ie legible handwriting). For example, in order to write with a pencil, the brain has to plan and carry out the skill in the correct sequence. Starting with the pectoral muscles, the trapezius and the rhomboid muscles coactivating with the proper force and timing to stabilize the shoulder in order for the fingers and hand to move the pencil along the paper efficiently. Children with decreased motor planning skills exhibit poor legibility of handwriting compared to their peers (Tseng & Murray, 1994).
Not as simple as just picking up a pen and going for it is it? It’s a lot for them to think about. They also need to be able to stabilise the piece of paper they are writing on, use their hand eye coordination and think about how to form the letters and think about what they write. That is a LOT to be thinking about so trying to get them to achieve this before they are developmentally ready is setting them up to get frustrated and feel like they hate writing.
So what can we do?
All these activities will help prepare your child be ready to write. All these prime areas of development are so intrinsically linked and getting ready to write demonstrates this so well. Children develop holistically so it’s not as simple as ‘teaching them to write’, it’s making sure they are READY to write by supporting those 3 areas of prime learning, the foundations for your child’s well-being and learning…you do that and you can build skyscrapers on top!
Or write novels.
It's always difficult to go into as much depth in a blog post as I'd like, If you've any questions on the stages of pencil grip development or anything else discussed in this post please do get in touch via Facebook, email or by using our contact page.
Jennifer Wyman is founder of Bridge the Gap and an emotional education consultant and trainer. A qualified early years practitioner and mum of two with over 21 years experience within the early years sector.