What are the Key Strengths?
The Key Strengths & physical skills needed for handwriting
These are the physical skill areas that a child needs for handwriting and many other everyday activities.
For handwriting we look at the following physical skills developmental areas:
The skills needed for good handwriting
Handwriting is a complex skill to learn and starts well before a child is ready to pick up a pencil and make marks on paper.
To develop good handwriting you need to:
- Have good whole body strength and dexterity (Gross & Fine Motor Skills).
- Understand direction, movement and position (Spatial Awareness & Motor Memory).
- Remember and recall how to form the different shapes of the letters (Visual & Motor Memory).
- Sit correctly (Gross Motor Skills).
- Hold a pencil appropriately (Fine Motor Skills).
- Control the pencil (Fine Motor Skills).
- Tilt and move the paper on the desk (Gross Motor Skills & Spatial Awareness).
- Refine letter formation and position (Fine Motor Skills, Visual & Motor Memory, Spatial Awareness & Eye Tracking).
- Join the letters to form words (Fine Motor Skills, Visual & Motor Memory, Spatial Awareness & Eye Tracking).
All these skills and strengths are learnt and developed in stages as a child grows. A weakness in any of the Key Strengths areas will affect a child’s handwriting skills.
Building the Key Strengths (gross & fine motor skills) for handwriting
Posture Base games
For good posture the large muscle groups that support the pelvis, trunk, shoulders and arms need to work in a coordinated way (gross motor skills). Strong gross motor skills give the body a stable base (core strength) required for balance and stability, supporting coordination skills and helping the child’s sitting position and making handwriting more comfortable.
Activities that help to build these strengths and skills are: learning to climb, moving your own swing, climbing trees, running and chase games.
A large/medium sized ball, skittles or empty 1 litre or 2 litre plastic drinks bottles and space enough for the child to lay flat on their tummy and the skittles to be about 2 metres away.
How to do it
Get the child to lie on their stomach, lift their head up and then lift their arms above their head. Throw the ball at the skittles, then lower the body gently back to the floor, ready to throw again.
Bilateral Coordination games
Good bilateral coordination allows the body to move in an easy and well-coordinated way, as both the left and right-hand sides of the body are working in unison. It is important for a child to develop their body awareness, knowing their left side from their right side and being aware of how they move and relate to each other. These gross motor skills let a child handwrite freely across the width of the paper.
Activities that help to build these strengths and skills are: learning to ride a scooter or bike or swimming, games such as ‘Twister’ or ‘Simon Says’ and marching/crawling games.
Space, chalk or a marker of some kind if you are going to create a maze line.
How to do it
Marching can be turned into games or used as a timed exercise for older children. When marching the opposite arm should swing forward to the raised knee, so left arm and right knee together.
Marching Songs - Such as ‘The Grand Old Duke of York’ and others.
Maze Lines - Draw a mixture of straight and curved lines with chalk and ask the child to march along the line. Slowly at first so that they focus on marching skills and then this can be turned into a time trial, setting rules about how high the knees have to be raised in the march.
Sergeant Major - Marching on the spot with you giving orders. Low march (knees raised slightly), normal march (knees raised to about 90 degrees) and high march (knees raised as high as possible), left turn, right turn, about turn and face forward. For older children terms such as turn anti-clockwise and clockwise, quarter turn, half turn, turn 45 degrees or 90 degrees could be introduced. You could even use the points of the compass.
Sensory Perception games
Sensory perception is the ability to send accurate messages to the brain when holding and touching objects (sensory perception) and is an important developmental stage. It enables children to identify objects and textures through touch as well as being able to judge the appropriate pressure required to hold and release them safely. These fine motor skills enable them to hold a pencil correctly and to use the correct pressure when handwriting and therefore help to improve their handwriting.
Activities that help to build these strengths and skills are: model making with play dough type materials and messy play in and with materials of different textures and size.
Play dough, plasticine or clay, cookie/pastry cutters or imprint tools.
How to do it
Using tools such as cookie cutters talk through and show the child how the cutters work when you only use a small amount of pressure (it does not cut through the play dough, just leaves a mark). As you use a greater amount of pressure discuss how far the cutter goes through the dough and how the cutter feels against your hand/finger. Ask the child to do the same thing and help them to talk through the experience making them more aware of how the tools feel in their hand and fingers and what the rest of the body is doing to help them mark or cut through the play dough. Talk through how the cutter makes shallow cuts when pressed gently and deeper cuts when pressed hard and that they will cut all the way through if the right amount of pressure is used.
Hand & Finger games
Good hand strength and agility is a combination of three skills; 1. Dexterity of the hands and fingers - allowing the fingers to grip the pencil freely, 2. In-hand manipulation - allowing the pencil to be held in the hand freely and, 3. Strong arches of the hand - allowing the pencil to be rested and moved on the hand.
Activities that help to build these strengths and skills are: model making with playdough type materials and finger rhymes that encourage a child to move their fingers individually such as ‘Tommy Thumb’.
Egg Box Share
The bottom section of an egg box and dried beans / peas or beads.
How to do it
Using the egg box as the catching container ask the child to hold a number of small dried beans in the palm of one hand. Then ask them to place one bean at a time into each of the cups of the egg box. They will need to have their palm and curled fingers facing upwards. Then use their thumb to help roll each bean up from the palm of the hand to drop into each egg cup.
Start off using a 6 space egg box and 1 bean per egg space, so they hold 6 beans at the start. Gradually get them to hold more in their hands and see how many they can place in the holders. This can be played as a time or number challenge, ‘how many beans can they place in one minute’ or 'how many beans can they hold and place in the holders without dropping any’. Remember it is important to do one bean at a time!
Eye Tracking games
Eye tracking is the ability to control and coordinate the fine eye movements needed:
- For left to right eye movements, without moving the head, needed to follow a line of writing as the letters are formed or for reading a line of print.
- To focus and move the eyes to follow an object without moving the head, in all directions.
- To track/follow objects near and far.
- To focus on one object without moving the eyes.
Poor eye tracking skills can make handwriting very difficult, causing letter formation, spacing and positioning problems, leading to poor presentation. Often words are missed out or repeated, causing composition and legibility issues.
Activities that help to build these strengths and skills are: Swing Ball, target games and catching games.
Goal post skittles
Posts/marker, large plastic drink bottles/skittles and a range of ball sizes.How to do it
Place the posts about 2 metres away from the start position and about half a metre apart. Place the skittles about half a metre behind the posts but directly between them. The child starts by rolling a large ball through the posts to knock the skittles over. Before they roll the ball explain to get a maximum score they need to knock all the skittles over in one roll and that the best way to do this is to look directly ahead through the posts at the skittles, NOT at the ball or their hand.
It may take a little practise, as they improve they can use a different size ball or move the skittles so that they form different patterns which means they have to be more accurate with the roll.
This game can also be used as a foot and eye activity, the same rules apply, they must look to where they want the ball to end up not at their feet or the ball, tricky!
Spatial Awareness games
Spatial awareness is the ability to be aware of:
- The space around you and your position in that space.
- The position and relationship of other objects in relation to one another and yourself.
Poor spatial awareness skills make handwriting difficult as it affects the ability to understand and produce the directional pushes and pulls required to form letters; as well as difficulties with spacing and positioning. Combined, these difficulties can cause poor presentation and possible legibility issues.
Activities that help to build these strengths and skills are: games such as ‘Twister’ or ‘Simon Says’ and jigsaws and pattern making.
Beads, building blocks, lego or shapes.
How to do it
Talk through the process of making the same pattern as shown on a card or already produced; for instance, the red square goes on the right of the blue square and the yellow square is below the blue square. Ask the child to verbalise what they see and are doing to recreate the pattern. Patterns can be created and copied with all sorts of items - beads, building blocks, lego and shapes. As skill levels improve tessellation (a pattern of shapes that fit perfectly together) activities and square or patterned paper for colouring and creating their own pattern designs are enjoyable.
Motor Memory games
Motor memory is the ability to store and recall the muscle movements for performing different tasks and sets of movements.
Poor motor memory skills can make handwriting difficult as shapes and letter formation movements are often forgotten, causing letter reversals and incorrectly formed letter shapes, which can make joining a very slow process to learn. A poor and often slow handwriting style can develop as font styles are mixed and capital letters are used inappropriately. Combined, these difficulties can cause poor presentation, spelling and legibility issues. Often motor memory skills are affected by poor visual memory abilities.
Activities that help to build these strengths and skills are: Directional games such as ‘Hot or Cold’, treasure hunts and pattern making (many activities and games that develop motor memory also support visual memory skills).
Toys you can use to make a location or maze. For older children you could use maps.
How to do it
Try to use items and themes that the child enjoys playing with.
Using the language for placement and direction, talk through how you are moving the toy. Then either give instructions or ask the child to give you instructions on how to get to a location in the game.
Only give one instruction at a time where possible and increase the number of instructions as their ability and confidence grows.
The language that can be developed through this kind of play is; in front, next to, behind, on the left of, on the right of, on top of, under the, underneath, stand beside, inside, outside, over the top, around, turn left, turn right, straight on, backwards, forwards, reverse and opposite.
Visual Memory games
Visual memory is the ability to recall information that has been visually presented before.
Poor visual memory skills make handwriting difficult as the ability to recall how letters look and reproduce them with appropriate spacing and positioning is partially or completely lost. This leads to poor letter formation skills, letter reversal along with spelling and presentation difficulties. Due to the nature of our visual memory, and how we store that information, difficulties in this area also impact on motor memory skills.
Activities that help to build these strengths and skills are: Pattern making and memory recall games and activities such as Kim’s Games (many activities and games that develop visual memory also support motor memory skills).
A tea towel and 10 items of different colours, shapes and sizes and a timer.
How to do it
Place a few familiar objects under a cloth, remove the cloth so that the child can see them and study them (talk through what they are and maybe what is next to what). After about a minute cover them with the cloth; how many can they remember, can they remember colours or position. Then show them the objects again and talk through what they remembered. You could move the objects around and play again or remove an object to see if they can work out which one is missing.