child writing

11 Surprising skills children need to successfully learn to write

By Wonderschool staff

Wonderschool provides services to help families find quality childcare and microschools.

Almost nothing in a child’s development happens in isolation — their physical, language, and cognitive abilities and are all developing at the same time, with 1 million neural connections occurring per minute in a young child’s brain

Because all the parts of your child’s development are so interconnected, more often than not, if you want to support them learning a specific skill, you’ll need to pay attention to a variety of other, sometimes seemingly unrelated, areas of development. Learning to write is the perfect example of this: there are eleven skills related to successfully writing, and some of them have nothing to do with the act of putting crayon to paper (so to speak). Read on to learn more about these skills and playful ways to support their development.

1. Upper body strength and postural control

In general, development happens from the inside out and from the large muscles to the smaller ones, meaning it starts with the core and moves outwards to the arms and legs. Writing requires core, arm, and shoulder strength — a child needs to be able to sit up without getting tired and exert control over shoulders and arms. Climbing on the jungle gym, playing hopscotch, and crawling like animals are all great ways to build this strength! 

2. Hand and finger strength

Holding a pencil requires hand and finger muscles to be able to effectively manipulate it and enough strength to avoid fatigue. If you pay attention to how a toddler draws, you’ll notice the movement actually starts in their shoulders. As kids develop — and strengthen their hands and fingers — that movement will eventually stem from these smaller muscles instead. Playdough is the perfect tool for developing this strength.

3. Hand dominance

Developing hand dominance is an important step in development for a variety of reasons, but especially for efficiency. As a child develops hand dominance, they will be able to complete certain tasks (like writing and cutting) more quickly and precisely. These types of hand movements will become more automatic, meaning they require less brainpower and focus, freeing up the brain to focus on other more complex things. Hand dominance should develop between ages 2-4 and is significantly related to the next skill in our list, crossing the midline.

4. Crossing the midline

Crossing the midline is the ability to reach across to the other side of your body. This is  a vital skill that allows a child to settle on a dominant hand. If your child is unable to cross the midline, they will only use the right hand on the right side of the body and the left hand on the left side of the body, delaying hand dominance. A dance like the Hokey Pokey or painting at an easel is an excellent activity for practicing crossing the midline. 

5. Hand-Eye Coordination

The ability to use what our eyes see to carry something out with our hands is essential for writing and drawing. Ball games are a fun way to practice hand-eye coordination, whether it’s playing catch, hitting a ball on a tee, or playing tetherball.

6. Bilateral integration

Bilateral integration means coordinating the use of both hands together. Think about writing; you need to use one hand to stabilize and hold the paper, while the other does the writing. Cutting with scissors is another good example — one hand holds the item being cut, while the other manipulates the scissors. Cutting, tracing, and clapping are great ways to practice bilateral integration. 

7. Object manipulation

Being able to control a tool like a toothbrush, fork, or dust brush is closely related to being able to manipulate a pencil or marker. Stringing beads on pipe cleaners or string is a great activity to build these skills, as are simple self-care tasks like brushing hair and teeth.

8. Hand division

Hand division is the ability to complete a task using some fingers but not others. Think about holding a handful of change and using your thumb and pointer to drop the change one at a time into a slot. This is using hand division. Give your child the opportunity to practice with small objects like marbles, coins, or buttons. Have them hold a fistful of coins while they sort them into different bowls or line them up in a row on the table.

9. Positional language

Understanding words like top, bottom, up, down, and around are necessary when learning how to write letters. Playing a game like “I Spy” while in the car or on a walk is a great way to get your little one practicing positional language in their everyday routine.

10. Visual Perception

Visual perception is the brain’s ability to perceive what the eyes are seeing. It is important to be able to differentiate between letters (think “b,” “d,” and “p”). Visual perception can be developed from conversations your family has about what you notice in the world around you or with something more specific like sorting different types of dry pasta.

11. Pencil grasp

Finally, writing does require the ability to hold a pencil with the proper pincer grip.  Your child will move through different stages of holding a pencil and may switch between different grasps while they do. Give them opportunities to explore and practice with different writing and drawing utensils. Using short, fat crayons or those small golf pencils can be helpful for encouraging kids to move towards the ultimate goal of the pincer grip.

Some of these skills might come as a surprise, but think about it this way: We can only exert so much energy and attention at a time. If it takes all of a child’s attention just to sit up and hold a pencil, then there isn’t going to be much left for the actual act of writing.

Think about when you learned to type: You knew how to read and write, you just didn’t know where the keys were on the keyboard. You were probably a slow typer at first, searching for the proper letters. Once you learned where the keys were and developed that muscle memory, typing no longer stood in the way of getting your ideas out. Learning to write is similar. Give your child a chance to spend time in these playful activities and set them up to be successful writers.

Copyright 2021, Wonderschool, Inc.  

Reviewed by the Ovia Health Clinical Team

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