by Nicole Grant from Gateway Therapies

With the increased use of electronic communication devices by children from a very young age, there are less opportunities to practice the age old art of handwriting. Rather than draw and colour, children are preferring to play video games and scroll through music on their iPods. School age children are taught to use a computer for most tasks requiring a written response, and handwriting is limited to practice for only a limited time each day. There are no surprises then, that an increasing number of children are struggling with this skill.

Handwriting is a complex task. Take a piece of paper and write your name across it. With this one seemingly simple action, you have recruited your eyes to see the page, your hand and your pen, and guaged the distance between them. You have used both hands to hold the pen and stabilise the paper. You have activated your memory to recall your name and the formation of each letter. You have used higher neurological functions that enabled you to write each letter at precisely the right spot on the page, and form the letters to ensure they are the correct height, direction and spaced evenly apart. There is a lot more involved, but this starts to paint the picture for you.

From an early age, children show an interest in making marks with things they find around the house. Who has experienced lipstick on the walls? Finger smudges on mirrors? Or mashed potato painted across a highchair tray? This form of play is an example of how children first begin to learn the skills that later become more refined and allow the emergence of handwriting. Children should not be discouraged from ‘practicing’ with a variety of media – within reason of course! A smiley face drawn on the carpet in boot polish may not be acceptable, but why not give your kids some chalk and let them draw away on the driveway? If they are old enough, get them to write their name in chalk under their lifesize chalk outline. There are many ways that children can begin to learn handwriting before they first set their eyes on a blue-lined exercise book.

Most children first learn to draw using crayons, pencils or felt pens. It is important to encourage the correct, age-appropriate pencil grasp. The tripod grasp used for handwriting will usually emerge before the age of 7. Prior to this, a cylindrical grip and then a modified tripod grasp will be seen. Show your child the correct grasp by demonstrating on your own pencil. Move their fingers into the correct position and continue to correct their grasp if their fingers move. Pencil grips are helpful later down the track if the tripod grasp is not established, however these should be used as a last resort.

Upon commencing school, children will need to learn handwriting on lined paper using a pencil. As they progress through each year, they will be required to write for longer periods of time, and eventually fill page upon page of neat, correctly formed letters, words and sentences. By this stage, children often start to dislike writing, which is such a shame. It is an important life skill – necessary for filling out forms, writing lists, and how wonderful is it to receive a beautifully written personal letter or note!?

If your child professes to dislike writing, find out why. Does their hand get sore? Do they struggle with spelling? Are they constantly in trouble for being messy writers? Or is it boring? Here are some tips to help with some of these issues:

1. Start with a warm-up

I often use the analogy of footy players warming up before running onto the field to play. Do some hand stretches or play with playdough or lego to warm up the small muscles in the fingers, hand and wrist.

2. Strengthen the hands

Stronger hands may mean a greater tolerance to prolonged writing. Play with toys that offer some resistance e.g playdough or putty. Swing off monkey bars or climb.

3. Practice

There is a saying that ‘practice makes perfect’. Practice using a pencil on lined paper, but also practice in a variety of other ways e.g writing on a vertically placed whiteboard, or draw letters in flour on the bench or sand on the beach. And practice every day.

4. Make it meaningful

Of course writing a story about Kate’s trip to the Zoo is going to be boring if you’re not Kate, and you’ve never been to a zoo. Write a ‘wish list’ of Christmas presents, or write a letter to Grandma on the prettiest paper you can find. If the subject matter is of interest to the child, they are more likely to persist at the task.

5. Get help

Children all develop differently and at their own pace, but if you have concerns, an Occupational Therapist can help identify why your child may be having difficulty with handwriting, and offer strategies to help.

About Nicole

Nicole is a privately practicing Occupational Therapist (OT) in Brisbane, Queensland and mother to 2 beautiful girls. She’s written a guest posts for Be a Fun Mum about self care, reading. social stories & ipads for kids. More information about Nicole can be found on her website below:



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Nicole is a privately practicing Occupational Therapist (OT) in Brisbane, Queensland and mother to 2 beautiful girls.

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  1. says

    Hi Nicole, thanks for these tips. I am familiar with OT from my work (I’m a speech pathollogist). My children are only 7 months and almost 2. Would you recommend daily drawing at this age (more for the almost 2), or is any fine motor task sufficient for strengthening little hands when they are younger? Thanks

  2. says

    Hi Julie,
    Thanks for your question. Children develop preferences for different types of activities from an early age. Some kids are active, preferring climbing, jumping or other gross motor activities. Other kids lean toward more sedentary tasks such as puzzles, blocks or drawing. Encourage your kids to explore a range of activities, and if they show particular interest in drawing, then give them the tools to do so. Don’t panic if they are more interested in other tasks. To answer your query, at such a young age, any tasks that require manipulation of smaller objects and/ or require effort, would be a great start (e.g pulling apart blocks, pushing cars, scooping wet sand). Safety is always a consideration for the under 3’s, as they put everything in their mouths! So sharp pens and pencils are not recommended, and all other writing materials e.g chalk and crayons, should be used with very close supervision. I really believe that more often than not, parents are the best judge, and you’ll know (particularly as a health professional) if something is not quite right.

  3. says

    Interesting points here, Nicole, thanks. I remember when I started teaching Kindergarten, we spent considerable time working on each child’s pencil grip. We also threaded beads from left to right on strings! I don’t think those things are fashionable any more, and teachers are so inundated with things to cover, but I do believe those were/are valuable activities to help kids’ fine motor skills.

  4. says

    Some great tips here – My 9 year old has terrible writing and a terrible pencil grip. We all tried to help him change. I’ve just let him go back to printing ( or beginners alphabet) rather than script or cursive/joined letters. So now at least I can read his writing.

  5. says

    Great article… ‘making it meaningful’ is a top tip! One of our girls struggle with pencil grip for a while, but with lots of enthusiasm for drawing both at home and at preschool with practice and some gentle guidance she sorted it out on her own and is now powering away at school.

  6. says

    Having had one child who saw had 6 months with a wonderful OT before starting school, this was a great refresh of what I learnt from her. Especially loved the diagram.!

  7. says

    The idea of breaking down a task into its components is so simple yet we often forget it. Whether learning to hold a crayon and write, writing a term paper, riding a bicycle, learning to swim, or baking a cake, it is so important to keep this in mind as we teach children new skills. And it is still key as we adults learn new skillsl. Thanks so much for the excellent post.

  8. says

    Writing is a fundamental task that we all forget about. Technology is changing the way our children develop yet we need to remember the “simple” things that often provide the most entertainment and joy to our children.

  9. Jacqui says

    Wow thanks for this, my son is four and is still into the “cylindrical grip” stage. I have encouraged him to hold his pens and pencils like a “modified tripod grasp” but he doesn’t want to have anything to do with this. I myself, am left-handed and he favours his right-hand so I’m not too sure if we are achieving the correct grasp or if I should just leave him to it until he goes to school?

    • says

      Hi Jacqui,

      Boys seem to take a little longer to develop an interest in handwriting, and motivation is a huge part in developing handwriting skills. I would let him be for the moment and reassess when he’s a few months into the school year. He may take the lead from his peers and correct his grasp. Please feel free to email me at nicole@gatewaytherapies.com.au if you would like to chat further.

  10. Jodi says

    This is great information. I am a primary school teacher. Is it necessary tod do things differently for left handed children, if so, Do you have any tips for supporting left handed children?

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