A few years ago, I only had a vague idea what an OT did. Since then, I’ve come to fully appreciate the wonderful job they do and want to highlight the role they can have in a child’s life.
As parents we have goals for our children: we want them to able to read and write; we want them to be able to function in society; we want them to develop physically, mentally and emotionally. It’s easy to focus on goals and forget to give a child the skills they need to obtain them. I know because I’ve done it myself.
Since coming into contact with OTs during treatment for my child with special needs, I’ve strived to break goals down into steps for my children so they can gain skills and work their way up from there. While OTs often help children with special needs, any child struggling in a developmental area can be assisted; from gross motor to social skills.
Handwriting by Nicole Grant
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.
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.
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: