“Ok everyone, stand up and do a back flip.” I remember the look of disbelief, shocked silence, and a few nervous giggles from the audience as occupational therapist Amy Quilty began her presentation with this command. She spoke to a room full of early learning educators and parents, yet not one adult in the group was in the kind of physical condition to flip backwards around the room’s perimeter.
According to Quilty, placing expectations on children to print without first giving them opportunities to strengthen and coordinate their muscles is no less daunting. Children need many and varied opportunities to develop readiness to print.
Outdoor play and indoor play with blocks or trucks develop the large muscle control required for whole body stability when children print. At first children use big arm movements when they draw. Writing skill increases when children can keep their arm still and move only their wrist and fingers. By sometimes placing paper on the floor with the child lying on his stomach and forearms, children are positioned to use the muscles in their hands to draw.
A very young child who needs to reach to her right or left for a crayon will typically draw with whichever hand is closest to that crayon. But if the crayon is directly in front of her, she will automatically use her dominant hand. Consistent centre-front placement of writing tools such as crayons, and encouragement to finish a picture using the same hand she started drawing with, helps a child determine right or left-handedness more quickly.
Children discover how to clutch a pencil in their fist before they learn how to hold it between thumb and forefinger in a pincer grasp. Helping children develop the ability to use a pincer grasp can be a lot of fun. Provide kitchen tongs and a few ping pong balls for bath time water play. Can your child catch the ping pong balls bobbing in the bathwater with the tongs? Can she fill plastic containers with water using a turkey-baster? Create a simple flat boat from tinfoil. Perhaps it becomes a pirate ship! Wonder together how much treasure the boat will hold before it sinks. Offer your child plastic clothespins or tweezers to pick up poker chips for loading onto their ‘pirate ship.’ When the ship sinks, dive under water with the tools to retrieve the treasure. Your child may want to repair or redesign the ship to hold more pirate loot.
Children are typically very curious about print. Print is all around them and they continually see people using print to make and communicate decisions. Parents and educators play a leading role in helping children recognize and write alphabet letters. Because the letters in a child’s own name are most meaningful and motivating to learn, use a highlighter to print your child’s name. Invite him to trace over these letters. Short pencils or crayons and pipsqueak markers are ideal for helping children hold the writing tool with fingers and thumb rather than a fist.
Children also need many and varied opportunities to write without tracing. Though young children’s unguided writing will undoubtedly result in letter-like scribbles that are hard to decipher, this is a stage of writing we want children to experience! What do you do when your child proudly shows you something he has written and you have no idea what it says? Ask him to tell you what he has written. Then show your child how you would write that same letter, word or sentence. Talk about what you both notice. What is similar and what is different about each of your versions of print? This motivates your child to analyze the appearance of print, validates his learning, and inspires him to tweak the way he writes.
To become proficient at drawing, printing and writing children do need many playful opportunities to develop hand strength and coordination of their muscles. And just maybe, while our children are having fun with writing warm-ups, you and I can work up to a few back flips.