Providing your child with the necessary skills to life if what all parents want for their children and most of us know the educational basics of what we should be teaching our children ... colours, shapes, numbers, but after this many of us may fall short...not because we are bad parents but simply because we just don't know ....after all there is no parenthood manual (sadly!).
In this blog we will focus on how you can help develop your child's writing skills and therefore give them the best start possible when they come to learn to write. It will layout the skills required before they start on their learning to write journey, ideas of how to develop these key writing skills and also key milestone so you know what to expect and when from your child (*note - these are only guidelines!). There is also a handy 'frequently asked questions' section at the bottom of the page which will hopefully address any concerns you may have when it comes to your child learning to write.
For a toddler or preschooler, being able to write isn't just about picking up a pen and experimenting, this is part of their learning journey but there are many other important factors that you may not have thought about that would benefit your child.
It is very important to stress that the necessary skills for writing are not acquired from the action of physical writing like you would expect but they are developed primarily from the action of play and exploration which is what children yearn to do.....by letting children play, and letting them explore and take risks you are already providing the key development skills required as a prerequisite to learning to write.
How Can You Help Your Child Learn To Write?
1) Posture + Gross Motor Skills
Writing is as much about posture as it is about putting pen to paper. To enable a child to be able to sit comfortably and hold a pencil they must have sufficient core strength and also sufficient arm muscle strength. The first step to teaching children to write begins with large arm movements, which are best developed in play - allowing free movement, being in large spaces, allowing them to take risks and moving in a variety of ways.
2) Fine Motor Skills
For a child to hold a pencil with the correct pencil grip, they will need good fine motor skills which will allow writing to be more efficient and less frustrating for a child. Fine motor skills are the coordination of small muscles giving us the ability to make movements using the small muscles in our hands and wrists. These skills are best developed by playing with smaller objects, enabling the actions of picking, pushing, pulling, turning, twisting, ripping etc.
3) Make It Fun
No one learns if the activity isn't fun...so the key is to make it fun! Children learn through play and repetition so try and incorporate these two factors when thinking of activities. Later on, in the article we will provide some fun play-based ideas of how you can help develop key pre-writing skills in your child.
Developmental Handwriting Milestones
12 to 18 months: Basic Exploration + Fist Hold!
- Scribbling – The start of showing an interest in writing!
- Fist Grip – This is the beginning of mastering the art of being able to hold crayons, pens, etc.
18 months to 2 years: Experiment & Encourage
- Staying within the sheet – Children at this age should start to be able to paint, colour or draw without going outside of the paper try this with a large piece of paper and see how it goes!
- Pre-Writing Strokes – Children of this age should begin to copy or trace vertical lines.
- Finger & Thumb grip – At this age a child's pen grip will start to develop to enable them to start using their fingertips and thumb.
- Encourage whole arm drawing during this development stage.
Age 2-3 years: Gaining Control
- Pre-Writing Strokes – Imitation of vertical and horizontal lines, moving onto circles.
- Holding crayons – A child between ages 2 and 3 will typically hold a crayon with his fingers but their grip is likely to still look unnatural.
- Encouraging painting at this age will greatly improve a child's fine motor skills and writing development.
Age 3-4 years:
- Pre-Writing Strokes – Between 3-4 years of age, children should be able to copy vertical and horizontal lines, and circles without the need to copy.
- Copy letters – At about the age of 3.5-4 years, a typical child may begin to copy simple familiar letters such as those in their name.
- Tracing lines – Trace on top of a thick horizontal line without going off of the line much.
- Colouring – By this age, children should be able to colour within the lines of simple shapes.
- Using Scissors – Easily cut a piece of paper in half and cut along a straight line without deviating from the line too much.
- Grip – Between 3 - 6 years, a child should begin to use their thumb and index finger while resting the pen on the joint of the middle finger although it is not uncommon for the grip not to be perfect. Most children will adopt a tripod grip (or a grip suited to them) between the ages 4 and 5 plus.
- My youngest son has always held the pen in the 'tripod grip' from quite a young age however my 5-year-old as a slightly alternative grip which works very well for him producing clear and legible writing...my point is don't be concerned if your child isn't using the standard "tripod grip" as long as it's comfortable and functional for your child then it's totally fine (see "Tips on how to hold a pen" section below).
Age 4 years plus: Encourage and Refine
Practice makes perfect....which is very true as repetition is absolutely essential for learning and development. The more we repeat an action the better and more efficient we become at it. This is because we are consolidating the neural pathways required to complete the action that we are practising (eg. writing). The more we repeat the action, the stronger the neural pathways become and the easier the action becomes...practice, practice practice! That is why wipeable learning mats are a fantastic way for a child to start learning to write. Not only are they colourful and enticing for children but children love being able to master something (eg. writing their name), wipe it away and start again!
Ideas To Develop Gross Motor Skills
- Washing window - big circular movements
- Climbing - particularly rope swings, ladders etc
- Large drawings - attach some large paper on an easel or to a wall and let your child make big painting motions.
Ideas To Develop Fine Motor Skills
- Pulling lego pieces apart
- Weeding the garden
- Using tweezers to pick up small objects
- Playing with stickers
- Threading objects onto a piece of string
- Peg boards
- Picking up small objects (eg. frozen peas)
Ideas to Make Learning To Write Fun
- Chalking on the floor
- Forming Play Doh Letters
- Writing in sand or using a salt/four tray
- Writing in shaving foam
- Colourful wipeable learning mats
- Forming letters by pushing a car through sand
Tips on how to hold a pencil
Before your child starts school, you may want to encourage them to hold a pen in a way that's comfortable for them. Most children will adopt the ‘tripod’ position, however, some children may adopt a slight variation to this which may suit their hand structure better. Children with hypermobile finger joints may use an adapted tripod grip to provide a more stable grip position.
The point is as long as your child is holding their pencil in a comfortable way which allows them to make the necessary movements to form letters then that is perfectly fine.
It is also important not to force a child to develop a functional/mature pencil grip before they're ready which as advised by Angela Webb of the National Handwriting Association is usually around the age of 3 years to 6 years old.
“Children develop the ability to make and maintain the tripod pencil grasp between 3-6 years of age,” Angela advises.
- Get your child to place their thumb on one side of the pencil, the side closest to their body.
- Place the index finger on top of the pencil.
- Rests the pencil on the middle finger so the pencil is resting on the first joint of the middle finger.
For for information about the stages of a developing pencil grip click here the link.
See the video link below for a handy tip to getting your child to hold their pen in the correct position:
If you have any useful tips or experiences on helping children learn to write then please comment below, as I will update the blog post to include them. We are all on a learning journey and every child is different so your comments or experience may help someone else.
Please also see our blog article The Importance of Handwriting which is an interview with Dr. Angela Webb, former chair of the National Handwriting Association answering many key questions about handwriting.
Learning to write ... your questions answered
When should a child learn to write?
Pre-writing skills start from 12-18 months with scribbling and a fist grip. These skills will develop as the child grows and generally by the age of 3-4 children should be able to copy vertical and horizontal lines, and circles without the need to copy. From approximately 3.5-4 years of age, a typical child may begin to copy simple familiar letters such as those in their name.
With that said every child is unique and it's no different when it comes to learning to write. I always advise never to push a child but gentle encourage and observe. Encourage through play via painting, drawing and chalking and ensure they are getting enough fine motor and gross motor skill development (see section above for ideas).
When should a child hold a pencil correctly?Between 3 - 6 years, a child should have sufficient motor strength to begin to use their thumb and index finger while resting the pen on the joint of the middle finger however, most children will adopt a pencil grip best suited to them between the ages of 4 and 5 plus.
Do boys find it harder to learn to write?
There is no physical reason why boys would find it harder to learn to write than girls however it is quite common for boys to be slightly less advanced when it comes to their writing skills compared to girls. The main reason for this is that many boys tend to be more active than girls and find it hard to sit down and concentrate, quite often they would much rather be outside playing or playing with their toys. For this reason, it is quite important to engage boys more in writing by making it fun - please see our 'Ideas to Make Learning To Write Fun' section above.
Should you correct a child's pencil grip?
See our latest blog article on The Stages of a Developing Pencil Grip
How important is holding a pencil correctly?
See our latest blog article on The Stages of a Developing Pencil Grip
I still have concerns what should I do?
If your child is under school age try not to worry and just focus on all the advice given in the article above... encourage, praise and play. However, if your child is of school age and you are still concerned I would suggest speaking to their teacher as a first point of call.