The past week, I’ve had two different people ask if a child’s handwriting sample was appropriate for their age, both for children under five. Both times, the handwriting seemed either right on track or a little advanced. I don’t fault the mothers for asking– it shows good initiative that they are making sure their child isn’t falling behind, is capable of keeping up with their peers, and is advancing at a good rate skill-wise.
That said, I’d like to reassure moms everywhere– handwriting is not an indicator of comprehension. Even kids with fine motor delays can be doing well in letter and number comprehension and lag in handwriting. Current research is actually finding that pushing kids to academic seat work does not improve later academic performance and may even harm it. This article from The Washington Post, in review of a book by Stephen Camarata, notes that delaying public kindergarten by a year has a positive impact on elementary education.
The answer isn’t to stop preparing kids for academics. The answer isn’t to give up handwriting, math, science, or reading. The answer is to prepare appropriately. If your child enjoys working in handwriting or school workbooks, then there is absolutely nothing wrong with that! Go for it! If your child is dragging her feet and reluctant to sit down and work, then don’t push it. Your child isn’t “behind.” You can still encourage learning without paperwork and you can foster a love of learning without teaching them to dread school.
Introducing concepts early is a great idea, but you can do this through play and conversation and reading books– point out letters and numbers around you, count toys animals as you add them to a barn, count blocks as you stack them, group sets of Cheerios and add them before eating, talk about how many are left as you eat. And if you want to prepare your child for handwriting success, here are a few things to try:
Whether you buy it at the store or make it from scratch, spend time with Play-Doh! This is sensory play that my kids are often on their own for– I do not sit and make elaborate creations for them. They figure out how to make their own stuff after I’ve demonstrated a few basic shapes. But I will sit down with them and help them make letters. Form some ropes and shape letters freehand and help them do the same. You can also print out some play-doh mats and laminate them or put them in sheet protectors. Talk about the letters and the sounds as you make them. Let your child’s interest dictate how long you work. My personal recommendation is to always encourage/stay working for one letter past the “I’m done” point. When they say “I’m done,” or start to lose interest, verbally encourage, “Let’s do just one more,” and then do one more. You’re strengthening their attention span and retaining their trust. You’ll lose it and their interest if “one more” always means “five more.” For reference, at three and five years old, my kids can usually handle anywhere from one to ten letters at a time.
- Stringing Beads
While Play-Doh works on letter recognition and hand strength, stringing beads or tracing shapes with yarn (we find ours at the Dollar Tree, $1 for five to six shapes and two strings) will help with eye-finger coordination and muscle control. This is something you can take in a bag with you to play with while waiting for appointments or sitting in church, for the cardboard shapes. Beads are a little messier and might require more supervision. If you have chunky wooden ones, you can use a dry erase marker to put numbers or letters on them and practice stringing them in order or just reading them as you string them.
This is the only one on this list that might actually require a pencil or crayon. Find or make some simple mazes, varied depending on skill level, and start by finger-tracing the path without a writing utensil. Graduate to using a pencil or crayon. And while the market is awash with chunky “preschool” pencils, tiny fingers benefit from tiny tools to learn how to hold a pencil properly. Buy golf pencils or sharpen regular ones down to golf-pencil size to give your preschooler a small, light tool to work with as they write.
Try these things to work on handwriting and don’t stress too much about handwriting ability yet, if your preschooler is five or under. You can keep working and developing, and extreme frustration or dread might be a sign that something is off, but for the most part, developing handwriting skills at this age isn’t learning to write letters. Some kids are really eager to learn that and will thrive even with early introduction. But reluctance doesn’t necessarily mean they are behind. Right now is the time to lay a good muscle and comprehension foundation for handwriting through play and simple activities. In our household, these activities are not done in addition to seat-work handwriting for preschool every day– most of the time, these activities are handwriting for the day.
So take a deep breath. Get ready to sing the alphabet. And have some fun!