3 Things to Improve Preschool Handwriting

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:

  1. Play-Doh.
    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.
  2. 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.
  3. Mazes
    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!


Playing out our Problems

This is a Totally Broke Tuesday post by Audrey Simmons. You can read about the series here.

Did you know you can play with your kids as therapy and totally for free? No fancy equipment required. If you have a couple toys, you have enough already.

When my twins were toddlers, they went through a phase where they did not want to be dropped off at the church nursery. One boy in particular would wail and cling, after never having an issue with it before. The nursery staff was a rotating roster of volunteer parents and grandparents so it was hard to “talk up” getting to see one consistent figure in particular.

So at home, we broke out the toys.

I got out the few mistmatched Little People we’d gotten from thrift stores (construction workers, knights, Duplo figures) and sat down with the boys before church one morning. A few weeks, I even did it the Saturday before or throughout the week. (I wish I’d remembered to do it more than just at the last minute, sometimes!) We made a nursery room outline out of blocks some mornings, sometimes we just used my legs as our room divisions. Some Little People were nursery workers, some were the boys, some were the other kids they would see in the nursery, and some were me and Adam. We’d “walk” our little family up to the “nursery door” and the Mama and Daddy figures (voiced by me) would say, “Oh, I love you! We’ll be back soon!” and the boys (again, voiced by me) would cheerfully reply, “I love you! I’ll see you soon!” and then I’d act out them playing in the room and having a snack and then being picked up again to go home. The twins loved it.

They’d insist that I do it again, and again, and then they would take over, playing out the same scene and creating variations.

Within one or two times, the boy that had been so reluctant was cheerfully walking into the nursery and confidently waving bye. His reluctance resurfaced one or two times in the next few months and we’d just pull out the toys again and play the game as a reminder.

When you have a young child, who is only partially verbal, his comprehension might surprise you sometimes. But other times, especially if there are attachment issues, an inability to express what it is that he is having a hard time with can be frustrating for everyone. He isn’t “being bad,” he’s just having a hard time. And what do you do in this situation?

(As a caveat, I can’t recommend that you force a recently-adopted child to be okay with being dropped off in a nursery. If they want mama, they should have mama.)

Maybe your kid is hitting a sibling every. single. time. he gets frustrated. Maybe you try to go to restaurants and it’s a disaster. Maybe your daughter doesn’t want to sit in the cart at the grocery store but takes off running or pulls stuff off shelves if she isn’t restrained. Maybe your son has to go with you to a wedding next month. Maybe your kids are getting ready for a field trip to the zoo and the idea of actually having a good day seems like a joke, because all you can imagine is LIONS and CHILD WHO LOVES TO CLIMB FENCES while one of them would leave, smiling, with any stranger who happened to grab a hand.

Sure, there are situations where kids are definitely just straight-up being disobedient (and some of this works for that anyway), but think for a minute about those situations I mentioned and any that sprang to mind. How many of those are situations where you know how to behave and are just assuming your child should? How many of these are situations where a child has literally no idea what to expect, no frame of reference, no preexisting base for what being “good” is when a stressed parent hisses, “Just be good.”

When I was younger, we visited family in another state and the adults decided to take us tubing down a river. I kept asking, “Tubing? What do you mean tubing?” And my cousin was so excited. “Tubing is the best!” he told me, over and over. “You’ll love it!” I was imagining literal plastic tubes, clear and futuristic, that we’d been shot through in some kind of vehicle, like a subway car. I couldn’t understand why it needed to happen near a river and why it was anything more than a subway ride. I spent two days in baffled amazement, before we got to the river tubing rental house and got…inner tubes. Inflated swimming pool rings, to sit in, while we drifted down a calm river. It was a blast but 100% different from what I’d anticipated. When we got in the car at the end of the day, I demanded, “Mom, why didn’t you tell me it wasn’t like a subway?” But she hadn’t realized that my mental image was why I’d been so confused.

Now imagine that you’re two and have limited verbal skills. Or that you’re seven and have limited English skills, or limited emotional literacy (the ability to talk accurately about emotions).

And now, let’s play.

Get out whatever little people you have. Action figures, Little People, Duplos, Lego minifigs, dolls, whatever. You can even use plastic animals or plain blocks with different colors. Decide what situational behavior you want to address (grocery store? upcoming family event? restaurant? library?). Now get your kid(s).

Just say, “This is Otto. This is Mama. This is Ursula.” Establish the identities of your toys. Use your own names and whatever the kids call you. You’ve got them for a few minutes, while they’re just curious and excited that you’re playing with them (if they are dragging their feet and whining as slightly older kids, tell them they have to stick it out; if this is play therapy, treat it like therapy– some good things are not optional and a lot of times they’ll be willingly participating within minutes).

First act out what usually happens.

“Mama and Otto are going to the grocery store. We get in the car, we go vrooooom. We find a parking space and get out. Otto holds on to the cart quietly while Mama checks her list. Noooo, Otto, come back here. Hold on to the cart. When Otto runs away, Mama gets him back. This isn’t how we act in a grocery store! Oh, Otto is running away again? Now Mama must put him in the cart. Otto is throwing a fit. [Get dramatic if your kid does, haha!] Now Mama must take him to the car and leave. What a sad trip to the store! They did not get their food! Otto is sad, Mama is sad! What can they do?”

Now act out what should happen. Use the toys to show your child what a grocery store trip should look like. Maybe he’s overwhelmed by all the food choices, maybe he’s excited, maybe he knows he’s making you mad or stressed but isn’t totally sure what you want him to do differently. After all, you walk through the store and grab, what seems to him, totally random items you like to eat and put them in the cart. Same for restaurant behavior.

“Mama, Daddy, Otto, and Ursula are going to the restaurant. They wait for their last name to be called and then they sit at their table. The waitress brings silverware and we leave it alone on the table until we have food. We sit quietly and we talk, ‘How was your day today, Daddy?’ ‘What is your favorite color, Mama?’ ‘What is your favorite animal, Ursula?’ They bring the food. We eat together. Oh, Otto has to go to the bathroom! He asks, ‘Please take me to the bathroom,’ and waits for someone to hold his hand.” and etc.

If you are play-acting an event like a wedding or funeral or family gathering, something that hasn’t been an area of behavior problem in the past, just play out what will happen to develop appropriate expectations. Don’t worry about inventing “bad” behavior to play out consequences. Just model what you expect and what they can expect.

Play out these scenarios more than one time. Do them over and over again in the course of the weeks leading up to an event, or the evening or morning before a trip to the store, to the restaurant, the library, church, the mall, the DMV.

The goal of play therapy is not to have perfect children. Of course you’ll still have to deal with stuff in the moment. But the goal is to prepare a child for a new, unusual, or problematic situation and equip them with a mental framework to choose how to act instead of being ruled by an emotion. I just started play-acting this morning with my toddler daughter, who has gotten into the habit of hitting or pulling hair every time an older brother tells her “no.” She has a consequence for being rough or violent, but that doesn’t remove the frustration she feels when a taller, bigger person tells her “no” and she doesn’t like it. So we play to learn how to handle that frustration in appropriate ways. Just “be gentle” isn’t cutting it with she’s overwhelmed with toddler emotion. It’s a fun game and it’s giving her something to do instead. Plus, Mom is playing with her, so that’s just awesome.

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Are their areas of your daily life you could apply this play therapy to? What situation will you act out this week?