Inside: Everything you need to know about building your children’s pre-writing skills and getting them ready to write. Plus a list of easy pre-writing activities you can try at home!
According to much research that underpins occupational therapy, children are not developmentally ready to be writing letters and numbers with a pen on paper until they reach school age. However, the idea that we teach handwriting simply by sitting at a table with a pen is mistaken. There are many ways to build pre-writing skills and support handwriting development when children are three to four years old AND it can be fun!
What Pre-writing Skills are involved in handwriting development?
1) Gross Motor Skills
Did you know that the skills involved in writing begin to emerge when a baby is less than six months old?
As soon as babies start learning to roll over, passing objects from one hand to the other, lifting up their heads and sitting upright, they are developing skills that contribute to learning to write as a preschooler. You’re thinking these things have nothing to do with language, right? But writing is a physical exercise as much as it is about language.
Try these activities for 1-year-olds to help hone their motor skills!
To begin to write, children need to have built strong core muscles for sitting upright in a chair. Posture and core strength both contribute to stability and balance when using one arm to write.
Crossing the Midline
Occupational therapists also talk a lot about a skill called ‘Crossing the Midline’ which is all about whether a child’s brain has made the connections it needs to to reach across the line of symmetry of the body.
Some examples of this are: when using two hands to pull on a sock, one hand must reach across the body to help. When passing something from one hand to the other, the object is crossing the midline. When playing a hand clapping game where one person’s left hand must clap the other’s right hand and vice versa.
It is when this skill develops that a child’s dominant hand becomes obvious and whether a child is left or right handed, writing always involves crossing the midline as they move the pen from one side of the page to the other.
What better way to work on the physical foundations for writing than with lots of gross motor play. Read on for a list of fun activities to build your child’s pre-writing skills!
2) Visual Memory
Writing is of course also a hugely cognitive exercise. This means the brain is required to do a number of different things for children to concentrate and produce letters.
In order to write, children must be able to use their visual memory to recognise and recall correct shapes and how to form them. For example, when a child writes their name, they must visualise each letter and recall the process of creating the right lines and curves. When copying is not available, they must be able to do this from memory.
Turning visual memory into writing also requires hand-eye coordination, which in this case is everything from guiding a pen or pencil within the right area on the page, stopping, starting, lifting from the page, and using straight lines and curves to create shapes.
Visual Motor Processing
Putting these two core skills together to write competently is called ‘Visual Motor Integration’ (VMI) or ‘Visual Motor Processing’, and poor VMI is often the cause of handwriting issues in school age children.
If you are a parent of a school-aged child who is concerned about this, scroll down to the end of the article for some more information on handwriting issues and do not be afraid to ask your school or healthcare professionals what occupational therapy and learning support is available.
What is ‘Pre-writing’?
When looking for handwriting activities for toddlers, you may come across activities that are labelled ‘pre-writing’. This is the term that is used a lot to refer to the kinds of marks children begin to make before they are ready to write letters and numbers. Pre-writing activities are aimed at starting to copy simple shapes and then mastering the Visual Motor Integration necessary to create them from memory.
A common progression of ‘pre-writing’ marks can be summed up as follows:
- drawing vertical lines
- drawing horizontal lines
- circle shape
- cross shape
- square shape
- diagonal lines and X shape
Children may begin naturally drawing lines during play as early as one year old, and it is expected that the rest develops by about age five. You can see that as prewriting marks and shapes progress, the control needed to create them increases, eventually to include taking the pen off the page, making lines meet at a point and changing the direction of the pen.
How Can I Help My Child Develop Pre-writing Skills?
Pre-writing encompasses everything I have mentioned above, from the Gross Motor foundation, to the visual skills necessary. Therefore, prewriting activities do not need to simply focus on copying shapes. We can do so many other fun things at home to encourage writing development and most importantly, children do not necessarily need to sit still to develop their writing skills.
Pre-writing Activities for Children
Pre-writing activity 1: Chopstick sort
Aim: fine motor practice, hand eye coordination, introducing grip
Use child friendly chopsticks to practise moving and sorting pompoms or popcorn.
Items like pompoms and popcorn are nice and small, which encourages focus on the fine motor movement, but they are also easier to grab than hard or slippery things like grapes or counters. Try sorting items into colours or using this as a math activity to practise counting.
Chopsticks require a similar grip to holding a pen or pencil and if your child is already familiar with this, it can make handwriting practice easier later on.
Pre-writing activity 2: Threading oversized circles
Aim: crossing the midline, gross motor skills, developing arm and core strength
Cut 5-6 circles out of thick cardboard and poke a hole in the middle using scissors or a pointy pen. Use a piece of string long enough that as your child threads, they must hold the end of the string with one hand and move the bead or circle far across their body with the other. It can help to anchor the end of the string by taping it to the table or tying it to a chair.
This activity involves relying on core, back and arm strength which contribute to the posture and stability needed for writing.
Pre-writing activity 3: Broken crayon drawing
Aim: introducing grip, fine motor practice
When drawing at home, try snapping a crayon in half and giving it to your child to use. It may sound silly, but using a small, but chunky tool for drawing encourages children to grip closer to the end using a hold much closer to the correct way to hold a pen.
Pre-writing activity 4: Playdough shapes
Aim: shape recognition and creating shapes (visual memory), fine motor practice
Use playdough to create prewriting shapes like vertical and horizontal lines, circles, squares, crosses and so on.
While this is not a writing activity, it requires using fine motor skills to roll out long pieces of playdough and shape them while drawing attention to how to create the shapes, and developing visual memory for writing.
This is an activity best done through connection with your little one, where you talk together about the shapes and how to create them.
Pre-writing activity 5: Shared drawing paint stick house
Aim: introducing copy work shapes, mark making, visual memory
Using an A3 piece of paper and big crayons or paint sticks that are easy to grip, create a picture of your house together with your child. Think about the shapes of your house and use lines, crosses, squares, circles and triangles. Talk about the shapes with your child and model each one for them to copy over top of your drawing.
This is a way of introducing copy work through connected and meaningful play.
Pre-writing activity 6: Pre-writing Caterpillars printable
Aim: for 3-4 year olds this activity could be used for diagnosis and assessment of prewriting progress, for 5-6 year olds this activity could be used to check whether your child may be struggling with their VMI skills
Download this Fun Pre-Writing Caterpillar Worksheet to Practise Pre-Writing Shapes.
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Print and either cut horizontally to separate each caterpillar or complete as one worksheet. You may find it helpful to glue the caterpillars to cardboard, or cover with clear tape to reuse this activity.
The first shape of each caterpillar’s body has been filled in, followed by dotted lines for your child to copy.
Holding a pen or pencil
You may notice I have not mentioned pen grip in this article except briefly in the activities above.
When we think about our children learning to write, it’s easy to fixate on how they might be holding a pen or pencil and it is true that there is a specific grip children are encouraged to use.
The ‘tripod grip’ is the widest taught way of holding a pen or pencil for writing. The tripod grip involves using the thumb, index and middle fingers together to hold or pick up objects. We see this when feeding ourselves or buttoning clothes and it is a natural progression from what is called the ‘pincer grip’ which we see in babies when they begin using to pick up small pieces of food.
However, it is widely accepted that forcing a child to hold a pen or pencil in the correct way before they are ready is not always helpful for their motivation in learning to write.
If you see your child is not holding a pen or pencil correctly, instead of forcing it you could try working on their fine motor ability and building up muscles in their hands through other games and activities like the chopstick sorting above, using scissors, or working with a broken crayon to more naturally encourage the correct grip.
I am worried about my child’s handwriting development. How can I help them?
If you are a parent of a six+ year old who you think is struggling to develop their handwriting skills, here is some more information which you may find helpful. Please note that the information in this article does not replace actual occupational therapy or learning support so do talk to your child’s teacher or doctor if you are concerned.
Supporting Handwriting Development in Older Children
Tips for Developing Gross Motor Skills
Continuing to lay the gross motor foundation for writing is still important when children reach school age. As their bodies grow and develop, their muscles and their awareness also have to develop to keep up with more weight, re-learn balance and apply the right amount of force.
Your child may be struggling to support themselves or regulate their arm movement when sitting upright at the table. You could try adding in some core, back and arm strength activities at home like playing with toys while lying on their stomach, or army crawling around the house.
Learning to ‘cross the midline’ is also a skill that just takes some children longer to ‘click’ than others. If your child is unsure which hand they mostly use for writing, or which side of their body is the dominant side when kicking or throwing, then they may still need some help to work on ‘crossing the midline’.
Tips for Developing Visual Motor Integration
If you notice that your older child’s writing continues to be very jumpy, they often overrun a line when copying, or they are simply unable to copy letters and words, they may need some help to develop their visual-motor processing skills.
Try working together to build up their visual memory of shapes and letters and using tracing activities until they appear more confident. All of the above motor skills also contribute to Visual Motor integration so it is important to work on these also.
Finally, taking the pressure off and allowing them time to work on prewriting activities without the pressure of writing letters until they’re ready may help. While aimed at preschoolers, all of the prewriting activities in this article can be used with school-aged children if you are looking for ways to support their handwriting development.
Looking for more early literacy activities for your child? Check out these activities that help children to recognise their name! You may also be interested in how to start teaching the alphabet and letter sounds, and letter formation activities for children.