I recently was asked by a friend how to help her child develop good handwriting. She felt frustrated that her daughter didn't much practice at school and found that her daughter avoided any handwriting practice because she thought it was too hard. This is a common problem that many children experience. Handwriting is a skill that takes a long time to develop and children need exercises that strengthen the hand and fingers so that when the child tries to write, the muscles will be able to properly respond. In Montessori, we have many exercises that help prepare the hand for writing. Here are some ideas I have adapted which can be used by parents at home:
First of all the fingers of the hand need to be strengthened by playing with playdough, dough, firm clay, theraputty, silly putty or by squeezing therapeutic balls. Playing with any kind of manipulative toy that uses fine control or strength are always beneficial. Puzzles with knobs help develop a pincer grip. Picking up small objects and pushing them into a hole is another activity parents can develop at home such as putting coins in a piggy bank.
To develop proper pencil grasp and strength, some prewriting exercises should be practiced. Use high quality three sided pencils (plain and colored) that support a proper grip. Don’t allow your child to hold writing instruments in a fist. The pencil should be held with three fingers. Montessori has a set of exercises that utilize the following three concepts that any parent can develop at home.
- Stencils: Buy stencils and have your child practice tracing them staying right up against the edge of the shape.
- Trace outside of shapes: Use puzzles pieces with knobs or cookie cutters with knobs and have your child practice tracing around the outer edge of the shape, making sure to stay right up against the edge.
- Tracing/writing a serpentine shape: Whether you child will be writing in print or cursive, this exercise strengthens the control of the fingers immensely. At first the child will trace over your drawing, but later should work to fill a rectangle with his/her own curving lines. Draw a serpentine shape on paper by first drawing two horizontal guidelines about 2 inches apart (See photo). Starting on the left side of the lower line, draw a line going upward, near the top curve and then draw downward. Near the bottom curve upward and continue until you fill the area between the lines from left to right. Have the child start at the lower left hand corner and trace over your shape with either a colored pencil or marker. Don’t expect perfection. Simply point out the places where your child did stay on top of your line and encourage him/her to work toward staying on your line more often. Don’t try to do too much in one sitting. Two to four tracings should be sufficient within one sitting each day. With time you should begin to form the lines closer together. You can also decrease the distance of your initial guidelines to one inch or less apart. If your child does not have sufficient strength to make a dark enough mark with a colored pencil, then colored markers, colored chalk or even crayons can be used.
Once your child is able to trace your lines easily, then have him/her begin to create his own serpentine lines inside a horizontal rectangle that you draw about 1.5 inches high and 4 or 5 inches wide. Always have him/her start at the lower left hand corner and gradually move left to right with the up and down lines that curve at the stop and bottom. With time your child can begin to make these serpentine lines closer together.
I hope that some of these ideas will help. Like any muscle building activity, it must be practiced regularly with only gradual increments of difficulty each day. While these are not direct handwriting exercises, they help prepare the muscles of the hand and familiarity with using a writing instrument. With daily short practice sessions, your child should see a great improvement in his/her control of the hand.
Marla Nargundkar, AMI Montessori Guide at Tree of Life Montessori School in Atlanta.