How to improve handwriting with Yoga
Is your child twiddling their thumbs?
Do children need help to improve handwriting? And if so, why?
Recent articles in the national press have highlighted concerns of health professionals about children’s hand writing skills. They suggest that children are increasingly finding it hard to hold pens and pencils, in part because they are using technology more.
Sally Payne, head paediatric occupational therapist at Heart of England foundation NHS trust told The Guardian that the nature of play had changed.
“It’s easier to give a child an iPad than encouraging them to do muscle-building play such as building blocks, cutting and sticking, or pulling toys and ropes. Because of this, they’re not developing the underlying foundation skills they need to grip and hold a pencil.”
Why is handwriting important?
“What does it matter if children can’t handwrite?” You may ask. Surely today’s children will be typing and swiping rather than actually writing?
Well, research has long established links between hand (fine motor) skills e.g. writing, and future maths and literacy academic achievement [Cameron et al 2012].
Laura Dinehart, Assist. Professor at Florida International University, in a 2014 paper on handwriting (page 10) notes that:
“Recent work with young children suggests that writing may support foundational skills that are necessary for later academic functioning.”
Laura refers to research with four and five-year-old children, which found writing letters by hand, activated areas of a child’s brain identified as the ‘reading circuit’. Actually, writing letter shapes activated these areas of the brain more than tracing and typing of letters. The impact of activating this ‘reading circuit’ on overall development is unclear, but the researchers concluded that handwriting appears to support to the development of reading in young children (James and Engelhardt, 2012).
The major kinds of pencil grasp
There are three major kinds of pencil grasp:
1. Whole hand grasp
As your young toddler attempts their first scribbles at about a year to 18 months, they will naturally use the whole of their hand. At this stage, their hand movement begins at the shoulder or the elbow, so you will see your child is moving their WHOLE arm. To start with they may hold their crayon in a fisted pattern (palmer grasp).
At about 2 years they may change their grip so their index finger points to the tip (digital grasp). Often this ‘digital pronate’ grip is used by children as they start to draw lines and circles. Surveys of US children* suggest about 30% of three olds, 9% of 4 years olds use this type of grasp.
Tips For the whole hand grasp stage
Encourage your toddler to do big scribbles on a vertical surface e.g. a blackboard, or on a big sheet of paper on their hands and knees or whilst leaning forward in sitting. These activities are fun and encourage your young child to activate their shoulder and elbow muscles. These are the foundation muscles for writing.
Play games with small objects so you child can practice picking up with two or three fingers. Supervise your child at all times, of course.
Crayoning games. If you gently hold the top of the crayon as your child scribbles, they will be more inclined to grasp the crayon near the point.
2. Transitional – Early/Static Tripod Grip
From about 3 to 4 years of age your child will probably start to experiment with various styles of a ‘tripod’ grip.
In a tripod grip your child is using just three fingers to control their crayon, usually holding it with their thumb and index finger while resting it on the knuckle of the middle finger (It is always important to keep in mind that all children are different and there are many subtle variations in grip). At this stage you may notice your child’s forearm remains off the table surface, this is because they are still using their shoulder and elbow muscles. Surveys cited by Print Path show 29% of three year olds, 33% of 4 year olds use this grip.
Tips for the Transitional/Early/Static Tripod stage
Play games using tongs or tweezers. Challenge your child to pick up small objects using a pair of tongs and place them in a container. This activity also encourages their hand eye coordination, which is crucial for development of writing skills.
Keep going with drawing games on a vertical surface or on big sheets of paper on the floor. These activities keep your child’s shoulder muscle active and support good posture.
Play games that challenge your child to use their fingers individually e.g. finger printing games.
3. Functional /Dynamic Tripod
As you child gains further control, they will progress onto a functional grip. They may be using this grip as they start primary school.
Your child is now confidently holding their pencil between three fingers. His or her forearm is now ON the table, as most of the hand movement is now coming from the fingers and wrist, rather than the elbow and shoulder. This grip is all about precision. Crucially your child may be able to move their fingers individually to make strokes in all directions including those on the diagonal. Research shows children need to be able to confidently draw a square and an X before they can start writing in lower case letters. If children start to write in a lowercase too early, before they are ready, this can have a negative impact on their handwriting ability.
Surveys of children, from Print Path’s website* found 57% of 4 year olds and nearly 80% of five year olds use this grasp.
Tips to improve handwriting for every child
1. Yoga postures & movements
Bring movement breaks into your child’s day. Yoga inspired postures and activities, will encourage your child to keep their shoulder, tummy, back and hip muscles active. These muscles are the power-house for good posture and hence good handwriting. Downwards dog pose has the added advantage of encouraging your child to take weight through their hands. This relaxes tense muscles.
Lion pose encourages your child to extend their wrist, so they can keep their forearm on the table, along with individual finger movements. While this pose will improve handwriting, it’s good for posture too!
2. Finger rhymes & games
Make moving the fingers fun! To improve handwriting and pre-writing skills, try:
Singing the Tommy Thumb song with actions
Rock, paper scissors (this is also great for solving arguments such as who chooses supper!)
Hand clapping games like patty cake (fantastic for encouraging teamwork too)
‘Twiddling Your Thumbs’ by Wendy Cope is a full of lots more funny games.
3. Keep thinking big
Encourage your child to do BIG drawings and scribbles, including chalk drawings on the pavement. They will strengthen and co-ordinate many body parts, in turn helping to improve handwriting.
4. Think outside the box
Make shapes in shaving foam. Make shapes with twigs whilst out for a walk. Draw in the sand when you go to the beach. Write your name in the mud after rain. All of these fun activities help to develop pre-writing skills & ultimately improve handwriting.
References & further reading
Cameron CE, Brock LL, Murrah WM, et al. (2012) Fine motor skills and executive function both contribute to kindergarten achievement. Child Development 83(4): 1229–1244.
Dinehart L (2014) Handwriting in early childhood education: Current research and future implications. Journal of Early Childhood Literacy.
James KH and Engelhardt L (2012) The effects of handwriting on functional brain development in pre-literate children. Trends in Neuroscience and Education 1(1): 32–42.
Experimenting with different pens and pencils can be helpful for children who grip their pen too tightly. Often a chunkier pen or one with a softer grip can encourage your child to relax their hand. See here for specialist hand grips.
Special thanks to Rafi H-G (hand model)
All activities suggested require adult supervision. Please use your own judgement with your child for the activities suggested, if you have any concerns, seek advice from your Children Inspired by Yoga teacher or a health professional. Do not provide objects that could pose a choking hazard to young children. Never leave a child unattended during the suggested activities.
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