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Written Expression in Young Children: A Comprehensive Guide for Parents

Almost nothing in a child’s development happens in a silo, meaning that there are always important connections across the cognitive, physical, and language domains. More often than not, if you want to support the learning of a specific skill, you’ll need to feed a variety of other, sometimes seemingly unrelated, areas of development. Learning to write is the perfect example of this: there are eleven skills related to successfully writing. Read on to learn more about these skills and playful ways to support their development.

Upper body strength and postural control

In general, development happens from the inside out and from the large muscles to the smaller ones, meaning it starts with the core and moves outwards to the arms and legs. Writing requires core, arm, and shoulder strength—a child needs to be able to sit up without getting tired and exert control over shoulders and arms. Climbing on the jungle gym, playing hopscotch, and crawling like animals are all great ways to build this strength.

Hand and finger strength

Holding a pencil requires the development of hand and finger muscles to be able to effectively manipulate it, and also to avoid fatigue. If you pay attention to how a toddler draws, you’ll notice the movement stems from the shoulders. As they develop—and strengthen their hands and fingers—that movement will eventually stem from these smaller muscles instead. Play dough is the perfect tool for developing this strength.

Hand dominance

Developing hand dominance is an important step in development for a variety of reasons, but especially for efficiency. By developing hand dominance, a child will be better—faster, more precise—at completing certain tasks (like writing or cutting). These types of hand movements will become more automatic, meaning they require less brain power and focus.This frees up the brain to focus on other more complex things. Hand dominance should develop between ages 2-4, and is very related to the next skill in our list, crossing the midline.

Crossing the midline

Crossing the midline is the ability to reach across to the other side of your body, and is an important skill in allowing a child to settle on a dominant hand. If your child is unable to cross the midline they will only use the right hand on the right side of the body and the left hand on the left side of the body, delaying hand dominance. A dance like the Hokey Pokey or painting at an easel are great activities for practicing crossing the midline.

Hand-Eye Coordination

The ability to use what our eyes perceive to carry something out with our hands is important for writing and drawing. Ball games are a fun way to practice hand-eye coordination, whether it’s playing catch, hitting a ball on a tee, or playing tether ball.

Bilateral integration

Bilateral integration means coordinating the use of both hands together. Think about writing, you need to use one hand to stabilize and hold the paper, while the other does the writing. Cutting with scissors is another good example—one hand holds the item being cut, while the other manipulates the scissors. Cutting, tracing, and clapping are great ways to practice bilateral integration.

Object manipulation

Being able to control a tool like a toothbrush, fork, or dust brush is closely related to being able to manipulate a pencil or marker. Stringing beads on pipe cleaners or string is a great activity to build these skills, as well as simple self-care tasks like brushing hair and teeth.

Hand division

Hand division is the ability to complete a task using some fingers but not others. Think about holding a handful of change and using your thumb and pointer to drop the change one at a time into a slot. This is using hand division. You can give your child the opportunity to do just that with small objects like marbles, coins, or buttons. Have them hold a fistful of coins, while they sort them into different bowls or line them up in a row on the table.

Positional language

Understanding words like top, bottom, up, down, and around are necessary when learning how to write letters. Playing a game like “I Spy” while in the car or on a walk is a great way to use positional language in your everyday routine.

Visual Perception

Visual perception is the brain’s ability to perceive what the eyes are seeing. It is important for being able to discriminate between letters (think “b,” “d,” and “p”). Visual perception can be developed from conversations you’re having about what you notice in the world around you, or with something more specific like sorting different types of dry pasta.

Pencil grasp

Finally, writing does require the ability to hold a pencil with the proper pincer grip because it allows the greatest level of control over the writing utensil. Your child will move through different stages of holding a pencil, and may switch between different grasps while they do. Giving them ample opportunity to explore different writing and drawing utensils will give them an opportunity to practice. Using short, fat crayons or those small golf pencils can be helpful for encouraging kids to move towards the ultimate goal of the pincer grip.

Some of these skills might come as a surprise, but think about it this way: We are only able to exert so much energy and attention at a time. If it takes all of a child’s attention just to sit up and hold a pencil, then there isn’t going to be much left for the actual act of writing.

Think about when you learned to type: You knew how to read and write, you just didn’t know where the keys were on the keyboard. At first it slowed you down because you had to overcome to obstacle of finding the proper letters before you could express your thoughts and ideas. Once you learned where the keys were and developed that muscle memory, typing no longer stood in the way of getting your ideas out. Learning to write is similar. Give your child a chance to spend time in these playful activities and set them up to be successful writers.

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Meredith Downing

Meredith Downing is the Curriculum Lead at Wonderschool, where she supports directors to build high-quality programs that help students grow and succeed.