Start with Art – developing handwriting skills without writing letters!

We are delighted to announce the launch of Start with Art - a new way to develop fine motor and pre-writing skills in children. Start with Art is suitable for resource teachers or therapists supporting children with additional needs and as a class programme to be used alongside traditional handwriting teaching methods. The idea for Start with Art came from my work as an Occupational Therapist working with children who were struggling with handwriting and were reluctant to practice letter formation. Through engaging in fun art activities, they became motivated to cut, colour and draw and were then able to progress easily on to letters when they were developmentally ready.  

The question of when a child is developmentally ready for handwriting is one that is open to debate. However, from my experience as an Occupational Therapist and through research into the benefits of unstructured play, the evidence shows that children who begin handwriting (and formal education in general) later tend to perform better. Accurate handwriting requires good muscle control and stability within the hand and arm to hold and control the pencil, good hand-eye coordination to coordinate movement of the hand across the page and on the line, good spatial awareness to know the correct size and shape of the letters and finally an ability to recognize and draw basic shapes. All of these skills are developed in children through practice and continue to develop up until the age of 7! League tables and international statistics put pressure on schools and governments to perform in academic subjects such as reading, maths and science. In response to this pressure, some countries react by introducing academic subjects earlier and earlier in the curriculum assuming that if children learn a skill younger, they will be better at it. Yet, in examining results for European countries within international league tables ( the Scandinavian countries (in particular Finland) stand out for consistently high performance. These countries have in common that they begin formal education later (6 or 7) compared with 4 or 5 in the UK and have a strong emphasis on play and children spending time outdoors in the early years. Although there are numerous factors that may explain a countries success in academic league tables (teacher training, additional supports for struggling students, demographics of the population etc), it is significant, in my opinion that formal teaching does not begin until later in childhood (as late as 7 in Finland). With regard to handwriting and fine motor skills this is especially important:

Muscle strength and stability

In order for the child to hold the pencil in a position which allows small movements of the fingers, the child has to be able to maintain an upright sitting posture, hold their shoulder and elbow steady in a bent position, keep the wrist in a neutral stable position, and hold the pencil firmly (but without too much pressure) and that’s all before they write anything at all! Babies are born very flexible and through regular opportunities for movement they gradually develop stability of their joints. Movements against resistance or gravity such climbing, crawling, pulling, pushing are best for strengthening the stabilizing the muscles of the body. It is recommended that children under 7 should be active for 3-4 hours a day to develop the muscle tone and joint stability to be ready for formal education which involves long periods sitting. Beginning to write before a child’s body is ready may lead to the child developing poor habits with regards to pencil grasp, posture or letter formation.

Hand-eye coordination Header

To be able to write, the child needs to be able to use their eyes to track across the page to monitor what they are writing at the same time as they are coordinating movements of the pencil. Again, this coordinated use of hands and eyes requires practice and begins when the child is born. Babies begin by tracking objects with their eyes and getting their own hand (or foot!) to their mouth. Later on, babies begin to reach for objects, put things in their mouth and then chase after a toy. These early stages of hand eye coordination progress on to throwing and catching balls, skipping using a rope, aiming at skittles etc. Handwriting requires a very high level of hand eye coordination because the movements needed are very precise. Hence, the child needs lots and lots of practice with the basic skills before moving on to this more complex skill.  If a child begins handwriting before they are developmentally ready it will be difficult for them to keep the writing on the line or maintain a consistently legible style.

Spatial Awareness

Before making a mark on the page, the child must have a clear ‘picture’ in their mind of the shape of the letter. Part of this comes from knowing where their own body is – which is again developed through regular physical activity. Physical activity stretches the muscles and joints and provides feedback (through the sensory system known as proprioception) as to where the body is which helps the child develop a sense of size and shape of other objects.

Ability to draw basic shapes

Letters are made up of a combination of shapes. Children need to be able to recognize and draw basic shapes first (lines, circles, crosses, squares and triangles) in order to put them together to form a letter. Drawing pictures also helps children begin to develop awareness of orientation and spacing of shapes. Beginning to write before a child can draw the basic shapes needed for all the letters may lead the child to form letters poorly, have difficulty with spacing and orientation of letters (leading to reversals).

So….I’ve made my case for delaying the introduction of handwriting until the child is developmentally ready. However, as teachers bound by a curriculum, it can be difficult (or impossible) to delay introducing handwriting until the age of 7!  Start with Art offers a method for boosting the whole class’ prewriting skills or support a small group of children who are particular struggling. Through colouring cutting and sticking basic shapes together, the child learns spatial awareness and shape recognition. They also develop their fine motor strength and stability through the colouring and cutting and the supplementary warm up activities. The child then draws the shapes on a picture of the design they have made, further reinforcing the essential pre-requisite skills for handwriting. Lastly Start With Art offers ideas for whole body activities to be completed in P.E. or in the classroom. Moreover, Start with Art is fun! Studies show children learn best when they are actively engaged and perceive an activity as play. With designs in themes that match the curriculum, children will look forward to learning in this fun interactive way!