Practice the pincer grasp
“The pincer grasp allows a child to use the thumb and index finger to move and manipulate objects-and it's key for later writing skills,” says Patti Rommel, a 10-year veteran of elementary education and the director of research and development at Lakeshore Learning Materials. Very young children practice this by picking up raisins and cereal with their fingers. “As kids get older, strengthen the skill by playing games that involve squeezing tongs and clothes pins to pick up and manipulate objects like cotton balls or small sponges,” says Rommel. Also fun pincer practice: tearing paper into teeny bits and popping bubble wrap.
Gain gross-motor confidence
“Activities that require kids to use their entire body, especially their arms, are important for developing upper-body strength and stamina, which are needed in order to write,” says Jim Hinojosa, Ph.D., a professor of occupational therapy at New York University. Play catch with a large ball, encourage hanging and swinging from monkey bars, and have wheelbarrow races.
Work on hand-eye coordination
“Visual perception is all about the brain's ability to make sense of what the eye sees,” notes Hinojosa. Visual motor skills are important for copying and drawing shapes-and letters, of course, are shapes with meaning. Activities to try: doing puzzles together, connecting dots to make a picture, and having your child toss a beanbag up and down.
PLUS: HANDWRITING TIMELINE
Write with purpose
“Practice, feedback, and instruction are essential, but none of this should be done in rote practice sessions,” says Hinojosa. Instead, encourage activities that show children the purpose of writing, which is communication. “Ask your child to spell words the way they sound-and show the child that you can read what they've written,” says Rommel. After reading a story, ask your child to draw a picture of her favorite part and then write something about it-and proudly read her work aloud.
Practicing letters that engage a child's sense of touch helps the brain to better process and remember the letter formation, notes Hinojosa. Use water and a paintbrush to practice writing letters on the driveway. Spray shaving cream on a cookie sheet and have kids form letters with their fingers. Use wax sticks, like Wikki Stix, to form letters.
Check for technique
“By the age of 5, a child should be using a mature three-finger pencil grip,” says Hinojosa. (Here, a child pinches the pencil with her thumb and index finger while it rests on her middle finger.) To help stick to this grip, start off with a short pencil, which gives kids less space to cram unnecessary fingers. As their grip improves, try the teacher-designed BIC Kids™ Mechanical Pencils, which feature a unique guiding line for proper finger position, or BIC® XTRA-FUN #2 Pencils, which come in cool two-toned colors.
“Give children every opportunity to engage in real-world writing to make writing relevant and useful,” says Rommel. Ask kids to make lists: grocery lists, lists of things they'd like to do the next day, lists of favorite movies you should put in the Netflix queue.
Call out beauty
“Show your children handwritten gift tags or letters in beautiful, even print,” says Liesl Johnson, a reading and writing tutor in Hilo, HI. Then try to recreate beauty yourself, showing your child that it takes practice. “When writing, let your child hear you correct yourself. Say things like, 'Wait, I'm writing too fast and it looks ugly and hard to read. Let me start again,'” says Johnson. Then ask your kiddo to create nice-looking letters, too.
“Encourage and develop your child's ability to fluently convey thoughts and ideas with writing prompts,” says Rommel. Try a journal with sentence starters or story cards that allow kids to sequence different pictures and then write about the story that evolves from them.
Big kid-writing encouragement
Offer Fun Tools
“Give kids high-quality pens and pencils in many colors and show your joy in selecting one: Ooh! I'm going to use this purple ink so my notes look cool,” says Johnson. “Your kids will mirror your excitement.” They'll dig the BIC Atlantis® Ball Pen in fashion inks or the BIC® 4-Color Ball Pen
Have an Exchange
Arm your child with a personalized notebook and each night ask him to write you a note and leave the book by his door. You retrieve it, write back, and wait for the next note. Not only does it offer practice, it offers a constant example of good handwriting. Bonus: “When writing done in a natural setting as a normal activity, kids love it,” says Hinojosa.
Make It Easier.
“If your child says writing is boring or dumb, what she really means is that it's too hard, so make it easier,” says Johnson. If writing thank-you notes is the task at hand, for instance, and your child is easily worked up over spelling mistakes, create a cheat sheet. “Provide a written list of words and phrases that your child will likely use in her notes. If you completely remove the difficulty of thinking of about spelling, writing will become easier,” says Johnson.