What is the ‘Write’ way for our children?

The other day, my neighbour stopped to chat and introduced me to her 4-year-old granddaughter. Before I could say hello, she said proudly that she can count to 100 and write her name.  This is not unusual and resonant of a growing pattern where adults seem to feel it is important to want their children to be able to read and write almost before they can speak.

So, what has prompted this urge?  Do we need children to be able to sign their names by the age of three? Do they have their own chequebooks?  I suspect it is part of our modern urge to teach children complex concepts far too early.

Learning to write is one of these concepts which starts as a physical skill before it morphs into the intellectual ability to become a writer. Babies start early by smearing their food or using their spilt almond milk to create exuberant designs all over the table. Babies grip, twist, bang from 0 to 8 months and from nine months onwards they are squeezing, pinching, prodding and poking you and each other! This is key to building their core strength and coordination that promotes both the fine and gross motor development required if they are to learn to write.

By the time the child has become a toddler, their joy of body painting has extended into bigger hand and arm rotation and vertical movements. Their core strength is developing especially if you have given them opportunities to climb, lift, stretch, roll and build muscle and upper body strength. This ensures they will ultimately develop the right posture to sit and write. Tools are less important than sensory experiences, but the kitchen drawers can provide a cornucopia of delights.

By two-years, children will start to develop palmar grasp reflex whereby when an object is placed in an infant’s hand and the palm of the child is stroked, the fingers will close reflexively, as the object is grasped.

Many fixate on tools such as pens, stubby pens, crayons, pencils markers etc. but things like stamps, sponges and hair rollers are great because they encourage the necessary large rotation and vertical movements.

Building muscular strength is enhanced with play dough as they knead, rub, pull and stretch and then refine the dough into many shapes and sizes. To build the dexterity, children need to write and practise fine motor activities such as jigsaws, pegs, weaving, threading, building towers and learning to zip and unzip their jacket or button their coats.

Writing can be practised using dance. For example, stretching and balancing to become a long letter like b l, h i. Twirl and flounce and squat to the shape of the letters c and d and s.

Outside, children use cars, stones and twigs to create letters and words and just “do writing” by forming letters and marking their names and words in paint, snow, sand and mud. At this stage they are hearing you describe the language of writing by asking “What are you writing there? Let’s make a shopping list? Would you like to write your name?

By the time children have reached the sophisticated age of three and four they are linking letters to words and print. They can create recognisable letters. Their movements are refined and able to rotate clockwise and anti-clockwise. They have finessed the tripod grasp where they can hold the pen between the thumb and the index and middle fingers. They are writing for purpose – making lists, writing letters to their friends just like the Jolly Postman. Children’s writing will often reflect the richness of the conversations they have in the nursery and at home. Everyone needs something to write about or someone to copy.

When children enter Reception class, they are introduced to formal handwriting. Teaching handwriting often translates to mean cursive writing or, as I used to call it, joined up writing. Do you remember practising the letters between two narrow red lines within a wider set of blue lines and the line started with a flick? I would practise and my brother who also had to do it ended up scribbling across the page in a fury of frustration. Familiar? Many boys struggle to handwrite as do younger summer born children and sadly get left behind.

For many children learning cursive writing (in which some characters are written joined together in a flowing manner, generally for the purpose of making writing faster), it’s too soon and they are simply not physically ready.  Look at the x-ray below. On the left is a pre school hand and on the right is a child aged seven. Which one looks ready to you?

The message is that we need to support children by introducing things ‘as and when’ they are ready – and then give them lots of time to practise and enjoy learning in their own playful way.

We can suggest new ideas and stretch them but only sensitively through using play, practice and following their interests. Ultimately, we need to stop the rush. When they get there with the right support, they are more likely to become confident, capable and successful writers.

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