Handwriting development in Early Years – Is age 4 too early?

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Handwriting development in Early Years – Is age 4  too early? 

 

As an Occupational Therapist, my profession affords me insight into anatomy, development and evolution. One of my greatest concerns is the requirement for children to be writing with a shafted pencil so early within the curriculum. One of the academic targets we see emerging is for our very youngest pupils to have a tripod grasp when leaving nursery and entering reception. From a biomechanical view this is a fundamental disruption to the development of good hand skills.

Over the last decade I have witnessed a huge increase in postural dysfunction and maladaptive positions for table based activity, specifically as children emerge to year 3. 

 

Why is this? 

Quite simply it’s because children are being asked to produce a hand grasp that is not safe or suitable for their growing hand. Until the age of 7 a child has laxity in the tendons. Beyond this the carpal bones have not settled and are not fully formed. We have all seen the image floating around the internet of the child’s hand before 7 years of age. 

Here is the image:

 

 

An x ray of a developed hand (around the age of 7) on the left compared to an EYFS age child’s hand on the right.

 

 

 

 

But what does this actually mean to their function? 

Firstly the carpal bones provide the stability for the first finger and the middle finger. They also provide the stability for the thumb and the abductor muscles in the palmar surface of the hand. Ok, so that’s getting a bit technical and what does that actually mean? Well ‘abduction’ anatomically means ‘coming into the middle’ not ‘away from the middle’. In the hand this means the muscle to grasp and control and exert strength and stability. In short, these anatomical regions are essential to hand writing and when they are missing, a child will adapt their positioning in response. We will see shoulder hitching towards the ear creating a greater risk of scoliosis (a spinal deformity). We will see children leaning on their desk with the whole arm to prop their shoulder increasing the risk of injury and we will see slumping at the desk increasing the risk of kyphosis (rounding of the shoulder). These resulting biomechanical difficulties are not just isolated to the hand but also the pelvis, the shoulders and the trunk (core stability). 

 

Children were designed to move, to fidget, to shift. Their loose little tendons and wide spacing between bones are there to allow their bodies to grow. It means they are not able to stabilize and hold a fixed position. They are certainly not designed to sit in a chair. They are built with the intention of moving, to squat, to jump, to hop – all with the purpose of developing their sensory motor responses. As soon as we fix a child to one spot we increase their discomfort and as such, we decrease their attention. 

We all know this. We all hear this – but then we all conform as we should to our curriculum. Yes we have a free-flow learning environment but we are still being asked to place shafted pencils in little hands and we are doing this while sitting them at a desk. We are creating postural deficits and long term maladaptive positioning. In effect, we are asking fish to climb trees.  Children are often so fed up with writing by the time they are ten years old that they are fatigued and disengaged. 

 

So what do we suggest? 

Some children want to write (and that’s wonderful!) but some don’t; however all children want to ‘mark make’ and create. 

 

We need to look at what a little body can do and should be doing; what it was designed for. In short, by setting early handwriting goals we are interrupting the evolutionary process and by-passing vital developmental stages. Most importantly we need to buckle in for long term goals and not ill-timed tick boxes such as being able to write their name or have a tripod grasp by the age of 5.  By having these short-sighted, short term goals, we are missing the long term impact on a child’s whole body development and long term wellbeing and function. 

 

What do we recommend?

 

  • Firstly let’s shift the position. Easels, paper on walls, chalk on the floor.  Shifting a child to standing or squatting to write provides them more pelvic stability and therefore more shoulder stability which in turn enables hand function to be more fluid. 
  • Drop the shafted pencils.  We recommend using egg pencils, round paint brushes, very large chunky chalks, finger painting which will all work on the dynamic wrist stability and finger isolation (controlling fingers separately) which a child needs to write later in life. 
  • Games that encourage visual skills and hand/eye coordination such as catching bubbles, balloon keepy-uppy, walking a line, eye spy (colour and shape), follow the leader. 
  • Activities that involve crossing the midline and bilateral integration: crawling, climbing, using the two sides of the body in opposition (two different directions). This developmental milestone not only enables a child to develop hand dominance, it also increases language development and motor skill by triggering a beautiful and complex neurological ignition (opening a new neural tract in a developing brain) 

 

A child will only develop an understanding of tactile input and their own body schematics through their interaction with sensory input. The more they are afforded the chance to explore and engage with different stimuli, the more complex their understanding of sensory input will become. Cognition is directly correlated to our exploration of our environment, our sensory input and experience of success. All human function requires and is dependent on sensory cues and input therefore it is far more important for a developing hand to feel, explore change and manipulate.  Using dough, sand, water jars, construction toys, den building, foraging, gardening, gluing and sticking, digging and mud kitchens will all have a greater impact on long term handwriting development than any fixed table-based handwriting activity. When we look at a kindergarten model we can see that children who begin writing later are able to progress the skill within a year often over taking children on an earlier curriculum. The model of delayed writing is alive and well and present in many successful curriculums. 

 

I know it’s not easy. There are these targets (whether we approve of them or not) and no matter how maverick one might want to be, you may feel the need to conform in some way. 

 

Here are some suggested goals we can set that are anatomically appropriate for children in early years:

 

  • To be able to finger paint their name 
  • To be able to construct their primary shapes in sticks and twigs 
  • To be able to draw their name in sand or flour 
  • To be able to draw primary shapes at the easel with finger paint 
  • To be able to run, hop, crawl and jump- as a child needs these skills before we ask them to hold a pencil. 

  

Written By Nerys Hughes and Ellie Powling from Whole Child Therapy 

 

 

 

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