Hello! My name is Michelle Ehlenfeldt and I am an certified occupational therapist assistant (COTA) at Partners In Excellence. I have been practicing as an occupational therapist at Partners for three years and treat clients in Winona. One of the many reasons that I love Partners is that I work closely with families and team members to promote client success in a variety of settings.  Finding client strengths and working with those strengths to reach goals is very rewarding. As an occupational therapy practitioner at Partners, I need to be creative and use fun activities that are unique to each client. 

Today I will be discussing writing readiness, also known as prewriting skills.

Many parents ask me about their child’s grip and writing skills.  The answer is not always straight forward because there are several factors that come into play, and each child is unique.  In today’s blog, I will give readers an idea of some of the common factors that I watch for and work on to promote success with writing and grip. Before we get to that, there is something else we need to discuss.

What are “prewriting” skills? Prewriting skills are the fundamental skills children need to develop before they can write. These skills contribute to the child’s ability to hold and use a pencil as well as the ability to draw, write, copy, and color. (Kid Sense Child Development Corporation)

The following are the pencil strokes that most letters, numbers and early drawings are comprised of, known as prewriting:

  • Vertical Lines (about 2 years)
  • Horizontal Lines
  • Circle
  • Cross (“+”)
  • Square
  • Diagonal Lines
  • “X”
  • Triangle (about 5+ years)

The fundaments skills needed for prewriting include postural control, strength, cognitive skills, gross and fine motor skills, spatial awareness, and body awareness (to name a few). Believe it or not, most of these skills are learned and developed through play and connections with others. 

What does it take to write?

Think about what it takes to sit in a desk at school and write the alphabet.   I know this is not something an adult normally thinks about, but as an occupational therapist, I look at the whole picture. Let me break it down for you.

First, I need to be able to visually look at what letter the teacher is writing on the board in front of me and figure out how to get it onto the paper (so I may be looking up at the letter, then look back down at the paper while still remembering what to write).  Now, I need to remember how the teacher formed the letter. I need to be able to sit in the chair for a duration of time, I need to attend to a task, hold a pencil, stabilize the paper with my other hand, have control of the pencil, know how hard/soft to push so I don’t tear the paper (but can still see what I am writing), follow directions, be able to cross my body so that I can start on the left side of the paper, make sure I stay on the provided line, properly space my letters, and tune out the noise coming from the hall or outside.  Did I forget to mention–all the other kids in my class are already on the fifth letter and I have not started! So, now I start to get frustrated and don’t know what to do.

I hope this quick description helps give a better understanding that there is much more to writing than just the “act of” writing. All these pre-writing fundamental skills are very important and need to be built. You may be wondering; how do we prepare children?  The answer to that is through play. Selecting activities that work the fingers, hands, and shoulders is a great way to promote strength and skills needed. Below, Your Therapy Source (https://www.yourtherapysource.com) has some great activity examples.

  • Play Dough – Using play dough helps strengthen the muscles in the fingers, hands and shoulders which are essential for legible handwriting.
  • Playing in prone (tummy time) – By laying down on the floor on their bellies propping up on their elbows, the shoulders, arms and hands receive proprioceptive and tactile input to help children learn where their body is in space.  In addition, this position helps to strengthen the head and neck muscles.
  • Animal Walks – Children can practice moving like different animals particularly ones where their hands are on the floor such as bear walks, seal walks and donkey kicks.
  • Sensory Trays – Practice making marks (lines, circles) in different sensory materials such as shaving cream, sand or flour.
  • Lacing Activities – Lace beads onto pipe cleaners.  Try lacing shoelaces on lacing cards.  These types of activities help to fine tune the intricate fine motor skills needed for handwriting.
  • Make shapes and letters with your body – Form the lines, shapes and letters using your body.  
  • Move in different directions – Perform locomotor skills in straight lines, curved lines and zig zags.  Move in a circle.  This helps children develop visual spatial skills which is necessary for spacing and sizing of letters.
  • Building blocks – Using Lego or Duplo blocks help children improve fine motor skills, muscle strength in the hands and fingers and visual spatial skills.  Brick Activities for Home and School provides patterns to create numbers, alphabet and seasonal objects using LEGO® style 2×2 and 2×4 size blocks.
  • Fingerpaint – Let children explore making marks with their fingers.  It is easy and fun.  If the child dislikes the sensation of finger painting, offer different objects to paint with instead such as toy cars or plastic toy animal feet.

10. Moving or placing objects along a path – Draw different lines or shapes on paper or put painter’s tape on the floor. If it is on paper, children can try putting stickers along the lines or rocks.  If is painter’s tape on the floor, children can try driving toy cars along the lines.  Draw with sidewalk chalk outdoors and children can practice riding a tricycle along the path.

Being creative, crawling around, climbing, and exploring are also great ways to not only prepare your child for writing, but also make connections for social skills, follow directions, and attend to activities.  Make things fun and interesting while slipping in some structured learning! For example, many kids love to play in the sand.  I like to use toys like cars and trucks to form lines, circles, and shapes in the sand.

One of my go-to activities is coloring using broken crayons.  If you pick up a full-size color crayon, see how many ways you can hold it. Of course, we want to promote children to use different grips, but when it comes to writing, we want to promote a functional grip. Now…take a short, broken crayon and see what happens.  Using short crayons or certain types of pencil gripers can promote finger placement for a functional grasp.

I believe that every time a person engages with a child and gives them the opportunity to use their hands during play promotes the development of skills they need.  Remember, even the little things count and make a difference!

If you have questions or concerns, please consult with your occupational therapist for ideas and how to promote your child’s pre-writing skills.

Our occupational therapy team is excited to continue to contribute to our Partners’ blog this year to offer insight into our field. Be on the lookout for more posts from our occupational therapists and certified occupational therapy assistants!


Your Therapy Source (May, 2017)10 Activities To Get Children Ready For Prewriting Skills, https://www.yourtherapysource.com