Teaching my then-four-year-old daughter, Ann, how to print her name was exasperating. With only two different letters, I wondered how it could be so hard. But even connecting three dots to form part of a capital A seemed beyond her. Sometimes, the pencil would shoot right past the target dot; other times, it would get there with such a meandering curve that it didn’t look like a line at all. I was eager for Ann to be able to print her name by the time she started kindergarten. Little did I know, kids need to master lots of skills before forming those first squiggly letters.
Remember your doctor asking if your one-year-old could pick up a small piece of food with two fingers? She wanted to know if his pincer grip was developing, the first check in making sure his fine motor skills (the ability to do things with the small muscles in his hands) were on track. These skills, along with hand and arm strength and hand-eye coordination, lay the early groundwork for printing.
According to Lizette Alexander, an occupational therapist who runs Hand Skills for Children Toronto Occupational Therapy, at three years old, your child should be able to draw horizontal and vertical lines, cut with scissors and remove lids from small containers; at four, draw horizontal and vertical lines that cross, snip a straight line and lace with string; by five, trace lines, coy a square and cut out a circle.
The good news is that much of what a child does in the preschool years (scribbling, crafts, working with playdough) naturally develops his skills. Even trying to colour within the lines is an important activity that builds strength and control in the forearm. For older kids, mazes and dot-to-dots are great practise for drawing straight lines, which they’ll need to master to form many letters. (My energetic daughter wasn’t interested in these sit-down activities, which is probably why printing came slowly for her.)
Once your child has developed the hand strength and control to draw lines and simple shapes like a cross and a circle, he’s ready to start learning letters, says Alexander. But a key mistake many parents make is not ensuring their child holds the pencil correctly.
“Many kids tend to do the fist grab,” says Helen Mather-Oliver, a preschool and primary educator in Winnipeg—they’ll wrap their fingers and thumb around the pencil and move their whole arm to draw. She recommends gently correcting them as young as age three, so they don’t develop a bad habit.
Here’s a good trick: Try laying the pencil with the tip toward his hand and have him pick it up with his thumb and index finger (this is the pincer grip). Then, when he flips the pencil over to start to draw, he’ll be pinching it, and the pencil will rest between his thumb and index finger, which is a proper pencil grasp (try it, it works!). If this is hard for him, have him practise picking up small objects with his finger and thumb, or child-safe tweezers, to work on his pincer grip. Alexander suggests you break your preschooler’s crayons into one-inch pieces to encourage the proper grip early on. (If you search “proper pencil grip” on YouTube, you’ll find video tutorials so you can help your preschooler master this important skill.)
But what if you have a child like mine, who never wants to sit? Fine motor skills can be developed away from the table. Alexander gets her five-year-old son to help her in the kitchen, cutting green beans or peppers with child-safe scissors, stirring batter and opening containers. Outside, kids can play in the sand or squeeze spray bottles of water to build hand strength, poke at bubbles for hand-eye coordination, and use sidewalk chalk for fine motor skills.
Alexander cautions not to let kids’ fine motor skills go unchecked. If you think your child isn’t developing properly in this area, talk to your doctor or see an occupational therapist for an assessment. “Poor printing skills can impact a child’s self-esteem and even motivation to go to school,” says Alexander. But with early intervention, your child can get back on track—and you’ll both be thrilled to see his name signed on his latest masterpiece.