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Handwriting begins with a strong hand

By Betsy Flagler
John Rosemond
Betsy Flagler, who lives in Davidson, writes the nationally syndicated Parent to Parent column.

Forget about the cursive handwriting debate for now. Some kids lack the hand strength just to hold a pencil.

“I’m seeing more and more kids with handwriting problems,” says Tere Bowen-Irish, an occupational therapist who consults with schools. “I’m worried.”

Children are going from infant carriers to car seats to grocery carts, never having time to move around and check out their environment, she says. All that restriction in the early years limits play and development. Long before a writing tool is introduced, a child needs to be on the move, building his muscles.

“Research shows that kids are sitting too much, too soon and too often,” says Bowen-Irish of Rye, N.H. “Without chances to explore and play, a child does not develop normal muscle tone for growing.”

It’s not just handwriting that takes a hit. Less obvious problems such as tight hamstrings from being in a confined space for too long can interfere with a child’s ability to sit with his legs crossed, says Bowen-Irish. She fills her website, AllThePossibilitiesInc.com, with activity ideas to get kids moving. They range from practical movements such as helping wash windows and put away groceries to fun activities like strutting like a rooster or working a puzzle.

Bowen-Irish’s ideas for pre-handwriting exercises include:

• Have your child place his fists next to his ears, as if making mouse ears, then open and close his fingers.

• Pretend your arms are windshield wipers or scissors.

• As if saying, “I don’t know,” shrug shoulders toward ears, then release.

• Have her pretend to throw a ball or open a door with a turn of her wrist.

• Finger-paint, or use fingers to write in sand or poke Play-Doh.

• Use large, sweeping motions with the entire arm, not just the hand, to draw letters in the air.

One popular writing program is Handwriting Without Tears, based on research that shows children learn more effectively by actively doing. Geared toward kindergartners through fifth-graders, the program makes handwriting more fun and not so labor-intensive. For information and videos, go to hwtears.com.

One strategy of the no-tears program is called Wet-Dry-Try and uses a small chalkboard. The teacher uses chalk to demonstrate the correct letter formation, then the child traces over the letter with a small wet sponge. To practice again, the child traces the letter with his wet finger. Then he takes a crumpled piece of paper towel to dry the letter stroke by stroke, and finally uses a tiny piece of chalk to write the letter. Sponge and chalk bits help children develop a proper pencil grip.

Handwriting Without Tears also has a Wet-Dry-Try app to practice writing letters on a virtual chalkboard.

Another product line that can help is Fundanoodle ( fundanoodle.com). Michelle Yoder, an occupational therapist in Pineville, helped develop the program. She says that before a writing tool is introduced, the hand needs to be strengthened – specifically the thumb, index and long fingers. Fundanoodle activities such as beading, lacing and hammering kits can help strengthen and improve coordination of the fingers – important in holding and controlling a pencil.

Email Betsy Flagler at p2ptips@attn.net.

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