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Developmental Skills for Handwriting

Developmental Skills for Handwriting
Dena Bishop, OTR/L
April 17, 2018

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Editor's note:  This text is an edited transcript of the webinar, Developmental Skills for Handwriting, presented by Dena Bishop, OTR/L.

Learning Outcomes

At the conclusion of this course, participants will be able to:

  • Describe child development for Infants and Babies, Preschoolers, and Kindergarteners in the areas of physical development and motor coordination, visual perceptual/visual motor skills, language development, and social emotional development.
  • Explain kindergarten and handwriting requirements.
  • Identify handwriting readiness signs by observing the child's coloring, cutting, fine motor and language skills.

There is a lot that goes into handwriting, and we are going to take a look at each of those skills.

Understanding Child Development

There are distinct periods of biological, psychological, and emotional development that starts at birth and ends in adolescence. It is a continuous process with a very predictable sequence, but it can be influenced by both genetics and environmental events. We need to understand the child's brain and body during each stage of this development in order to be able to provide the necessary support, structure, and encouragement along with appropriate interventions for each stage.

  • Infant & Toddler-Ages 0-2 
  • Preschooler-Ages-3-5
  • Early Elementary Child-Ages 6-8 
  • Upper Elementary Child-Ages 9-11
  • Adolescent & Teenager-Ages 12+

When we talk about each of these ages, we are also going to look into four different areas.

  • Physical Development and Motor Skills
  • Language Development
  • Visual Perceptual/Visual Motor Development
  • Social Emotional Development

Infant and Toddler (0-2 Years) - Physical Development and Motor Skills


  • Body maintains a flexed posture with fisted hands and little head control
  • Infantile reflexes are present to aid movement
  • Sleeps up to 20 hours per day

Typically developing newborns maintain a flexed posture with their hands fisted and little head control. Children with special needs often do not have this posture. They are frog legged, and their hands are open. This is a red flag that they are going to have physical problems as they mature. They need to be in a flexed position. Additionally, infantile reflexes are present at birth and are usually integrated by age one. They help aid in movement. However, with atypical development, these immature reflexes may still be present and impede their emerging motor skills. A classic example of an immature reflex is the rooting reflex. When you touch a child's cheek, he automatically turns his head toward that touch. When the child feels the nipple on his cheek, his mouth opens in preparation for feeding. Another reflex is the asymmetrical tonic neck reflex, or ATNR. This helps a child learn to reach. When his head turns, the arm extends on that side and the opposite bends. If a child has this immature reflex, he may not be able to hold the paper with the other hand. The symmetrical tonic neck reflex, STNR, is where arms flex and legs extend when the head bends forward. If this reflex is still present, children will have difficulty bending their head to read and write or copy from the board. These are going to be very minimal in older children; however, I have seen third graders with some of these reflexes still prominent and it affects their attention and behavior. A newborn sleeps up to 20 hours a day.

0 - 6 Months

  • Gains head control, arm/leg control and able to roll over
  • Begins gross grasp patterns
  • Transfers toy from hand-to-hand
  • Tummy time is essential

Now, they are starting to gain head control, arm and leg control, and the ability to roll over. They also begin to have gross grasping patterns for batting and reaching for toys. They begin to transfer toys from hand to hand. Tummy time at this stage is essential for the following reasons:

  • Builds strength in trunk, shoulders, arms, legs, and neck
  • Builds coordination needed for rolling, crawling, reaching, and writing
  • Allows separation of trunk and head
  • Rotation of head and trunk in tummy time develops visual perceptual and cognitive skills
  • Learn to track movements and focus on objects
  • Avoids plagiocephaly: flat spots on the back of the head

When the American Academy of Pediatrics came out with their Back to Sleep program to combat Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), everyone started to put babies on their backs to sleep. To balance this out, babies need more tummy time during the day. It builds strength in the trunk, shoulders, arms, legs, and neck. It also builds coordination needed for rolling, crawling, reaching, and eventually writing. It allows for separation of the trunk and head for rotation. Placing children on their tummies also helps them develop visual perceptual and cognitive skills. They also learn how to track movements with their head and eyes and to focus on objects. This is going to help with reading and left to right patterning later in their development. It also helps them to avoid plagiocephaly, which are flat spots on the back of their heads. If we see these flat spots, this is an indication that they may be spending too much time on their back. 

7 - 12 Months 

  • Gains control of trunk and hands, opposition of thumb and forefinger for proper pincer grasp pattern
  • Pokes with finger
  • Sits independently, crawls, stands, creep, and then walks
  • Crawling is essential

They are now gaining control of their trunk and hands. They can now oppose their thumb and forefinger for proper pincer grasp to pick up small items. They are also beginning to poke with an index finger. Often, they can independently sit, crawl, stand, creep, and begin to walk during this stage. Crawling is just as important as tummy time.  Benefits include:

  • Develops muscle strength and coordination in trunk, neck, hips, and shoulders
  • Develops postural control for sitting and standing
  • Strengthens ribcage muscles needed for breathing, eating, and talking
  • Allows for integration of infantile reflexes
  • Strengthens bilateral coordination (opposite sides of the body working together)
  • Positions the tongue in correct alignment for speech articulation
  • Lengthens the fingers and develops arches in the palm of the hand essential for writing and grasping
  • Separates two sides of the hand to improve pencil grasp and scissor skills

Crawling develops muscle strength, and postural control in the trunk, neck, hips, and shoulders for sitting and standing. It strengthens the rib cage muscles needed for breathing, eating, and talking. It is also important for the integration of the immature reflexes. It strengthens bilateral coordination, which is using both sides of the body together. It positions the tongue in correct alignment for speech articulation and lengthens the fingers and develops the arches of the palm of the hand which are essential for creating a proper pencil grasp and for writing. It also separates the two sides of the hand to improve pencil grasp and scissor skills.

A power grip is when all the fingers are flexed toward the palm and the thumb applies counter pressure (as in holding a hammer). Power grips are shown in Figure 1. 


Figure 1. Power grips.

The first image is an ulnar grasp. This is the grasp that you would use to hold an umbrella. This is what we call the power fingers. If you think about when you hold an umbrella, you are really holding it with your pinky and your ring finger. When a child grabs something, they may use those power fingers before they use their precision fingers, which I call their forefinger and thumb. Then you have a gross (hand) grasp. You see this a lot with little babies where they rake something into their palm. The palmar grasp is into the palm of the hand and gives nice stability. Sometimes you will see kids, even in pre-school, with this grasp on a pencil. They use the palmer grasp to be able to write because of instability of their hands. Finally, the radial (palmar) grasp is more mature. They are moving away from their palm and using their fingers more.

A precision grip is the thumb opposing one or more individual fingers to manipulate smaller objects, like a pencil. Precision grips are shown in Figure 2.


Figure 2. Precision grips.

The first picture shows a scissor grasp. There is a flattening through the fingers. The other three pictures show the development of the mature pincer grasp through the inferior forefinger grasp, inferior pincer grasp, and finally the pincer grasp, or the tips of the first finger and the thumb together on an object. With the pincer grasp, you can almost see a perfect circle between the fingers. When you see that neat pincer grasp, you know that they are ready for a correct pencil grasp. 

1 to 2 Years

  • Creeps up stairs and runs
  • Kicks a ball
  • Uses small manipulatives such as blocks, crayons, and large puzzle pieces
  • Turns pages of cardboard books

Now we start to see the child creeping upstairs, running, and kicking a ball.

Infant and Toddler (0 - 2 Years) - Language Development


  • Cries and guttural sounds

Newborns cry and make guttural sounds during this stage. 

0 - 6 Months

  • Cries, grunts, coos, babbles, and some consonant sounds
  • Recognizes own name
  • Startles and responds to sounds
  • Begins to smile and is drawn to musical toys

During zero to six months, they cry, grunt, coo, babble, and have some consonant sounds. They start to recognize their own name, will startle, and begin to respond to sounds. They also begin to smile and are drawn to musical toys. We are talking about language development with handwriting because there is a lot of language that goes into handwriting. 

7 - 12 Months

  • Says 1-2 word phrases, imitates sounds, and responds to name and simple commands

  • Understands “no” and voice tone changes, waves
  • Recognizes familiar objects
  • Plays patty cake and peekaboo

From seven to 12 months, they say one to two word phrases, imitate sounds, and respond to their name and simple commands. They understand no and voice tone changes. They begin to wave bye bye and recognize familiar objects. They are really cute in this stage and start playing games like patty cake and peekaboo. 

1 to 2 Years 

  • Vocabulary of over 200 words
  • Points to objects/pictures and a few body parts
  • Understands simple “who,” “what,” and ”where” questions
  • Understands simple positional words as “on/off,” “under/over,” and “in/out”
  • Follows 2-step directions (i.e. “Get your socks and put them in the basket.”)

At one to two years, their vocabularies jump to over 200 words. They can point to objects and pictures and name a few body parts. They start to understand simple who, what, and where questions, and prepositional words, such as on/off, under/over, and in/out. They begin to follow two step directions like, "Go get your socks and put them in the basket," or "Go into the kitchen and get a spoon out of the drawer." Understanding two-step directions is important for teaching handwriting.

Infant and Toddler (0 - 2 Years) - Visual Perceptual/Visual Motor Development

Visual perception is what your brain perceives from the information that your eyes see. Visual motor development is the coordination between the eye, the brain, and the hands. I put these two together because so many of the skills that we see go hand in hand. For example, when a child completes a puzzle, he is using visual perceptual skills to understand where that puzzle piece might fit in and visual motor skills to put the puzzle piece in.


  • Makes basic distinctions in vision, sound, taste, touch, temperature, and perception of pain

Newborns make basic distinctions in vision, sound, taste, touch, temperature, and perception of pain, but they do not have a ton going on in this stage.

0 - 6 Months

  • Responds to light
  • Focuses on face or lit object
  • Follows a moving object visually
  • Moves head to track movement
  • Fingers own hands at play
  • Eye-hand coordination to reach for object

In the 0 to 6 months stage, they can respond to light, focus on faces and lit objects, and follow moving objects. They track and begin to have eye-hand coordination to reach for objects. Visual motor skills can also be referred to as eye-hand coordination.

7 - 12 Months

  • Uses tools
  • Scribbles spontaneously and attempts to imitate strokes
  • Releases small objects into small containers
  • Picks up spoon, drinks from cup, and finger feeds self

At this stage, children begin to use tools and can scribble or imitate strokes. They can pick up small objects and put into small containers. Feeding skills are developing, and they can pick up a spoon, drink from a cup, and finger feed.

1 to 2 Years

  • Makes horizontal strokes
  • Completes insert puzzles
  • Builds tower and train using blocks
  • Removes clothing, attempts to put shoes on, and zips/unzip zipper
  • Spoon feeds independently  

At one to two years, they start to make horizontal strokes, complete insert puzzles, and build towers. They start to have more self-care skills like removing clothing, putting on shoes, and zipping and unzipping. They are able to spoon feed themselves independently at this time as well.

Infant and Toddler (0 - 2 Years) - Social Emotional Development

Social and emotional development is so important because we have many kids that have frustration with handwriting. 


  • Experiences hardwired emotions of joy, fear, anger, and sadness

We are born hardwired for emotions such as joy, fear, anger, and sadness. Disney's Inside Out has characters that represent some of these emotions.

0 - 6 Months

  • Enjoys cuddles
  • Soothed by rocking
  • Experiences surprise and disgust along with other hardwired emotions
  • Smiles purposefully
  • Recognizes caregiver
  • Distinguishes familiar person versus strangers

From zero to six months, babies start to cuddle and are soothed by rocking. They experience surprise and disgust. These are two other hardwired emotions. They smile purposefully and recognize caregivers. They also can distinguish familiar people from strangers.

7 - 12 Months

  • Shows affection
  • Fears strangers
  • Curious to explore
  • Starts to understand autonomy

At seven to 12 months, they start to show affection. They have a fear of strangers. They start to explore their environment and know that they are a separate person from their caregiver. This is the age where they start to push boundaries a little bit.

1 to 2 Years 

  • Experiences separation anxiety
  • Throws temper tantrums
  • Seeks autonomy and wants choices
  • Requires a secure attachment to a caregiver so he can explore the world around him

At one to two years old, they experience some separation anxiety. Tantrums come into play as they are seeking more autonomy. They want independence and need to be given choices. They also require a secure attachment to a caregiver so that then they can explore the world around them and still feel safe.

Preschooler (3 - 5 years) 

Physical Development and Motor Skills 

This is the stage that you are typically seeing the following skills:

  • Rides a tricycle
  • Jumps vertically and off surfaces, climbs, skips, and gallops
  • Catches a large ball with two hands
  • Walks up stairs with alternating feet and down stairs two feet at a time
  • Dresses independently including fastens front clothing fasteners
  • Holds pencil with fingers, not in palm
  • Uses a neat pincer grasp to obtain small objects
  • Cuts on a line using scissors

They are now able to ride a tricycle, jump, climb, skip, and gallop. They have great gross motor skills at this time. They can catch a large ball with two hands, walk up stairs with alternating feet, and down stairs two feet at a time. They can dress independently, including fasteners. They can hold the pencil in their fingers and not just in the palm of their hand now. It should be becoming a little bit more mature now. They use a pincer grasp and can cut on a line using scissors. 

Grip patterns are shown in Figure 3.


Figure 3. Grip patterns.

There is the cylindrical grasp, which is one to one and a half years old. When you have preschoolers that are holding their pencil like this, this is an immature grasp. At two to three, they start to bring it into the fingers, which is called a digital grasp. You may see something like this in the second picture. That is at two to three years. This is with the elbow sticking straight out, and you might see this awkward posture. Then, we go into a modified grasp. This is where you want them to be. They do not need to have a perfect tripod at this time. They just need to have a modified tripod. This would be several of the fingers touching the shaft of the pencil and not just the two fingers, which is the tripod grasp. The tripod grasp does not come into play until four and a half to seven years old. If you have a preschooler that is using a perfect tripod grasp, that is phenomenal, but if not, that is ok. We just do not want to see the cylindrical grasp at this stage because that can be a detriment to later writing and can be habit forming. As an aside, there is research that shows that improper pencil grasp can cause arthritis down the road.

Language Development

The following skills are typically seen in the preschool years:

  • Answers “Who, What, Where” questions to environment and stories
  • Correctly names colors, people, objects and categorizes objects
  • Speaks in sentences of at least 4 words
  • Uses “I, me, you” correctly
  • Understands all that is said around them (within reason) at home or at school, has a vocabulary of over 2,000 words
  • Understands prepositional phrases such as under/over, top/bottom, inside/outside, big/little

For language development, they can now understand the who, what, and where questions both in the environment and in story form. They can correctly name colors, people, objects, and categorize objects. They speak in sentences of at least four words now. They can usually use the pronouns I, me, and you correctly. They understand pretty much all that is being said around them within reason at both home and school, and their vocabulary is over 2,000 words. They understand more of those prepositional phrases of under/over, top/bottom, inside/outside, big/little to help them understand the context of writing.

Visual Perceptual/Visual Motor Development

Visual perceptual and visual motor development includes the following skills:

  • Draws shapes: circle, cross, square, and triangle
  • Draws a person with at least 3 parts
  • Uses stencils and cutouts to draw simple shapes
  • Strings beads on a string, laces a lacing card
  • Completes interlocking puzzles
  • Connects dots and completes mazes
  • Writes first name in sequential order

They are now able to start to draw shapes like a circle, cross, square, and triangle. They can draw a person with three parts and a lot of times they look like these "potato people" in Figure 4.


Figure 4. Examples of early drawing.

They can use stencils and cut outs to draw simple shapes. These activities are fabulous because it is working on two hands, one stabilizing the paper and stencil and the other drawing. Stringing beads and lacing cards are other great activities for bilateral coordination. They can now complete puzzles, connect dots, and complete simple mazes or draw within paths. They can write their first name in sequential order.

Social Emotional Development

Social emotional skills during preschool include:

  • Learns to share and takes turns
  • Participates in group activities
  • Understands right from wrong
  • Rules guide behavior but believes rules can be changed
  • Friendships are situation specific
  • Experiences jealousy, anger, excitement, fear, and happiness

With social emotional development, they learn to share and take turns. They start to participate in group activities. They know right from wrong and that rules guide behavior, but they also know that rules can be changed. Friendships, in this stage, are situation specific. In one of my daughter's first days of preschool, she came home and said, "I have a new best friend." When I asked her what this friend's name was, she replied, "I don't know." She knew her name in the classroom, but it took a few days before she could remember it and say it at home. They are still experiencing those seven or those six hardwired emotions, but they do not have very many coping skills in preschool. This is why meltdowns are a little bit more prominent.

Early Elementary Child (6-8 years)

As we look at the early elementary child, I am going to focus on kindergarten age and what skills they need for school.

Physical Development and Motor Skills

Children six to eight years old are gaining the following skills:

  • Possesses motor planning and motor sequencing skills
  • Has ideation of movement
  • Uses a proper pencil grasp to write words, numbers, and sentences
  • Imitates detailed drawings
  • Cuts out a detailed picture with scissors
  • Cuts and spreads with a knife

By the time they go to kindergarten, they usually have all the physical skills that they need, but now they are getting more complex. They have ideation of movement and are able to create games on their own, like obstacle courses. They can now use proper pencil grasps. We need to start to look for a tripod grasp at this point. They are writing words, numbers, and starting to write sentences. They can imitate detailed drawings and cut them out. They can also cut and spread things with a butter knife.

Language Development

Here is a list of skills early elementary children are learning:

  • Answers “How” and “Why” questions
  • Can express feelings
  • Understands abstract concepts
  • Reads aloud and silently

In addition to the who, what, and where questions, they can now understand how and why questions. They start to express their feelings. When you have children who have an improper pencil grasp and they see handwriting as a challenge, they are not going to express this frustration or anxiety until they are in kindergarten. Again, you may see meltdowns as they are not able to express their feelings yet. They can now understand abstract concepts. Finally, they can read out loud and silently at this time.

Visual Perceptual/Visual Motor Development

Visual perceptual and visual motor skills they learn at this age include:

  • Knows right and left
  • Can read and write sentences
  • Completes simple math problems
  • Independently ties shoes

With their visual motor and visual perceptual skills, they know left from right now. They can read and write sentences and complete simple math problems. They also should be independent tying shoes at this time.

Social Emotional Development

In the early elementary years children:

  • Begin to understand and practice social roles
  • Can adapt behavior to fit different situations
  • Use alternative strategies for dealing with frustration and expressing emotion

In this area, they begin to practice and understand social roles, can adapt behavior to fit different situations, and ues those alternative strategies for dealing with frustration and expressing emotions.

Kindergarten Expectations

What is an expectation of a child going into kindergarten? When I was in kindergarten, we went half days, and we had a few recesses and a nap. Today, kindergarten is more like first grade of the past. Let's look at these current expectations.

  • Identify most, if not all letters of the alphabet
  • Write first name using upper and lowercase letters on line independently
  • Grip pencil, crayon, and marker with a tripod grasp
  • Count objects to 10
  • Categorize objects by shape, size, and quantity
  • Recognize common sight words such as “the,” “stop,” “dog,” and “cat”
  • Speak using complete sentences
  • Play independently with focus for at least 10 minutes

They need to identify most, if not all, the letters of the alphabet. They also need to know some of the letter sounds. They need to be able to write their name in both upper and lower case letters independently on a line. This can be really hard. I am in Florida, and our preschool children are not expected to write on a line. However, as soon as they get into kindergarten, they are expected to now write their first name on a line. If they have never had that practice in preschool, how are they going to be able to make that huge jump of understanding? Again, this is working with visual perceptual and visual motor skills. They need to be able to grip a pencil, crayon, or marker with a consistent tripod grasp at this time. Counting objects up to 10 is usually the standard. By the end of kindergarten, they should be counting at least up to 20. They should be able to categorize objects now by shape, size, and quantity, and recognize common sight words. They should also understand that letters create words. When I worked in kindergarten classrooms, many students, by October, were starting to write or copy sentences. They have to have some common sight word knowledge to do this. These are words such as the, stop, dog, and cat. They should speak using complete sentences and should be able to express their feelings, needs, and wants at this time. Finally, they should be able to play independently with focus for at least 10 minutes. This is looking at the concept of attention.

I often get called into classrooms to look at handwriting skills. Within the first 30 seconds of being in the classroom, I can identify whether the child has a handwriting issue by watching his behavior in the classroom without even seeing him write. If a child is bouncing around the room and unable to focus on the teacher or anything else going on, I know that child is not going to be able to focus on the small details of handwriting. For preferred activities, they may demonstrate more focus, but with something as challenging as handwriting, they may start to have behavioral problems. If you have a child that has a lot of attention concerns, there needs to be strategies put into place to work on his attention first before starting paper and pencil skills. 

Handwriting Requirements

How do we know if a child is really ready for handwriting?

  • Postural control to sit in the chair (90/90/90)
  • Proper pencil grasp
  • Bilateral coordination to write with one hand and stabilize the paper with the other
  • Grip strength and hand stabilization
  • Separation of two sides of the hand
  • Independent finger and wrist movements
  • Letter recognition and motor memory
  • Visual tracking with left to right sequencing
  • Understanding of positional terms (“Start at the top”)
  • Ability to draw straight, curved, and angled lines
  • Attention to detail and focus
  • Purpose and motivation
  • Ability to express frustration and ask for help

They need to have a good seated posture. We call it in the 90-90-90 position. Their hips, knees and ankles should be at 90 degree angles. You want to make sure that children are seated in chairs with their feet firmly on the ground. Many times, tables and chairs are all one size, but you have children of different heights. Table height should be about at elbow level when their hand is straight. If the table it too high or low, it might impair their handwriting, and visually, they will see letters differently. You want the child seated correctly before they start writing.

They also need to have a proper pencil grasp like we talked about. They also need to have good bilateral coordination because they need to stabilize the paper with one hand and write with the other. Grip strength and hand stabilization are also important. Often, you will see kids with a death grip on their pencil. They are holding it so tightly that sometimes they will develop a little bump on their finger. Others may hold a pencil or crayon very loosely in their hands which is not functional either.

We talked about the separation of the two sides of the hands. We want also want to see that tripod grasp with their other fingers curled into their palms. They also have to have independent finger and wrist movement and not use their whole hand for movement. They also need to have letter recognition and motor memory. Letter recognition is what the letters look like, and motor memory is the ability to write it without looking at it. A great activity is writing a letter on the child's back and seeing if they can identify the letter by feel. You can also use a file folder to restrict their sight while they are writing words or numbers on paper.  

They have to have good visual tracking left to right to prepare them for reading and writing. They also need to understand the prepositional terms. For example, they need to understand the statements start at the top, start it on the line, go up, and curve around. They should have the ability to draw straight, curved, and angled lines. If they can draw a circle, a cross, a square, and a triangle, they will know how to make lines that connect to make letters. For example, the triangle has diagonal lines for K, M, and N. When they can draw a square, they should be able to make the letter L or H.

We talked about attention and detail to focus. I have worked with children whose parents' goal was for them to be able to write their name, but cognitively they were functioning at a six month level. At this stage of development, they have no desire to want to learn how to write their name in sequential order. They do not understand. They need to be developmentally ready so that they understand why handwriting is important. They also have to have the ability to express frustration and ask for help when they need it. There is a lot that goes into handwriting. It looks like a simple skill, but when you really break it down, you see how it can cause such problems for children.

Handwriting Readiness Signs

The following signs will show you if a child is ready for handwriting.

Pre-Writing Shapes

We talked about shapes. I use this diagram daily when I am working with preschoolers.


Figure 5. Shapes per developmental level.

This is where you want them to be developmentally. They need to be able to draw these independently without a model. The vertical line is drawn first because it does not require crossing the midline of the body. At two and a half, children will start crossing midline and creating a horizontal line. At three years, they start to draw a full circle. At two and a half, you might see circular scribbles, but you see a perfect circle at three years. At three and a half to four years, they can make the two steps of the cross. Four years old is when they can start to really draw an accurate square. Now, at three and three and a half, they might imitate a square, but a lot of times, it will have curved corners and not distinct corners for a square. Oblique lines, or diagonal lines, come into play at about four and a half years old. This is where X's are important. They use diagonal lines in all those letters that I mentioned earlier. Finally, they can put it all together to make a triangle at five years old. A diamond shape is closer to six years old. It is really easy to teach writing shapes, especially to preschoolers or even younger. I make silly sounds as I am teaching it. I also sing The Wheels on the Bus while they are drawing. For example, "The people on the bus go up and down" for the vertical line. "The wipers on the bus go back and forth," for the horizontal. The wheels could be the circle and so on.  

Language in Handwriting

Again, they need to know those prepositional terms. Examples are:

  • On the line
  • Under the line
  • In between words
  • Straight down
  • Curve back
  • Slant right/left
  • All the way around

"Can you put the bear on the table?" "Can you put the bear under the table?" "Can you put the bear in between the books?" Have them show you a physical representation of those language skills before they start handwriting.

Visual Perceptual/Visual Motor Skills

Visual perceptual and visual motor skills needed to be ready for handwriting include:

  • Simple mazes, drawing within a path (visual motor)
  • Connecting images or dots (visual tracking)
  • Hidden pictures (visual figure ground)
  • Similarities and differences in pictures/letters (visual discrimination)
  • Pencil pickups (targeting)

Are they able to complete simple mazes, draw within paths, and connect the dots? These are great visual perceptual and visual motor skill activities that are a precursor to handwriting. You can also have those simple worksheets where you bring the bone to the dog by drawing a line. This is great for visual tracking. They need to use their eyes to coordinate with their hands when writing. Hidden pictures are another great activity like in the Highlights magazine. They also have great books that work on visual figure ground perception, a subcategory of visual perceptual skills. This skill translates over to them doing school activities like choosing a red crayon out of 30 crayons. They can also find the similarities and differences in pictures, which is visual discrimination. This is an important skill for differentiating between letters. I use another activity called pencil pickups. This is similar to Musical Chairs, where I play a song while they are writing. When the music stops, they have to drop their pencil, and then when the music starts again, they have to pick it up again. This helps them to practice their pencil grasp that is so essential. I also like to have them color in very small areas on the paper. This helps out with dotting I's, where to start on the paper, and things like that.

Benefits of Coloring

The benefits of coloring include: 

  • Tool use
  • Bilateral and visual motor coordination
  • Writing endurance
  • Fine motor skills and tripod grasp pattern
  • Spatial awareness
  • Sensory processing
  • Color identification and color matching
  • Creativity and self-confidence

Get your preschoolers and your toddlers coloring. Coloring is so important because it develops tool (pencils, crayons, markers) use. It strengthens their hands and helps them to develop bilateral coordination. Coloring helps also build writing endurance. It develops their fine motor skills, tripod grasp, spatial awareness, and making marks within a boundary. Coloring is a calming activity, and it can help with sensory processing. It also works on color matching, creativity, and self confidence. Please get your kids coloring, especially your boys. Girls tend to like to color, but boys need it as well.

Benefits to Cutting With Scissors

Children also need to cut before they start handwriting. The benefits of cutting with scissors include:

  • Independent movements of each finger
  • Strengthens hand muscles
  • Bilateral coordination skills (two-handed coordination)
  • Visual motor skills (eye-hand coordination)
  • Visual perceptual tasks (directionality)
  • Fine motor skills (separation of hand, finger dexterity)
  • Promotes grasp pattern
  • Focus and attention

Cutting gives children independent movements of each finger. Again, this is working on the separation of two sides of the hand and strengthens hand muscles. Bilateral coordination is also addressed when they have to hold the scissors in one hand and paper in the other. Often, you will see kids with their elbow all the way out to the side and the scissors upside down when they are cutting. An easy fix for this is to have them hold a piece of paper or a manilla folder between their arm and side to help them to stabilize their arm and bring their shoulder down. Then, they can hold the scissors correctly. The other thing I do is draw eyeballs on the scissors to cue them to the right position. Cutting on a line and switching directions are great visual motor activities. The positioning of the scissors in a child's hand also starts to work on the tripod grasp. It is important to educate your administrators as to why scissors are so important in kindergarten and preschool as it is a precursor for handwriting. Cutting, along with coloring, also help with focus and attention. If I have a child that does not want to write, I let them do some coloring and cutting activities, and they are able to calm themselves. 

Fine Motor Skill Activities

Here are some great fine motor skill activities that we can do as a precursor to handwriting:

  • Stringing beads
  • Using clothespins
  • Playdough activities
  • Pipe cleaner activities
  • Using tweezers
  • Squeezing glue from glue bottle
  • Small puzzles
  • Q-tip painting
  • Pegs and pegboards
  • Stickers on paper
  • Coins in bank slots
  • Nuts and bolts
  • Tearing paper
  • Pompom activities
  • Button activities
  • Hole punching

Stringing beads and clothespins both work on the tripod grasp and finger strength. You will be surprised at how many of your kids have a really hard time with opening a clothespin. Play-Doh activities work on the stability of the hand. You can have them take pipe cleaners and put them inside the holes of a colander. This works on eye hand coordination and fine motor skills. Another great one is using tweezers to pick up objects. You can pick them up and put them in cups or ice cube trays. How many preschoolers use glue bottles? Now, they use glue sticks due to less mess, but they are not getting the muscle input of squeezing the glue bottle to get a result. Using small puzzles or painting using Q-tips are other great activities. Pegs and pegboard activities and peeling stickers off sticker sheets and putting them on paper are other tasks I use. Putting coins in banks, screwing nuts and bolts, tearing paper, crumpling paper, and button activities are other great bilateral activities. Kids like using a hole punch, and it is also great for hand strengthening.

One of my favorite interventions is using pom poms. They are small and require a pincher grasp and can work on separation of two sides of the hand. When you have a child who is holding their pencil with a gross grasp, you can ask them to hold a pom pom in their palm. "Shh, don't tell anybody. It's magical." As they are holding the pom pom in their palm, they are forced to hold their pencil with their two fingers correctly. This might be challenging for them at first, but with practice, you will see a mature grasp develop. Pinterest is another great resource for fine motor skill activities. 

Is Your Child Ready to Write?

We need to ask ourselves:

  • Does he hold the pencil in his fingers?
  • Can she draw most pre-writing shapes?
  • Does he color within lines?
  • Is she able to cut on a line?
  • Can he string small beads on string?
  • Can she punch holes in paper with a hole puncher?
  • Does he use clothespins correctly?
  • Does she recognize upper and lowercase letters?
  • Does he recognize his first name in print?

Does the child hold the pencil in his fingers? Sometimes the child will hold a pencil way up here at the top or have a gross grasp on the pencil. To work on this, you can break a crayon, sharpen a pencil until it is very small or use a golf pencil. If the writing tool is very small, they need to use a tripod grip to hold onto it. Can they draw most of the pre-writing shapes? Do they color within the lines? Are they able to cut on a line? Can they string small beads on strings? Can they punch holes in paper with a hole puncher or use clothes pins correctly? Do they recognize upper and lower case letters? Do they recognize their name in print? If they can do most of this list, then they are ready to start to write.


There are many skills that go in to handwriting.  By understanding the child's brain and body during each developmental stage, we can help to provide the necessary support, structure, and encouragement for each stage.


Bishop, D. (2018, April)Developmental skills for - Early Childhood Education, Article 22699. Retrieved from

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dena bishop

Dena Bishop, OTR/L

Dena Bishop, OTR/L is a veteran pediatric occupational therapist specializing in school-based therapy for students with multiple diagnoses including ASD, ADHD, CP, and DD. She earned her B.S degree in OT from the University of Pittsburgh in 2000. Her 17 years of experience have granted her significant knowledge from the vast number of therapists she has collaborated with and the resources she has collected and implemented over the years. Dena has spent her entire career engaging and empowering students from 18 months through 21 years of age with diverse cultures while working in schools in OH, PA, CA, HI, and FL. She has academia experience as an adjunct professor for the OTA program at Polk State College in Winter Haven, FL. Her passion for OT and growth mindset continually challenges her to excel in her field.

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