Category Archives: Child Development

Fine motor skills, handwriting, or writing? What’s the difference?

I recently received a call from a program administrator asking for an opinion on a practice that was concerning to her. Several parents have enrolled their preschoolers in an enrichment program based on “Handwriting Without Tears.” The parents are telling her their preschool children need to know how to write before they enter kindergarten, so the enrichment program has been very popular, for the parents. The administrator asked if, indeed, children do need to know how to write, and what did I think of this practice?

First, let’s sort out the difference between fine motor skills, handwriting, and writing, and what exactly is developmentally appropriate for preschoolers.

Fine motor development is all about strength and control of the small muscles in the hand.

Developmental progression of fine motor skills involves the mastery of the following:

A young child using this grasp will tend to grab indiscriminately at objects, hoping that something stays within his/her grip. Chubby crayons, puzzles with large knobs, and fingerpainting all support development of the palmer grip. As the name implies, gripping an object is mostly done by placing the object in the palm of the hand and closing the fingers around it.

As children’s hand strength and coordination improves, the pincer grasp involves grasping an object between the finger(s) and thumb, allowing more control over smaller objects. Picking up an individual Cheerio, playing with clay, and stringing beads support development of the pincer grip.

Development of eye-hand coordination involves the strength and control of the fingers and hand, as well as the ability to visually focus attention on what the hand and fingers are grasping and how to control the movements of the fingers and hand to accomplish a task. The above tasks all involve some amount of eye-hand coordination, but a child’s developmental maturity will influence how successful he/she is at each task.

Handwriting is all about the proper way to form letters and words, typically using paper and pencil.

Handwriting is NOT a developmentally appropriate skill until a child is in first grade. Where many early childhood educators get stumped is on how to promote the proper grip for holding crayons and pencils. Google the word “handwriting” and you’ll find many, many links to downloadable worksheets for handwriting practice. As a skill, handwriting involves many steps:

  • Knowing the letters
  • Visual perception skills, i.e. being able to interpret and understand what is seen
  • Following a sequence of steps
  • Controlling the pencil on paper to stay within the guidelines
  • Repeated practice of individual letters or groups of letters
  • Understanding left to right progression
  • Understanding top to bottom progression
  • Tracking the movement of the hand, the pencil, and the paper

Writing is about putting your ideas on paper.

Communicating ideas so that others understand what you want to say is a lifelong skill. Written communication begins in toddlerhood with the first marks a child makes with paper and crayon, and maybe even a wall. There are fairly universal typical stages of writing development and drawing development in children. Writing for young children takes many forms:

  • Making marks on a page
  • Scribbling with crayons
  • Drawing or painting a picture
  • Using letter like shapes and symbols to represent words
  • Writing words, phrases or sentences
  • Drawing a sequence of pictures to tell a story

So what is really important for a 3 or 4 year old? Is it forming the perfect letter “a” on a page, or drawing a picture of your family and scribbling to represent their names?

Legible handwriting is important, for an elementary school age child, but what is far more important is the ability to express your ideas. In preschool, attention should be focused on providing a wide variety of activities and experiences that build fine and gross motor skills, eye-hand coordination, the opportunity to express ideas in multiple ways. Handwriting has other important benefits, besides the formation of letters, however, as a developmental skill, handwriting success doesn’t come until children are in Kindergarten and First grade.

Handwriting emphasizes one right way to put the letter on the page. It involves many coordinated skills, as well as lots of repetition in order to master this skill. Handwriting Without Tears claims it is a research based program, the research cited does not explicitly state that handwriting practice is an essential early childhood skill. The research quoted references the need for children’s play, and the development of language and literacy skills. All of this can be accomplished in well- developed program that focuses on best practices in early childhood education.

Written communication emphasizes expressing yourself so that others understand your message.

Some might even argue that handwriting is becoming obsolete with the growth of electronic media. We all know what spell check has done for us! . However, there will always be a need for well-written thank you note.

Success in school and in life depends on how well you are able to communicate your ideas, not how neatly you form your letters.

As much as I despise standardized tests, none of the tests out there measure handwriting ability, but they sure do measure how well you can communicate your ideas. Early childhood screening tools don’t measure handwriting ability. Screening tools measure fine motor skills, and communication skills.

So what’s a parent to do?

Find ways to support your child’s fine motor development. Roll and throw the ball to your child. Vary the size and texture of the ball. Paint. Color. Play with clay. Make pizza dough. Practice using a mixing spoon in a bowl. Use tongs to place pom poms in an ice cube tray. String beads. Do jigsaw puzzles. Use stampers and ink. Play in the sand. Dig in the dirt. Build with blocks. Race cars around a track. In a nutshell, PLAY!

Encourage your child to express his ideas. Tell stories. Ask your child questions about what interests her, why he likes or doesn’t like something, or how he solved a problem. Read books. Make predictions, about a story, about the weather, about what might happen next, about a game. Talk to your child. Have a conversation. PLAY together. BE together. The rest is icing on the cake!

Re-thinking teacher development

I just started teaching Child Growth and Development at the local community college, and most of my students have indicated that they intend to some day work with children, in some capacity. The first few classes have been quite interesting for me, as I try to get know my students. Many do not yet have hands-on experience with young children, some have children of their own. Child development theories and research are new to ALL of them. And this is a required class for any person pursuing work with young children in any capacity.

As I’ve reviewed our text to prepare for class, I’ve tried to find ways to make the technical and sometimes jargon filled content more relatable and tangible. What I’m finding so fascinating is that as an experienced educator, I can easily identify caregiving practices that are linked to specific development theories. But for my students, who have little or no work experience with children, that connection is irrelevant. Not only is there a lack of application of course content in their day to day lives, there is a lack of connection to the importance of understanding child development and why it is a critical element for successful teaching and caregiving.

In my role as trainer and consultant, I am constantly reading books and articles related to child development and best practices. I still find new research and its application fascinating. I believe in the importance of lifelong learning, but I meet many teachers who believe that they have a degree, and that’s good enough.

For some time, I have been concerned about the general lack of understanding of child development that I see in many teachers, new and experienced. Expectations of children are not aligned with DAP or any type of developmental continuum. In these classrooms, I see kindergarten skills being practiced in a 3-year old classroom. When I ask a teacher how she chose a specific activity, or what resource she used, the answer is often “I’ve always done this.”

This brings me back to my challenge with my community college students. If there is no pertinent reference point for understanding child development in a practical way, then everything I teach this year will become stuff to learn for the test, rather than stuff to learn for success as a caregiver. The child development information from this course will soon be tossed aside at the start of a new semester and new classes. The textbooks will either be sold back to the bookstore, or will gather dust on the shelf.

I have to admit, when I was in college, I memorized the developmental theories for the test, and never looked at that information again. Until I needed it for real life work with children.

Now, I wonder if our teacher education system is set up backwards. If understanding child development and developmental theories are crucial to understanding and implementing best practices, shouldn’t we wait and teach this information when our students have some hands-on experience working with children?

Shouldn’t we focus on training potential teachers on communication skills, how to have a conversation with a child, and how to ask open ended questions to extend learning?

Shouldn’t we focus on relationship building skills, so teachers know how to observe children to build relationships, and how to create partnerships with parents, and how to work as a professional in collaboration with other colleagues?

Shouldn’t we focus on training potential teachers on how to observe in a functional way rather than in a clinical way? If our only experience with observation is to sit on the side of the room while in someone else’s classroom or caregiving setting, with no interaction with children, we never learn the skills of observing and documenting while engaging in play with children.

If we want teachers to focus on learning through play, shouldn’t we include understanding the fundamentals of play in our pre-service coursework? Shouldn’t we give new teachers the tools to explain all of the learning that happens when children are playing so they are not constantly battling the play vs. academics challenge? And shouldn’t we encourage new teachers to personally engage in play?

Shouldn’t we focus on understanding what responsive caregiving is, what it looks like, and how it benefits children? This includes the power of differentiated instruction.

These are skills that all education professionals need to be successful, but so many pre-service training programs do not include them in their coursework. If we understand how to BE with children and how to build relationships with children, then the child development theories will start to make more sense. Then we can actually apply child development theories to support children’s play and learning.

New teachers and caregivers spend so much of their time figuring out how to make it through the day because we haven’t given them the skills to communicate and build relationships. So of course, the child development information gets tossed out the window.

Maybe it’s time to re-think teacher development, and focus on the power of play and the power of relationships, so we can start to recognize the importance of and value of understanding child development.