Around this time of year I often am asked about getting children ready for school and how to be sure they will be ok. It’s a stressful time for parents and sometimes the buzz around getting ready to “go to the big school” can be counter productive with children becoming overly anxious. I always try to reassure parents that children generally find going to school far easier than their parents 😉
One subject of stress in getting ready for school is worrying about whether a child can write their own name. This is historically something many parents feel is a necessity and almost a badge children can wear, proving they are ready for school.
In consequence I thought it might be worth writing somethings down about how children develop the skills to be able to write.
Long ago when I was first studying child development I was told that children develop from the inside to the outside. So, the first muscles to develop are the core body muscles and we see that when babies first start to be able to sit up and balance themselves without falling over. The progression here is that the muscles closer to the body develop before those further away. So, shoulder muscles before elbow muscles before wrist and before fingers. A child will not have the dexterity to use their fingers well until they have first developed strength and control in the larger arm muscles.
As early years professionals we are looking to monitor children’s use of muscles (among other things!) and provide activities that promote their development.
It surprises many parents that activities such as climbing, sweeping, digging and sawing are actually pre-curser activities to mark making and writing. These activities build strength and control in the large muscles which will subsequently allow children to begin to develop the smaller ones. The smaller muscles are the trickiest ones to develop but again there are a range of fine motor skills we use to develop the complex set of muscles and joints in the hand. Play dough and similar soft squidgy manipulation type activities are a great way of encouraging development while songs such as Tommy Thumb or signing in Makaton encourage children to isolate their fingers and manipulate them individually.
Writing however is not all about hand and arm muscles, there is also brain development required to allow proper coordination. The most well known form is probably hand-eye coordination which allows us to control hand movements by sight. Children need activities such as cutting, pouring, throwing, catching and writing to develop this skill. Bilateral coordination is the control of both sides of your body. Its generally fairly straightforward to do the same thing at the same time with both sides of your body, for example jumping, or to be able to do the same thing at different times with both sides of the body, eg walking where both feet go forward at different times. Harder is doing something completely different with either side of the body. Activities such as stirring a mixture in a bowl with one hand while holding the bowl still with the other is an example of activities which will develop bilateral coordination.
Its fair to say that there is a lot of body development required before a child is ready to write and, as always, some children develop these skills long before others. Its also fair to say that forcing a child to write before they are ready is counter productive. We want writing to be something a child is keen to do and if we push them too hard before they have developed the necessary control then children’s confidence can suffer and they can develop stress and anxiety about their abilities. We want to encourage children to want to write as well to be able to write. In playgroup we aim to encourage children to be involved in many different activities, developing not only physical skills but also their social and emotional ones. Our aim is that, by the time a child starts school, these will all contribute towards the child developing the skills required to write not only their name but also to having the creativity, imagination and concentration to write far more.