Handwriting: Let’s start at the very beginning

From developing fine motor skills to building sufficient core strength, the early years are an important window for development when it comes to handwriting. find out how handwriting begins and how you can help your child to build a strong foundation for their developing handwriting skills.

‘My child’s handwriting is so messy’... 

‘We’ve been doing lots of writing practise but it’s just not getting any better’...

 ‘It’s neat one minute and then looks like a spider has crawled across the page the next!’...

These are common concerns for many parents.

It’s more complex than you think

At face value, the process of handwriting can appear to be an easy task to master. But is the art of handwriting as simple as it seems?

Well, no. In fact, it’s far from it. To really understand the process, we need to break down the three Ps – Pace, Posture and Pencil grip to help a child confidently put pen to paper.

So, here’s everything that you need to know about how handwriting really starts and some expert advice on helping your child to develop a strong foundation from which to build their handwriting skills.


The crucial thing to remember is that every child develops at their own pace and the skills that they need to hold a pencil, mark make and eventually form words and pictures develop at different times. These skills are referred to as pre-writing skills and essentially there are two of them: posture and pencil grip.


It has a huge effect on the development of handwriting and all stems from good core strength. When writing, a child needs to sit and maintain their balance without using their hands. They also need to control their trunk and shoulder muscles so that they can reach forward in a controlled way. It seems easy but when we consider that this stage begins in the first few months of life, it puts the complexity of doing all those things simultaneously into perspective. Developing postural control is essential and without it, handwriting will always be a laboured process.

There are several ways to develop strong postural control in pre-schoolers and primary children. The most effective activities are also fantastic for supporting the use and development of gross motor skills (larger movements made by the body).


  • playing on playground and park equipment
  • swimming
  • dancing
  • painting
  • ball play
  • trampolining
  • wiping or cleaning surfaces such as tables or windows (winner!)

The more a child participates in these sorts of activities the stronger their core will become, leading to great postural control.

Pencil grip

Children must have well-developed hand use to allow them to accurately control a pencil. Initially, they’ll learn to grasp objects with their whole hand, manipulate them and move them around. When you see a baby grabbing blocks or rattles, this is exactly what is happening. As hand strength and dexterity improves this develops into a pincer grip where they pick up objects up using the tips of the thumb and index finger and finally the tripod grip begins to make an appearance where the thumb, index and middle fingers are used to grasp objects.

Getting to the stage of a well-developed tripod grasp is no mean feat and when broken down like this, we can understand that even for children with good fine motor skills, holding a pencil is a not as simple as it first appears and begins way before school age.


  • playing with construction toys
  • threading
  • cooking
  • playdough
  • colouring
  • puzzles
  • using buttons and zips
  • using keyboards 

Using these activities to generate and engage children in play are the most effective ways to develop the co-ordinated fine motor skills required for writing.

What to look for

The diagram below is simply a guide to development and we need to remember that children won’t necessarily fall neatly into the age phases.  They are based on principles of grasp and pencil grip development (Erhardt, 1994)


If your child is holding a pencil in relaxed way without too much pressure between the tips of their thumb, index and middle fingers, it’s a good indication that they have mastered the tripod grasp.  You’ll also see that the pencil will be resting on their hand between the thumb and index finger with the ring and little fingers held away from the pencil bent slightly into the palm.

Seated position

This can make a world of difference. It’s important that any chair and table is the correct height. A good seated position will mean a child’s feet will be flat on the ground, their bottom right back in the seat and their knees and hips bent to around 90 degrees, with the table just above the height of their elbow.

They WILL!

If your child is not yet at the stage where there is fluidity to their handwriting – don’t panic! You could try using a Pencil Grip, such as the Soft Pencil Grip to help them get used to what a good grip and hand position feels like.  Understanding the development of handwriting is vital as it begins at such an early age– don’t rush them. Perseverance and engaging them little and often in the activities mentioned is the key and will strengthen and develop the skills needed. They WILL get there in the end

By Jennie Adams on 7th December 2017 

 Also published by Happy Little Bundles. 

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