As an occupational therapist for school age children, one of the things I work on a lot of the time is the development of age-appropriate graphomotor skills (the combination of cognitive, perceptual and motor skills that lead to drawing and writing). For most kids, this is a skill that they learn naturally and without much support required. However, for some, this can be a really frustrating thing for some kids I work due to a variety of reasons. For some, decreased grasp strength and manipulation skills makes it challenging for some kids to have the endurance to write for long periods of time. Some kids may have visual motor and perceptual difficulties so they may have a hard time learning how to draw or learn how to write letters and numbers. Then there are the children with learning challenges.
No matter what is causing them to have trouble with the development of graphomotor skills, my job is to make sure that when I am working with the kids, that I make it as fun as possible. I try and with so I try and make it as fun as possible. I also like to come up with activities and ideas that can be done at home with parents and caregivers so they can practice and generalize the skills. And for a variety of reasons, I try and come up with ideas that don't require the use of pen and paper. Not only is it better for our environment, kids tend to think that the activity is less work and more fun if you don't require them to use an actual writing instrument.
Below, I share a handful of the products and activities I have found to be helpful in teaching kids how to draw and write without using pen/pencils and paper. They are things that I have not only found useful at the gym when working with kids, but have also heard from parents that they can use at home with success.
Etch-A-Sketch-I remember using an Etch-A-Sketch as a child and always being frustrated by not having the coordination, motor planning or creativity to make something cool on an Etch-A-Sketch. In the end, I would have some crazy looking mess on the screen! So when I was in a local store (Stoopher and Boots) on the UWS, and saw the newest version, the Etch-A-Sketch Freestyle Drawing Pad, I knew I had to get it for work. There are a lot of things I like about this for handwriting purposes. First of all, it comes with a stylus attached to it; it is the perfect size for little hands and encourages a proper grip for my emerging writers. It's lightweight and and doesn't take up much space making it perfect for throwing into a backpack or bag when traveling.
Boogie Board-I've been a big fan of the Boogie Board for years and always have a couple of them in the gym. This LCD writing tablet is a great way to work on improving graphomotor skills. I love how the Boogie Board has evolved over the years and now there are 3 different kinds that were designed for kids. We use the traditional Boogie Board to create lists with the kids who require more structure and routine to be successful in the sessions. After they complete each activity, they check it off. I really like the Scribble n' Play board because it is colored and comes with 4 different kinds of stylus' (each with a different tip) to use when drawing on it. The Magic Sketch set is another favorite with the kids. This set comes with a see through screen that allows kids to trace pictures, letters, numbers, etc.. It also comes with 4 different kinds of writing instruments, a roller stamp, 3 stamps and 60 stencils with different kinds of activities. All of the Boogie Boards are lightweight and can be thrown in your bag making it perfect for traveling, entertaining kids at a restaurant or while waiting for appointments.
Buddha Board-this simple toy is great for working on drawing and handwriting. The Original Buddha Board comes with a board to draw on, a bamboo paintbrush and a stand to prop the board in to. Kids dip their paintbrush into water and draw away. What I really like about the Buddha Board is that it requires nothing but water....there is no ink to stain clothing. I also like how the stand allows for the board to propped up so kids can work on a vertical surface which we know is great for kids.
LetterSchool is one the most popular apps amongst all my kids; nobody ever complains about having to practice writing when I bring this app out. Whenever kids use the iPad, they have to use a stylus so we can work on grasp development at the same time. My favorite one is the Cosmonaut stylus; it's a bit more expensive, but it's incredibly durable and is wider than most of them which encourages a tripod like grasp. Another app I use a lot for drawing and writing is Bord, which turns your iPad into a chalkboard. Kids like that they can choose the color
Legos-for some kids, using Legos can motivate them to do just about anything! In my gym, we have a big container of extra Lego pieces so we can allow the kids to be more creative when playing with them. Years ago, I bought these Lego Mosaic sets that come with tons of little square cubes and see-through baseplates so you can copy picture designs. Recently, I have been writing letters on paper and having the kids practice writing their letters this way. Another thing I am hoping to add to the gym I work in is installing a couple of large Lego baseplates onto a wall on the gym so kids can use our extra Legos to practice making letters, numbers and shapes. One of the reasons I like this activity is that it also works on improving grasp strength and in-hand manipulation skills at the same time. Additionally, if you have a baseplate on the wall, you can have kids work on a vertical surface which is great for increasing upper extremity strength, shoulder stability and core strength.
Cookie Sheet with Sprinkles-another fun way to practice drawing and writing is by putting different kinds of foods on a cookie sheet or a baking pan (cover the entire surface) and either having the kids use their fingers or a paintbrush to draw. Some ideas of foods that can be used are rice, beans and sprinkles. This is an easy activity to grade for kids at different levels. For example, younger kids can copy letters or shapes from flashcards while older kids can write them with just a verbal prompt from a grownup. If you have a child who has an immature grip on writing instruments, make sure to provide them with a paintbrush so they can work on that at the same time. If you have a child with tactile defensive tendencies, this would be a good activity to do with them.
Alphabet Stamps by Lakeshore Learning because they have a nice handle for the kids to hold onto. Have the the kids roll the playdough out and start making "cookies" or press the stamps into the playdough. If using cookie cutters, you can have them match letters on a puzzle or alphabet placemat or write the names of all your family members on pieces of paper and have them match the letters to the names. For older children, you can have them form playdough into letters without any kind of visual prompt provided.
This activity has an added benefit of working on improving fine motor strength and manipulation skills, encourages bilateral coordination and can work on improving visual motor and perceptual skills.
Shaving Cream/Bathtub Crayons-I like to offer activities to parents that are easy to fit into a schedule. So many parents feel guilty about not being to spend as much time working on occupational therapy goals so I try and come up with ideas that are easily built into their routine. An easy thing to do is work on handwriting and drawing during bath time using shaving cream. Have kids spray a generous amount on the wall and have them practice drawing shapes or pictures and writing letters and numbers. Mr. Bubble has kid-friendly shaving cream that can also double as soap to clean your kids. Some kids are resistant to touching shaving cream so you can also check out these awesome Bathtub Crayons by Crayola (these might be even better for some of your older kids so you can sneak in some work on pencil grip!).
In addition to being great for graphomotor skills, this activity also works on increasing upper extremity strength, shoulder stability and core strength because they are working on a vertical surface. This could also be a fun chance to work on social skills with a sibling by having them create scenes together or play games like Tic-Tac-Toe or Hangman.
Dry Erase Boards/Chalkboards-one of my top recommended gifts on my annual gift guide, especially for pre-schoolers, is an upright chalkboard. It's a great way to encourage creativity and introduce young children to letters and numbers. At the same time, kids can work on increasing upper extremity strength, shoulder stability and core strength while having fun. As kids get older, I have found that they tend to like a dry erase board better. My daughter loves to practice her spelling words on her portable dry erase board. One thing I like to do with the kids at work with both my portable chalkboard and dry erase board is to write letters, have the kids erase them and then write them again. This multi-step way of practicing helps them learn quicker. Plus, they can practice, make mistakes and not worry about wasting a ton of paper.
For many of the families I work with, an upright chalkboard may take up some precious real estate in their already cramped apartment so I couldn't have been more excited to find removable chalkboard and dry erase panels at Paper Source. The Wallies Chalkboard Panels and the Writeyboard are removable sheets that can go on a wall or back of the door....or anywhere really....without taking up
Things to keep in mind with handwriting:
*Providing a multi-sensory approach to learning how to write not only makes it more fun for children, it helps them retain the information more effectively.
*When possible, have kids work on a vertical surface. Working on a vertical surface is great for improving wrist and shoulder stability which is required for the development of fine-motor and manipulation skills. It's also great for working on improving core strength and encourages good posture.
*Don't push kids too much during handwriting tasks. If you see they are fading out or getting frustrated, take a break or switch the activity up. We want to make sure that kids are having fun and learning instead of having it be something anxiety producing.
*Find things that interest a child (characters, sports, etc.) and incorporate them as much as possible into handwriting activities. For example, for some of my older kids who are really into sports, I have them practice by writing sports teams or their favorite players.
As you can see, there are a lot of ways to make drawing and writing fun without picking up an actual pen and wasting paper. Do you have activities that you do at home or at work with your kids that they love? I would love to hear your ideas and know my readers would as well. I am always a click away and love getting new ideas to put into practice at work and at home with my own daughter.