Handwriting Skills

What are handwriting skills?

These days, technology is everywhere – from computers and laptops to smart phones and tablets. When you think about it, it’s almost as if kids are learning another language from the day they’re born – ‘computerlish’!

Don’t be fooled though: learning to write with an ‘old school’ pencil and paper is still very important for little miss or mister’s school journey.
Handwriting skills are about being able to write well, with control, efficiency and an appropriate pencil grip. 

(NB: click on the image to the left to watch a video for more handwriting info)

How do handwriting skills develop?

So, the answer to this question is actually quite complex but here’s the short and sweet version.

Handwriting skills form a bit of a cross-section between the development of movement, cognition (thought) and sense (especially vision) skills.

Now for a bit of a closer look at how these skills generally develop and their significance for handwriting. Read on!


From junior playing with their hands and feet as a newborn to learning to sit up aged 10 months old, movement works wonders in fostering your little one’s awareness of their body’s position in space.

Known as ‘body awareness’, it’s super important for developing efficient handwriting skills, especially pencil grip and pencil pressure.

Cognition (thought)

Holding a milk bottle, shaking a rattle, scribbling with a crayon – they’re all movements that require mental action (thought).

Thinking skills allow your youngster to concentrate, as well as to learn, store and recall letters so they can communicate through writing.


From wrinkly newborn to babbling baby then walking, talking toddler and beyond, your little miss or mister is constantly receiving information through their senses.

When they’re able to ‘process’ this information appropriately, your tyke may actually have the opportunity to enjoy handwriting.


Vision gets its own little section outside of the senses because it’s just that important for handwriting! From birth, junior has continuously been collecting, organising and storing visual information through their eyes.

Vision is especially crucial when it comes to recognising letters and being able to size letters correctly.

What do handwriting skills involve?

Handwriting skills involve a lot more than you’d initially think, including a range of handwriting-specific and complementary foundation skills. We’ve outlined them for you below.

Handwriting-specific foundation skills

  • Pre-writing patterns – understanding the directions of top to bottom, left to right and anti-clockwise to form the different letters correctly
  • Pre-writing shapes – being able to draw the shapes that form letters (e.g. circles, squares, lines)
  • Hand strength – having strong hand muscles that enable the preferred ‘tripod’ (three-fingered) grip that’s needed to hold a pencil correctly and write with appropriate pencil pressure, control and speed
  • Upper limb strength and stability – having strong, stable arms and shoulders to allow appropriate pencil control and pressure
  • Upper limb dissociation – being able to move the different segments of the arms (e.g. hand, wrist, forearm, upper arm, shoulder) independently from each other, which enhances pencil control by moving the fingers separately
  • Postural control – having good strength in the posture and being able to maintain an upright seated or standing position

Complementary foundation skills

  • Crossing midline – being able to move across the body with the eyes, arms or legs (e.g. using the dominant/preferred hand to cross over the body and write from left to right on the page)
  • Bilateral integration – using both hands and/or arms in coordination (e.g. one hand writing while the other hand holds the page)
  • Visual perception skills – using visual skills to recall letters, position them on the line and form them correctly
  • Coordination and motor (movement) planning – being able to carry out the steps to a task in a coordinated, organised way
  • Memory – being able to store and recall what the letters look like and the order they need to go in to form different words
  • Concentration – being able to maintain focus and complete a handwriting task

As you can see, it’s much more complicated than just holding a pencil and writing letters on a line!

What’s the best way for kids to learn handwriting skills?

Pre-writing shapes: a good place to start

If little miss or mister is around 3 or 4 years old, you might have noticed a few actual letters (or near letters) starting to appear within their scribbles.

Interestingly, though, it’s actually learning to draw pre-writing shapes (the circles, squares and lines that make up letters) that’s the first step towards junior being able to form letters.

Typically, children learn the circle, square and line pre-writing shapes in the following order:

  • 2–3 years old: horizontal lines, vertical lines, circles
  • 3–4 years old: crosses, squares, diagonal lines
  • 5–6 years old: triangles

Keep in mind, though, that everyone develops at a different pace and your youngster is no different. The above milestones are based on averages so they’re more like guidelines than deadlines.

Learning to write their own name

Once kids have learned the pre-writing shapes (circles, squares and lines) it’s a good idea to encourage them to write the letters in their name.

Being able to write their own name teaches little miss or mister that letters make up words, which further develops their understanding of letters and letter formation (including how to size letters, sit them on the line and write them using top to bottom, left to right and anti-clockwise patterns and movements).

Before you know it, junior will be scrawling their name on absolutely everything (but hopefully not the walls!).

Figuring out the other parts of handwriting

Eventually, with more practise and guidance your scallywag will learn the other components of handwriting, including:

  • Writing from left to right
  • Understanding uppercase and lowercase
  • Forming letters in the correct way (i.e. top to bottom, left to right, anti-clockwise)
  • Using appropriate letter sizing
  • Being able to orientate and angle their letters onto the line
  • Spelling words correctly

How do I know if my child is having difficulty with their handwriting skills?

Your child might be having difficulties with their handwriting skills if they struggle with tasks such as:

  • Sitting with ‘good’ posture so their back is straight and their feet are flat on the floor (‘postural control’)
  • Using the correct patterns/directions of top to bottom, left to right and anti-clockwise to write letters (letter formation)
  • Writing letters in the appropriate size (letter sizing)
  • Sitting their letters on the line (letter orientation)
  • Using an appropriate pencil pressure where the writing isn’t too faint to see or too dark and the pencil doesn’t pierce the page (related to ‘pencil grip’ and ‘hand strength and finger isolation’)
  • Recalling what specific letters look like (‘visual perception’)

Remember that, like all of the foundation skills, junior’s handwriting abilities will develop at a different rate to other kids their age.

The handwriting skill subsets

Now let’s delve into a bit more of the detail! Handwriting skills can be divided into these five broad categories or subsets:

  • Posture – maintaining an upright position with control
  • Letter formation – forming letters using the correct patterns of top to bottom, left to right and anti-clockwise
  • Letter sizing and orientation – placing letters in an appropriate size on the line
  • Pencil grip – adopting the preferred ‘tripod’ (three-fingered) grip that allows for optimal control and speed
  • Hand dominance – using a favoured or preferred hand

Each and every one of these subsets is important because they all contribute to your youngster’s speed, quality and control while writing.

Find out more about handwriting skills

Visit the postureletter formation,  letter sizing and orientation to the linepencil grip and hand dominance pages to find out more about the handwriting subsets, including how to spot if your child might be having difficulties with any of them.

Don’t forget that becoming a PlayBiz member gives you access to a comprehensive library of activities that will help you help your whippersnapper develop their crucial foundation skills!

This includes 2-minute Play-a-Short videos that give you and junior a fun and entertaining ‘therapist style’ demonstration of how to develop specific handwriting skills through playful activities such as drawing pre-writing shapes in shaving cream and sizing letters using coloured lines. Not only will your tot have fun, but they’ll be developing their letter formation, letter sizing and pencil grip skills too!

There are also the 10-minute Play-a-Long videos that combine several foundation skills for optimum effect. Picture a fun and educational TV program like PlaySchool crossed with an occupational therapy session that’s chock full of strategies to help develop your little one’s essential foundation skills.

Ready, steady, learn!

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Combined Videos

Combining several foundation skills, our PlayBiz Play-a-Long videos run for 10 minutes or so. We’ve carefully ordered the activities so they enable your youngster to have an optimal learning experience and develop the skills they’ll need for school by joining in the ‘teachable moments’. Picture a fun and educational TV program like PlaySchool crossed with an occupational therapy session that’s chock full of strategies. Ready, steady, learn! Please note: The Play-a-Long videos don’t need to be viewed in any particular order.