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Handwriting Day - good muscle tone for best technique

What are the long-term implications of poor handwriting technique? And how can you improve your own?  

In honour of Handwriting Day, celebrated on 23 January, University of the Western Cape (UWC) occupational therapists Aziza Kalam and Inge Sonn-De Minck share their views on the kind of challenges school-going children (and the adults they become) face with handwriting - and how to tackle them through occupational therapy.

“From my observations over the past 18 years, it seems more and more children have been coming to me with handwriting problems,” Kalam says. “They are struggling with low muscle tone which affects their basic handwriting basic skills: they can’t sit upright in a chair, they don’t have a proper pencil grip; and it all comes back to the underdevelopment of gross motor skills.”

The tripod grip allows you to control the overall shape of your letters, but if you’re not holding the pencil properly, your letter formation is not as good, resulting in illegible handwriting.

So why does it matter if your handwriting technique is bad, and reading your words need a magnifying glass and an interpreter?

Sonn-De Minck explains, “In everyday life most people still don’t have access to laptops and tablets or access to the internet or electronic versions of forms and need to fill in forms manually. It's mostly government organisations that still require forms to be filled in manually for purposes such as renewing car licenses, and so on.”

Poor handwriting has a severe impact in higher grades and at university level.  

“Those who haven’t adopted the proper handwriting technique, may have the habit of moving their entire body across the page as they write. This leaves students physically exhausted, meaning that they’re not easily able to complete a long exam,” she notes. “And this inevitably affects their final mark.”

Furthermore, usually if there is a problem with handwriting, then there is most likely a problem with other fine motor tasks as well, Sonn-De Minck adds - such as tying buttons or fastening school laces, learning how to sew or knit, or even holding a knife and fork when eating or cutting with a scissor.

Nip it in the bud: Handwriting, muscle tone and infant development

The formative years are important, too, and developing healthy overall muscle tone is critical right from the infant stage. Allowing the child to naturally progress through normal physical (or developmental) milestones is important - and not always easy in a modern context.

“It is a well-known fact that society has changed,” Kalam notes. “Children play Playstation and watch a lot of television. Even toddlers spend a lot of time on electronic appliances like tablets.”

She warns that new parents shouldn’t neglect ensuring their children progress through the normal development stages.

“Some new parents don’t want their growing babies to crawl, because they don’t want them to be exposed to germs or to dirty their brand-named shoes. But babies should learn to crawl and climb. Going under, over and around things are important for the development of three-dimensional perception. And crawling encourages the stretching of hand muscles – which is good for mastering handwriting technique.”

Putting children in walking rings too early is bad for developing good muscle tone, and you shouldn’t carry your young child in a carrycot all the time.

“Children need to experience the sensation of travelling through space. The vestibular senses (to do with balance in the ear) need to be stimulated.”

The same goes for older children who don’t play outside anymore - because they didn’t develop the habit in their younger days, or because it is simply not safe for them anymore.

“Playing outside, climbing trees and crawling through obstacles develop that gross muscle tone, which is how the most important motor skills are being developed,” says Kalam.

The good news: improving muscle tone for better handwriting

But there’s good news: low muscle tone is not preventable, but it can be improved with regular occupational therapy - and if it is identified early enough in a child’s life, it could be rectified with short-term occupational therapy sessions.

“People are born with low muscle tone; so one can't change the tone of the muscle, but you can increase the muscle strength. It will improve the child's functional abilities to help them complete tasks such as performing handwritten tasks.”

Useful exercises for developing a young child’s handwriting skills:

  • Hand painting;

  • Papier-mâché;

  • Elastic games with your fingers;

  • Marbles – eye/hand coordination;

  • Playing physical games on the playground;

  • Paper weaving.

General exercises for developing healthy muscle tone:

  • Swimming

  • Horse riding

  • Anything that involves climbing, crawling and going around objects.

  • Karate

  • Ballroom dancing

  • Ballet

  • Gymnastics