Printing is one of those things that parents and teachers tend to put into the “just try harder” category. The thought is that more practice is needed. However, most unique learners who are struggling with printing have a physiological reason for their messy printing. In other words, the problem is in the way they use their body.

When students start out in Kindergarten, they have immature writing skills but progress in both speed and neatness over time. If a unique learner could have changed their messy printing, they would have. Believe me, there isn’t a fourth grader on the planet who wants their writing to look like a Kindergartner wrote it.

There are many reasons students struggle with printing as neatly and quickly as expected. For example, they might have pencil grip problems if the muscles in their hand, wrist, and fingers aren’t sufficiently developed.

The fine motor control needed to use a pencil or crayon requires the fingers to be free to move and wiggle while the wrist is firmly held still. Asking the wrist to do one thing (remain still) and asking the fingers to perform a different action (wiggle) is necessary for correct printing and writing (including numbers written for math).

If this developmental milestone hasn’t been reached, the child’s fine motor muscle system will be unable to separate the job of the wrist from the job of the fingers. This may mean trouble using a fork or spoon, brushing teeth or writing.

Additionally, using tools such as pencils, eating utensils, or paint brushes all require the combined action of multiple body systems. These other body systems involved in successful pencil control are fundamental building blocks. They include the ability to maintain posture, visual motor coordination, and a balance between hand muscle strength together with the gentle finesse of nimble movements.

The ability of a muscle to work in harmony with other muscles is referred to as muscle tone. Muscle tone requires good sensory processing. The sensory information coming into the brain, such as the sense of touch that feels the pencil in the hand, and the motor (physical) skill of recruiting the correct muscles to power the pencil, comprise a sensory-motor feedback loop. A correctly operating sensory-motor feedback loop is necessary to print successfully.

The feedback loop is operating correctly when the feel of the pencil in the hand informs the muscles to do the correct job. The muscles respond and then notify the sense of touch to continue manipulating the pencil as is or to make changes in the muscle tone. If the feedback from the muscles to the brain indicates the pencil is being held to lightly, then an intact sensory-motor feedback loop would say to the brain and then to the hand, “hold the pencil tighter”. The information and subsequent corrections that happen because of this sensory-motor feedback loop is the reason printing (or any physical performance) improves with practice.

There is a lot more involved in writing than meets the eye. Your unique learner’s messy printing may just be symptoms of what is happening inside their brain and body.

The good news is that there are fun activities that your child can do to improve their printing. Be creative and adapt the games in this article for your child’s age and ability level.

Here are some fun games that can help improve printing:

Pencil Grip

Using a water dropper or pipette helps train the fingers how to hold a pencil correctly.

Needed: Water dropper or pipette, small bowls, food coloring, water, paper towels, and a tray or something to protect surfaces. Non-staining food coloring is readily available – look for the type that would be used to color bath salts or soaps.

Game 1
Fill one small bowl with colored water. Have your child use the water dropper to transfer the colored water into a nearby (empty) bowl.

Game 2
Fill several small bowls with colored water (use one or more colors). Lay out a sheet of paper towel on a tray (to protect surfaces). Have your child use the water dropper to squeeze a few drops of water onto the paper towel. Different colored waters will help your child enjoy “painting” and develop their pencil grip at the same time.

Hand Strength

Lack of muscle strength and tone in the hands and fingers can contribute to messy printing.

Needed: Turkey baster, two or more medium size bowls, food coloring, water, Dixie (or other light paper cups) and a tray to catch drips.

This is similar to the water dropper game only in this game the child will use a turkey baster to move colored water from one bowl to another. This will require the child to squeeze with their whole hand (and maybe both hands) and will improve hand strength.

The turkey baster could also be used to knock down a pyramid of paper Dixie cups with a stream of water.

Wrist Strength and Stretching

When the muscles of the wrist are weak or tight, fine motor skills will be affected. Often this will appear to be the arm and elbow powering the movement required for printing.

Needed: Space to move around and play in, items to create an obstacle course (indoors or outdoors)

Set up an obstacle course with ordinary items. Have your child crab-walk* through the obstacles. This is more fun with friends! Have them crawl on all fours through the obstacles. You can even play chase this way with you either chasing them or them chasing you. Be aware that this should always feel like play. If your child begins to feel frustrated or fatigued by the game, it is time to change games!

(*Crab-walk: sit on the floor with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. Place your hands flat on the floor – slightly behind you with your wrists facing back. Using your arms and legs, lift your bottom off the floor. “Walk” either forward or backward. Over time, you will be able to sustain this position longer and move faster. In addition to naturally stretching and strengthening wrists, this also strengthens arms, legs and your core.)

Fingers and Wrist Working Together

Needed: Rice (you can actually color rice if you want to get really creative- check Pinterest for instructions), cotton balls, at least two bowls, spoon, a shoebox-size bin, and small toys.

Game 1
Fill the shoebox 1/3 – 1/2 full of dry rice. Stir in small toys or other small items. Have your child feel through the rice with their fingers to find the tiny objects.

Game 2
Have one bowl filled with rice or cotton balls. Have your child scoop up the rice or cotton balls with a spoon. Then have them transfer the rice or cotton ball to the other bowl. They must hold the fingers, elbow, and wrist very still while moving between bowls. When the spoon is positioned over the second bowl, have the child turn just their wrist so the rice or cotton balls drop into the bowl below. The goal here is to keep the fingers steady while the wrist moves.

These games are likely to keep your child happily playing while improving their printing skills. (Shh! Don’t tell them – they will think they are having fun!)

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Suzanne Cresswell Administrator
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