The pandemic has disrupted the last two academic years with on-and-off school closures and
the transition to online learning. Reports by educational organisations have also indicated that primary school children have been especially affected by these changes. Limited classroom times, coupled with the need for teachers to move on with the curriculum in other areas, have left many children struggling to meet learning milestones, including reading and writing skills.
In fact, the Juniper Education National Dataset Report, published in February 2021, reveals that children from all year groups struggled with meeting age-related goals and that the youngest children have been worst affected.
Frazer Westmorland, the headteacher of Mundella Primary School in Kent, the United Kingdom, agrees with the report’s findings. He says: “Younger pupils have certainly been the most affected from their time away from the classroom. A lot of skills, such as ‘how do I learn, listen, and collaborate’, are developed at school. They provide the building blocks which allow for progress in learning.”
Mr Westmorland adds that many of these children have likely not had enough opportunities to hone those skills at home. Because of this, he believes that schools will have to “go back to basics” and help them with those skills before they can progress with their learning.
But it’s not all doom and gloom—there are ways to support your child in the areas where they struggle with fun games outside the classroom.
Sue Cowley, an experienced teacher, trainer, and best-selling author, shares on her website that
children need to build a solid foundation to be able to write. More than simply tracing over letters repetitively, she says that children need to work on gross motor skills, fine motor skills, dexterity, bilateral integration, and posture. But what exactly are those skills, and how can you help your child develop them?
Gross Motor Skills and Posture
Gross motor skills allow us to do tasks that involve large muscles in our torsos, legs, and arms. They involve whole-body movements and are often forgotten when working on handwriting skills, even though they are essential.
Before your child can even hold a pencil, they need to be able to sit up and move their arm independently of their body. They need to be able to isolate and move their fingers independently. They also need good postural control of the neck, torso, and shoulders to allow for stability so that their fingers and hands can move to write.
How Can You Help
The key, with most children, is to ensure that you make the activities fun! No one wants to do extra chores when they could be playing, so here are some great activities to engage your children, plus the reasons why they can help:
- Hanging and climbing activities that engage the shoulder muscles—such as crossing the monkey bars and climbing trees—can help increase shoulder strength.
- Activities where they need to push or pull—like pulling a wagon, tug o’ war, or pushing someone on a swing—will strengthen your child’s shoulder muscles and help them learn how to co-activate. Co-activating your muscles is important because it is the process where sets of muscles contract simultaneously. Weight-bearing activities such as crawling or wheelbarrow walking are also great for this.
- Activities like yoga, pilates, and gymnastics can promote postural strength, core strength, and balance.
Gross motor activities don’t always have to be physically rigorous or even involve the whole body. These are also good options:
- Large art projects with paper hanging from a wall or easel allow children to express themselves while also reaching up, across, left and right.
- Skywriting—where you use your whole arm to form letters and words in the air—helps children get used to the idea of writing and engages vital muscles.
Fine Motor Skills and Dexterity
Fine motor skills refer to the group of skills involved in manipulating smaller objects with the hands and fingers, for example, grasping, holding, and pinching. Therefore, handwriting is mostly a skill that requires excellent fine motor responses. On the other hand, dexterity is the ability to use the hands skillfully in doing something, for example, writing.
In the formative school years, many of these skills are practised—cutting, sticking, building blocks, threading, and Play-Doh. Unfortunately, many children have missed out on months of developing these skills since the pandemic, which led them to fall behind or become reluctant writers.
How Can You Help
Practising these skills at home doesn’t have to feel school-like. There are many examples where you can keep your child engaged while helping to strengthen their fine motor skills without even picking up a pencil!
- LEGO: making intricate LEGO sets and clipping together the tiny pieces helps towards improving the dexterity of little fingers.
- Threading: whether you choose to thread Cheerios onto pipe cleaners to make your very own hungry caterpillar or to take a pipe cleaner and pretend it is a snake being pushed through holes in a colander, you are helping your child improve their hand-eye coordination and concentration skills.
- Dough Disco: with many tutorials and sessions on YouTube, having a dough disco is a great way to jump around and get those fingers working together—rolling, squishing, flexing, and squashing the Play-Doh to music.
- Origami: this is a great way to practise intricate folding and manipulation of paper.
- Typing: if your child dislikes the physical act of writing, you could introduce a keyboard and have their fingers flying over the keys.
- Painting: using paintbrushes and paint (or even water painting to save the mess!) stimulates similar muscles to when they’re writing.
- Colouring: of course, colouring allows children to hold colouring pencils in their hands. Sometimes, children will dislike the process of writing but will enjoy the art of colouring.
- Knitting and sewing.
- String games like Cat’s Cradle.
Bilateral integration is the ability to coordinate both sides of the body together in a controlled manner. An example of this is writing with one hand and supporting the paper with the other.
Integrated Learning Strategies, a US-based special needs school and learning centre, shared on its blog that academic skills rely on good bilateral integration.
According to that post, without bilateral integration, children will struggle with reading and writing. It also reads: “Any type of colouring, writing or drawing will be affected as well if bilateral integration is poorly developed. If the hand is not naturally able to cross the midline easily then the brain pauses to think out the movement instead of it being instinctual.”
How Can You Help
Again, practising these skills at home doesn’t have to be countless pages of writing and tracing letters. It can be a simple as the following activities.
- blowing bubbles and popping them with both hands
- playing catch and throw games, engaging both hands to work together
- tearing and crumpling paper/tissue paper for use in craft activities
- icing cookies and cupcakes—holding the cupcake steady with one hand and icing it with the other
The challenges of the last two or so academic years have made it harder for teachers to pinpoint where students could be struggling. Plus, the time during schooling hours to offer that extra support has been scarce, and many children have felt reluctant to do more school work during “home” hours to catch up. Although these exercises won’t solve those problems, they can help ease your child’s relationship with writing and make learning less challenging. And while they may not transform your child from a reluctant writer to a novelist, they could help them gain and improve some of the skills they will need to put pen to paper.
Of course, if you think your child needs more support than these tips can offer, please reach out to their teachers or other education professionals for more help.