10 Must-Haves in your Handwriting Tool Box
by Katherine J. Collmer, M.Ed., OTR/L
on the Handwriting is Fun! blog
Helping students work on their handwriting development skills is fun and exciting! And there are so many cool games, gadgets, toys, and widgets out there to gather up and hoard in our OT Tool Boxes. Unfortunately, too much of a good thing leads to….well, too much of a good thing! It’s often necessary to weed out the extraneous (no matter how many you were able to buy at The Dollar Store!) and pick out the tools that will serve the needs of your diverse groups of children in the most efficient manner. Those are the gadgets and widgets that can be used in multiple ways to address a variety of developmental skills for children within a wide age range and who have many types of diagnoses. Yes, it can be done!
My OT Tool Box has traveled with me from Maine to Maryland to Massachusetts and finally to Arizona. It has held basically the same items for all these years, beginning in the days when I was new to the pediatric scene until these times when I’ve got the thought of retirement tucked away in the peaceful, relaxing spot in my mind. I’m sure you have some type of box or bag that holds your treasured items, as well. I thought I’d share my must-haves in the hopes that you will share yours, too! Here goes!
My OT Tool Box
All of my sessions are organized in the same way:
- Gross Motor Warm Ups
- Vision Skill Warm Ups
- Visual-Perception Work
- Fine-Motor Work
- Functional Handwriting Tasks.
So, I’ve organized my tool box outline in the same manner.
Gross Motor Warm-Ups:
- Balls and balloons are indispensable to me! A foam ball or two and a bag of balloons can carry us through balance and movement actions that
also provide a touch of vision challenges. Reaching, throwing, catching, kicking, and juggling are great ways to warm up the large muscles and to prepare the body’s core for fine motor work. These are the muscles that help children sit appropriately and quietly while they work on handwritten assignments.
- Yoga – can you beat it for covering just about every muscle group need there is? While balls and balloons provide action movements to wake up the muscles, yoga positions help the muscles pay attention to the commands directed at them. Sitting with appropriate posture requires both strong and coordinated muscles. And best yet, yoga is a double-duty activity. Performing yoga exercises at the beginning of a session helps to prepare the large muscles, as well as the brain, for the precision work ahead. Including yoga positions at the end of the session gives the large muscles time to reenergize with oxygen and provides the student with a cool down period before reentering the classroom.
There are many free downloadable yoga charts on the internet with moves designed just for children. It’s important to choose ones that provide easy-to-understand directions in case you want to include them in the student’s home program.
Vision Skills Warm-Ups:
- The Cotton Ball Game* has been a favored vision skill assessment and remediation tool for both me and my students for quite some time now. It’s a great way to warm up the eyes and the visual system for both close and distance work. Blowing on a straw addresses divergence, or the ability of the eyes to move outward simultaneously and focus together on an object in the distance to produce a single picture. This skill is especially helpful during copying-from-the board activities. Convergence, or the ability of the eyes to move inward simultaneously during close work, is addressed by sucking on a straw. Just a cotton ball or two and a few straws can be magically turned into target or carry games that address these important vision skills.
Have your students create and produce a target as part of their fine-motor work and then use it in the next session to warm up their eyes in the Cotton Ball Game. They can move the cotton ball along a track (created with masking tape) by blowing through the straw or carry it across the table toward the target by sucking on the straw to keep it stuck there. Your students will love creating the track on the floor or a table, making intricate maze designs that will challenge their vision skills.
- Word Search Books (or free downloadable puzzles) come in very handy for vision skill warm-ups. It is important to prepare the eyes for fine motor work, especially scanning and tracking, to set the students up for achieving their personal best in your session. These activities also serve double-duty as they can be included in your visual perception portion of the session! If they are not completely finished during the session, they are simple to include in the students’ home programs.
- Tangrams are terrific! I know that there a lot of expensive kits you can buy with plastic, colorful tangram pieces. But, there are also free downloads that will provide you with tangram kits that you can cut out, ask the children to color them if you’d like, then laminate them to preserve them for use year after year. I was fortunate to have purchased a Getting It Write ** book by LouAnne Audette and Anne Karson that provided a great group of tangrams (shown below). The answer keys are separate and that helped me a great deal when BOTH the student and I were having trouble figuring the picture out. Of course, I got to peek at the answer; they did not! (But I did give them hints!)
Tangrams work on visual closure, visual discrimination, and visual spatial relationships skills, while they enhance visual attention skills.
- Small playing cards are a dream tool to have on hand. Small ones help to develop fine motor skills and can work on so many visual-perceptual skills at the same time.
- They can be used for memory games such as Concentration, where the cards are placed face down and then two are turned over to expose their faces. If they are not a match, then they are turned over again and the next person reveals two more. As the card faces are revealed, the object is to remember where you saw that one before and turn it over for a match! Concentration games are wonderfully fun ways to enhance visual memory, visual attention, and visual discrimination skills.
- Playing cards can be used for sequencing games such as those that teach math (1) to encourage the enhancement of visual attention and visual sequencing skills. War, the ever popular two-person game, is great for visual attention and visual memory. To change this game up a bit, I made small playing cards out of cardstock that each had a letter of the alphabet on them, then laminated them. We played sequencing games and war by ranking the letters according to their placement in the alphabet. Just think of all the ways you can then include handwriting practice in the game? (Hint: The student can write the letter or words that begin with the letter on his handwriting paper!)
- My favorite small playing card game of all is The Number 10 Game!* A long time ago, I found a small card game called that in a dollar-type store in Canada. The cards had simple numbers on them from 1-10. I still have those cards, although they are pretty worn out. I wasn’t ever able to find the game again; so I use small playing cards now, removing the face cards and using just the number cards. The goal is to find all the matches that add up to 10. It’s simple to set up and a fun way to address both fine motor and visual-perceptual skills. First the cards are set up in 4 rows with 4 cards in a row. As the students make a match, those cards are put off to the side. When there are no more matches in that set up, the removed cards are replaced to fill in the rows and the student continues to find more tens. You can decrease the number of rows depending on your students’ strengths and needs. If your students have difficulty with math concepts, post an addition chart by the table or next to the game so that they can reference it. However, if your students are proficient in their addition skills, then you can set up the game as a race to beat their personal best. Of course, I’ve played it with them as a race; but most often the scales are tipped unfairly – with them beating me every time!!!
- Putty, Always Putty!!! Therapeutic putty maintains a permanent place of honor in my tool box. I don’t leave home without it. Pegs, golf tees, marbles, tweezers, and coins are staples that come along for the ride, giving my students a fine-motor workout while they play. Both the younger and older students enjoy creating objects out of the putty, rolling it out again, and setting their creative juices to work on it once more. I do have a set of putty exercises* we work on, too, which often becomes part of their home programs. For the more advanced students, I bring along clay especially for them so that they can warm up their fingers before beginning handwriting tasks.
- My collection of fine-motor sundries make hand and finger warm-ups fun. Small sponge pieces, blocks, paper clips, and pegs match up with tweezers and tongs to exercise the arches of the hand and the fingers and wrist. These pieces can be combined to outline the directional concepts of a letter formation, to place along the pathway of a maze, or to stack and create an object. Pickup Sticks work the pincer grasp, shoulder and arm control, and visual attention and figure-ground discrimination skills. Patience and critical thinking are added bonus skills that are touched on in this game! Dice are wonderful tools to enhance in-hand manipulation skills. They can be used during board games or activities that you design to address the handwriting development skills your students are working on. For instance, you can play BINGO with them using the numbers they roll to determine what the students will write in the boxes. In the example below, the die is rolled twice. With the first roll, a 1 would indicate that the student would write a lower case “u.” With the second roll, a 4 would indicate that the student would write that letter in the first box in the “G” column. I always play along with the student so that we could compete to win. The game would continue until the first person had BINGO!
I’ve also used dice with the small playing cards, changing the Number 10 Game rules just a bit. After the cards are set up, the student rolls the dice and selects the cards that add up to that number. When all of those matches are made and the rows are filled in with additional cards again, the student rolls the dice again for a new number. This adds to the suspense!
Functional Handwriting Tasks:
- I always carry a supply of postcards, sticky notes, children’s stationery, and lined and blank paper with me. The blank paper comes in handy for the younger children to draw a picture and then write a short story on handwriting paper describing what their picture shows me. The older children can draw a directional map to guide me to their favorite place in town or a room diagram to show me what their living room or classroom looks like. They label the items in their best handwriting and then write directions to the place or a provide a description of it. To practice writing in small spaces, the students can write a postcard to a friend, their sister, or the teacher and hand deliver it; write the teacher or their parent a message on the sticky note; or write a recipe on an index card to share with me (they usually do this as part of their home program). Handwriting practice that doesn’t look like handwriting practice.
- The most functional tool in my tool box doesn’t actually come with me to the session. I often ask the students to bring in a homework or classwork assignment that addresses their particular handwriting need. They will bring in their worksheets that include small, unlined spaces; book reports that are not quite completed; or math and spelling sheets. These provide us with opportunities to work on spatial and editing skills, as well as discuss the areas that give them problems in class and at home.
Last but not least.
I also carry a stash of supplies that will come in handy when the need presents itself. A roll of blank paper and masking tape are two essentials to have on hand to practice letter formations skills (with drawings, doodles, mazes, or tracing) using large motor movements on a vertical surface. Of course, sand paper, aluminum foil, and tissue paper are must haves for tactile feedback tools for pencil pressure. I never leave home without my small chalkboard (have had this one for years!), tons of chalk, Q-tips, and a paper cup for water! There is simply nothing that can replace these tools for the development of motor memory skills. Writing the letters with chalk and then tracing over them with a Q-tip dipped in water is my all-time favorite disappearing act trick! I usually have a bunch of construction paper on hand, too, to use as a substitute for the chalk board. We write the letter in chalk on the paper and then trace it with the wet Q-tip. (PS: I never use white boards or markers. Not enough tactile input to make the activity beneficial. I like to get the most out of every minute the students are with me!)
So there you have it!
Well, I guess if you add up all of the individual pieces in my tool box, I wouldn’t be able to cash out in the “Around 15 items” checkout at the grocery store! But, all in all, these are the tools I have been carting around for years. I don’t know if they are the best ones; but I do know one thing. Whenever I get overly creative and start to stuff boxes of toys and equipment into my trunk and lug them into the session, the children and I most often revert back to the old standbys!
Please let me and your fellow readers know “What’s in your tool box?”
And as always, thanks for reading and sharing my work!
*These activities, and many more, are included as downloadable handouts in my Handwriting Development Assessment and Remediation book.
**Updated 07/13/19: It appears that the Getting It Write book is no longer available.
Katherine J. Collmer, M.Ed., OTR/L, is a pediatric occupational therapist who specializes in the assessment and remediation of handwriting skills. In her current book, Handwriting Development Assessment and Remediation: A Practice Model for Occupational Therapists, she shares a comprehensive guide and consistent tool for addressing handwriting development needs. She can be contacted via her website, Handwriting With Katherine.