They smeared their fingers in shaving cream, dug into sand, and played with modeling clay. A typical aimless but fun summer day?
Well, this messiness had a purpose. First- and second-graders met weekly this summer at the University of Utah Health Occupational Therapy Life Skills Clinic to improve their handwriting prowess at the clinic's annual Rocking Handwriters summer group.
On any given day, an occupational therapist may help a person learn to get dressed, prepare a meal, eat, get on the bus or balance a checkbook. While physical therapy focuses on the physical side and psychology looks at emotional, behavioral and cognitive aspects, occupational therapists combine it all together, breaking down activities into small pieces and working with individuals to accomplish each step.
On this day, it was all about teaching kids to print the alphabet with confidence.
"We want to get it automated so they don't even think about it," said clinic director Heidi Woolley, MS, OTD, of kids who may need a little extra help developing the fine motor skills, strength, endurance, dexterity, or postural control required to command a pencil.
Ironically, pencils take a backseat to other "writing utensils" at the Life Skills Clinic, which also offers one-on-one handwriting sessions. Kids are more likely to wield Q-tips, tongue depressors, and pretzels or use their index fingers to form letters in cornmeal, dry pudding and birdseed.
"If they can see that writing is fun, then they don't get so frustrated," Woolley said. "The minute you say 'We have to write our ABCs,' they'll say no. They don't want to do something that they're not successful at and is not fun and where they're falling behind their peers."
Beyond the wrists and fingers, other muscles groups can play a key role in learning to write so therapists begin by leading kids in full-body strengthening exercises.
We start with gross motor movements because the studies show that it's easier if they learn it in their big muscles first, like their shoulder and elbow," Woolley said. "When they go to paper, it's 10 times harder, so we work from big movements to smaller movements and incorporate them all.
When it's time to sit down and practice letters, therapists use "letter stories" with fun themes like racecar driving and firefighting. For example, when writing a lowercase "h," a therapist might talk a child through the letter with an easy-to-visualize scenario: A firefighter goes down a pole, but oops, he's forgotten his hat so he goes back up halfway, and then slides down again.
The approach is working well for 8-year-old Jax who was back this summer after participating in the group last year.
"They say this is something you need to get taken care of early and make sure that that foundation is there," said Heidi Robinson, Jax's mom. "We've been impressed with all the great tools they use to build on the kids' handwriting strength. It definitely helped with his first-grade year of handwriting."
The group, which met weekly for eight weeks, produces the best results when parents continue to work with their kids at home, Woolley said.
"If you're having pretzels for snacks, try making letters out of the pretzels," she said. "Try to give them things to do while they're doing other things."
Amy Meadows, a certified occupational therapy assistant who led the session, said grip strength is often an issue for kids who struggle with handwriting. She recommends playground play, such as monkey bars and rope climbing, to improve strength. It's also important, when practicing actual handwriting with pencil and paper, to break up tasks into small, achievable challenges.
"If they write a word, pick a letter out of that word that you would like them to try again so they don't have to rewrite the whole word or paragraph again," Meadows said.
Try saying to your child "Circle your favorite letter. OK, now try that letter again" and "Now circle your least favorite letter. Let's do that one." This allows young people to achieve the task while learning to edit their work and make corrections without becoming overwhelmed, Meadows said.