COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Preschoolers who use their hands often to manipulate small objects -- like puzzle pieces -- may end up with better handwriting skills, new research suggests.

A study of 48 typical first-grade students found that those who scored best on a test of in-hand manipulation skills were also more likely to be identified as having the best handwriting.

"These results suggest that early practice with a pencil or crayon may not be the best way to teach a child how to use a writing instrument," said Jane Case-Smith, co-author of the study and an associate professor of occupational therapy at Ohio State University.

"It's more important for children to practice moving small things in and out of their hands, to work with puzzle pieces or Legos."

The ability to manipulate small objects helps children hold a pencil correctly and move it precisely and rapidly, Case-Smith said. "Moving a pencil on paper requires the ability to isolate

and coordinate individual finger and thumb movements, something children can best practice by playing with small objects," she said.

Practice with a pencil or crayon isn't very helpful for young toddlers because the hand and finger muscles they need aren't developed yet, she said. Young children end up holding the pencil with a very static grasp and guiding the pencil by moving their shoulders or elbows. This grasping pattern is fatiguing and inflexible and results in poor handwriting.

Case-Smith conducted the study with Heidi Cornhill, an occupational therapist at the Pickerington (Ohio) Local Schools. Their results were published in a recent issue of The American Journal of Occupational Therapy.

The 48 participating first-graders were separated into groups of good and poor handwriters based on both teacher evaluations and performance on the Minnesota Handwriting Test. There were 23 students (9 girls and 14 boys) who were in the poor handwriting group, and 25 students (19 girls and 6 boys) in the good handwriting group.

The researchers had the students take three tests that measure skills thought to influence proficiency in handwriting. In the in-hand manipulation test, the first-graders had to take small pegs out of a pegboard, move them in and out of their palms and rotate them in their fingertips, then place them back in the pegboard. Accuracy and speed were measured.

A second test measured visuomotor integration -- how well a child could visually interpret a shape drawn on paper and then copy it him or herself. For example, the children may be shown a picture of three interlocking circles and be asked to draw that exact form themselves.

High scores on this test were also associated with good handwriting, but not as strongly as the in-hand manipulation test, Case-Smith said.

The students also took a test of eye-hand coordination in which they had to trace a shape drawn on a piece of paper. Performance on this test was not strongly associated with handwriting skill.

Although occupational therapists had long believed that hand manipulation skills played a role in handwriting proficiency, this is the first study that actually showed the connection, Case-Smith said.

The results of the study don't mean that young toddlers should be kept entirely away from writing instruments, she emphasized.

"Introducing young children to writing instruments is fine. But it shouldn't be the focus of their play or their activities in a preschool. At that age they need intensive practice manipulating small objects with their hands. Proficiency in writing should follow once a solid foundation of manipulation skill is established."

Contact: Jane Case-Smith, (614) 292-0357; Case-Smith.1@osu.edu

Written by Jeff Grabmeier, (614) 292-8457; Grabmeier.1@osu.edu

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