A common concern that parents frequently voice when coming in for an occupational therapy evaluation within the Trisomy 21 Program is their child’s ability to be successful with handwriting, and to progress their skills within the school environment. 

What is unique and potentially a challenge for children with Down syndrome is their low tone and how it impacts their ability to hold a writing implement and complete handwriting skills.

For all children — and especially ones with Down syndrome — we want to make sure we are providing core strength and stability in the center of their body (proximal stability) in order to have improved dexterity with their hands (distal mobility).

It is very important to develop both the core muscles — back and abdominals — as well as the intrinsic muscles of the hand. These are the muscles that do not cross the wrist joint and allow us to manipulate and turn objects, appropriately hold a pencil and complete handwriting skills. These two skills work in tandem to help your child successfully hold a pencil or pen, as well as support their body and provide the endurance they need to complete these skills throughout the school day.

Both core strength and intrinsic strength can be worked on separately. As your child’s core strength improves, they will have more support to complete hand manipulation skills and writing skills.

Activities to build strength

Below is a list of activities that will help develop handwriting skills by improving strength, endurance and dexterity. Some of the activities listed below focus on core strength, while others target more intrinsic hand strength. Feel free to be creative and take components of these tasks and try some new ones as well.

Your child should practice a few of these skills every day. I encourage you to incorporate some of these into your daily routine. This way both you and your child will be engaged and motivated to continue practicing these skills.

One tip to keep in mind: When your child is doing activities that involve the holding or pinching of an object, their hand should be positioned so the thumb is facing the fingertips to form a C-shape. This position is very important for thumb stability and to learn the proper way to hold a pencil.

  • Practice activities that require hand manipulation skills on a vertical surface (i.e. easel, chalkboard, felt board, bathtub wall, refrigerator), such as drawing, painting, stickers, magnets, rubber stamps, sponge pictures, or shaving cream designs.
  • Play with modeling clay or Silly Putty. Roll it, cut it, or pinch it. Hide objects in it. Make designs in it with toothpicks.
  • Encourage your child to help with cooking. They can stir food, open jars/containers, tear lettuce, and sprinkle cheese, seasonings or sprinkles.
  • Tear paper and crumple it. Use it to stuff a package or the head of a paper bag puppet. Glue it onto a sheet of paper and make a design. Try and have your child crumple with one hand only, not using the other hand for support.
  • Practice a squeeze and release motion by using a plant sprayer to water plants, or try using it for water fights, target games, and to create sidewalk designs.
  • Play with wooden blocks, Legos, Bristle Blocks, or Dominoes.
  • Create a “mouth” ball by cutting a slit into an old tennis ball with a utility knife. Feed it, talk with it.
  • Use clothespins in activities. Write letters/numbers on them so they can be used during lessons.
  • Hold tongs or tweezers as you would hold a pencil and play a game of pick-up sticks or other games in which you must move pieces. Play the board game Operation.
  • Cut things out with scissors and make collages, mobiles, cardboard puzzles, or paper strip weavings.
  • Fill a string with beads, macaroni, straws, or anything with a hole in it.
  • Do activities using a hole puncher. Make lacing cards or confetti.
  • Pop bubbles on a sheet of bubble wrap, and try both one-handed and two-handed.
  • Connect small pop beads and use them to create patterns, practice counting, and create letters.
  • Go through obstacle courses or have relay races while wheelbarrow walking.
  • Try “tray tracking:” Hold arms out straight at shoulder level. While in this position, hold a tray and make a small toy car roll to certain points on the tray.
  • Play Twister. If you don’t have the game, make it on an old sheet or tablecloth.
  • Use fingers to draw in shaving cream, pudding, oatmeal, whipped cream, sand, or paint.
  • Hide objects in buckets of beans, rice, sand, popcorn kernels, macaroni, etc. and try to find them.

Most of all, have fun with these activities. The more fun you and your child are having together, the more they are going to want to participate and the longer the games will last. By building strength and endurance, you’ll be supporting your child’s handwriting skills!