Handwriting, Naturally

writingA couple of years ago I was trying to explain the philosophy of unschooling to my very traditional MIL and SIL. They were having a hard time believing that kids would just willingly, and of their own accord, learn all the things they “needed” to learn. Oh sure, they could understand wanting to do craft projects, playing soccer, and maybe even doing some fun science experiments. But MIL felt that there were certain things no child would want to do, and the example she gave was handwriting. “How many children would sit there and practice their handwriting if they weren’t made to do it?”, she asked, recalling evenings spent with her eldest grandchild supervising the filling of worksheet pages for homework.

I can’t blame MIL for thinking this way because several years ago I likely would have thought the same as her. The same as most people in our society. There’s this belief that certain subjects just plain “aren’t any fun”, but are necessary for a proper education, and therefore children must be coerced into doing them. The first problem with this paradigm is so few people have ever seen Natural Learning take place that it’s unbelievable to them that kids can remain curious, driven, and inquisitive about the world around them long after the toddler years. The second problem is the notion that forced, fact-based learning is the optimal, if not the only, way for children to learn.

If you stop and think about it, it’s pretty difficult to get far in this world without writing, even if you are a small child. At the very least, children tend to be possessive; writing one’s name on a project, placemat, or book is often one of the first times kids encounter the benefits of having such a skill. But more than that, we live in a world of words. Kids encounter them everywhere and are naturally drawn (when they are developmentally ready) to acquire the skills of reading and writing, in the same way (I presume) that a human child living 20,000 years ago would naturally be driven to acquire the hunting and gathering skills that he witnessed every day. I’ve yet to hear of a child who, if left to his/her own devices, does not at some point become interested in picking up a pencil and writing letters.

And so it was with Daughter. She started writing letters when she was about 3 years old and is now able to write whole sentences. Nobody has ever “taught” her how, nor did she ever ask. It came about Naturally. She loves to draw, make up stories, and create games and all these things are enhanced by the use of the printed word. Here are some recent examples of her work:

Last week she picked up a blank greeting card and did the following:

dinocard_fixedLater that week, she decided to prepare a surprise for me when I came home from work. She made eight little cards out of cardstock by cutting out rectangles and folding them in half. She then wrote “clues” on them, which I followed around the house, picking up the next card and clue, until I came to the “treasure” at the end: her, hiding in the closet! She had no help with this activity, in fact nobody knew she was doing it until she got her brother and father to give it a test run.

emilyhunt004You can clearly see in this first card that she is taking care as she works; she crossed out the line that had too many errors for her liking and started it again. Here are some more cards in the series:



Finally, a while back she found a toy catalog inserted into our regional paper. She was concerned that she wouldn’t remember to ask for certain favorites by the time it was Christmas, so she decided she should write her letter to Santa early:


This sort of thing has been going on for years, and every year her writing gets neater, the letters more even in size, her spelling more accurate. Practice makes perfect, so they say, but who says practice has to mean writing “Jill and Jack ran with Spot” over and over again at a time when one would much rather be outside enjoying a sunny day? I can think of a million fun and spontaneous ways that a child can get to practice their handwriting without the need for worksheets (unless they like that sort of thing), homework, and forced assignments.

Having hopefully given a small demonstration of how Natural Learning applies to handwriting, an important issue I’d like to mention is that of correcting a child’s work.

How well I can still visualize my lined note book from elementary school, filled with short stories and sentences we’d been instructed to write, marred by bright red slash marks. The teacher would correct my work by rewriting my words with the proper spelling in the same bright red marker. I remember looking at my writing in terms of how many mistakes I’d made, not what I’d written, nor how well I’d progressed, but by the number of red slashes on the page. The exercise seemed pointless to me, other than a way to be tallied up and compared against the rest of the class (fortunately I was good at writing, so my self-esteem didn’t suffer). Some might think the role of teacher and the process of learning necessarily includes making those red marks and comments all over a page. But now I look at it in a whole new way, and it truly saddens me.

Life in the Free Learning world is so much different. You’ll notice in the examples above there are several mistakes. Some letters are written backwards, words are misspelled, and the grammar isn’t always perfect either. Some might think it prudent to point out these mistakes to Daughter. “How else will she learn the right way?” they might ask.

My daughter wrote those things without having any idea that she was “practicing her handwriting”. Nobody sat her down and said “now we’re going to practice our writing”. Nobody told her that the point of her creative efforts was to be grammatically correct. Instead, my daughter had an idea to do something that she thought would be fun for her (the dino card), a special way to say how much she appreciates her family (the card treasure hunt), and a practical way to ensure desired toys don’t get forgotten before Christmas (the list). Writing was simply a tool to accomplish all those things, it was not the point of the exercise.

Now imagine your child presenting you with a card hunt when you come home from work. How would you feel if someone had come before you and crossed out her mistakes with an angry red marker? Or written those words for her with the correct spelling and punctuation? How would YOU feel if you were her and someone did that to your work? If your child was sensitive, they might end up feeling inadequate, stupid, their confidence might drop. If they were stubborn they might feel angry at having their hard work ruined by someone else’s doodling. But I’m quite certain they would not give their thanks and appreciation for “helping them to learn the right way”. Chances are they would think twice before venturing to be so creative and spontaneous again.

So what to do with the mistakes? Mostly, I do nothing. My daughter knows what an “S” looks like, she just happens to write it backwards sometimes. If I asked her to take a close look at it, she would recognize her mistake right away. So what would be the point of correcting her, other than to steal away her pride, her confidence, and to entirely miss the point of what she was doing? If I saw a consistent error (she almost always draws her 4’s backwards) I might ask her to look closely. I would guage her reaction – for Daughter, she usually laughs and says “oops, I wrote it backwards” – before going any further. If she got upset or frustrated I would ask if she’d like some help and together we could come up with ways for her to practice getting it right. Since she’s not upset, and obviously knows what a 4 is supposed to look like, I see no problem. As for spelling and grammar, I’m also confident that she will figure out the right way as she goes along, and will either correct herself or ask for help if and when she decides its a problem.

Categories: natural learning, the Three R's | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “Handwriting, Naturally

  1. Natural learning is fantastic in a supportive environment where children are encouraged to be creative and to try different things. The best learning occurs when a child has no fear of being wrong. Unfortunately this is not what happens at school where there is always a right and a wrong, if only children were able to explore for longer, imagine the amazing things they could come up with. Great article.

  2. I just realized that my son’s favourite ‘school’ things to learn are math and cursive writing! He’s five and being schooled at home:) Good luck with your offer. I can’t wait to hear. We paid too much for our land because we fell in love with it and we knew the owners were happy to wait. Hope that isn’t happening for you guys!

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