North Central College master of occupational therapy students work with children on their handwriting.

North Central News

Chippy’s Handwriting Helpers turn frustration into an achievement

Hannah Brauer

Apr 25, 2023

Who would’ve imagined that shaving cream could be used to teach handwriting?  

When you think of the most tedious skills to learn, handwriting probably tops the list. While some may not even remember those days of practicing the everyday skill, others recall the painstaking process with clarity.   

For some children, handwriting development seems like a frustrating, insurmountable obstacle to daily learning. Through Chippy’s Handwriting Helpers, North Central College’s master of occupational therapy (MOT) students work with children to turn that frustration into an achievement.  

Chippy’s Handwriting Helpers began in Spring 2021 as a virtual camp program. While the camps continue to have success virtually, the department of occupational therapy offered on-campus sessions for the first time this semester. Free to all participants, Chippy’s Handwriting Helpers provides an encouraging, fun environment for children ages five to nine to learn handwriting skills fundamental to continued learning.   

Creating a Positive, Engaging Experience

Lauren Stone Kelly, assistant professor of occupational therapy, along with 10 MOT students, led camps for 17 virtual participants and 17 in-person participants. Over six after-school sessions, camp leaders helped the children improve their handwriting skills, facilitating activities that were instructional and fun.  

The success of the camps relies on a recreational, personalized approach. According to Kelly, many of the children are enrolled because handwriting has been a challenge in the past. Because of this, camp leaders actively work to engage the campers. “We try to make everything enjoyable for the kids [in order] to re-work how they feel about handwriting,” said Kelly. Kelly and the MOT students change activities regularly, taking movement breaks and incorporating the children’s interests, like using Play-Doh, while still keeping the camp letter- and writing-focused.   

The camps are centered around “Handwriting Without Tears,” a curriculum originally developed by occupational therapists that has been widely adopted in schools around the country. “Handwriting Without Tears” meets students where they are. Rather than working in alphabetical order, camp leaders teach children writing in developmental order by grouping letter shapes together through motion and visual appearance. Children start with horizontal and vertical straight-line letters, practicing the hand motions and working their way up to more complex shapes. 

“Handwriting Without Tears” also uses multi-sensory instruction, making it accessible for children with special needs or disabilities. Some activities have audio and visual components, while others offer multiple modes for tactile access. Supervised by Kelly, North Central students coach campers through handwriting practice on a chalkboard using chalk, a wet sponge and a paper towel—the campers draw, erase and dry their letters. That way, the exercise is “fun, but [the children] still get that repetitive practice,” stated Kelly.

North Central College master of occupational therapy students work with children on their handwriting.

Impact on the Children and their Families 

Because the camps present an opportunity both for research and for North Central students to earn clinical experience toward the completion of their degrees, the camps are offered for free. “We’re able to serve kids [whose families] maybe don’t have the funds to go to outpatient [occupational therapy],” commented Kelly. The camps’ outreach even extends into rural areas, with the virtual camps delivering access to handwriting development help for families who may not be able to receive occupational therapy locally.   

Chippy’s Handwriting Helpers also supplies curriculum materials. For the virtual and in-person camps, children receive a kit that includes a workbook and manipulatives to use with the instructional activities. After each camp session, Kelly and the MOT students give recommendations for practice at home using their kits.    

The camps have proven to be extremely popular. Kelly reported that she always has a waitlist for the camps and now sends notice of new camp sessions to more than 100 families and occupational therapists. That long list signifies both the need for and the benefit of the service the camp provides to children and their families.   

Impact on Camp Leaders

Chippy’s Handwriting Helpers started as a product of resilience. During the pandemic, with many children learning online, support services had to be reimagined. The College’s handwriting camps helped children keep learning and developing. At the same time, because of the limited options for in-person fieldwork, the camps were a chance for North Central students to obtain much-needed experience. “It seemed like the perfect opportunity,” Kelly said.  

MOT students complete the requirements for their Level One pediatric fieldwork with the virtual and in-person handwriting camps. In Level One, many fieldwork placements are only focused on observing; toward the end of their degree, MOT students are expected to interact with clients while being observed by a supervisor before graduating and starting their careers. With Kelly’s supervision, Chippy’s Handwriting Helpers allows the MOT students to have hands-on intervention experiences earlier in their careers.

North Central College master of occupational therapy students work with children on their handwriting.

Hands-on Experience Cultivates Real-world Skills

Even for MOT students who may choose a focus other than pediatrics, the handwriting camps foster a skillset essential to all areas of occupational therapy. During small-group activities, two MOT students are paired with four children, so they get a chance to practice serving the different needs of each one. By interacting closely with children and their families, the students build their communication skills and learn to develop client-therapist relationships.   

The handwriting camps also develop the MOT students’ leadership skills. In each camp session, MOT students take turns individually leading two large-group activities: one gross motor and one fine motor exercise. As Kelly attests, the camp “really challenges [the students]” to step into a leadership role, preparing them for later clinical placements and their futures as occupational therapists.   

Most importantly, Chippy’s Handwriting Helpers encourages confidence. As camp leaders, the MOT students gain experience with interventions that they will use in their professions. In Kelly’s words, “Students recognize [those] interventions in the field and will say, ‘I was able to jump right in.’”  

Impact on Campus and the Local Community

Chippy’s Handwriting Helpers forge a strong relationship between North Central and the local community. Not only do the camps establish connections between the College and local schools for fieldwork and networking opportunities, they also help MOT students stay connected. Because the families of camp attendees become familiar with North Central’s MOT students, “it gives them ... credibility” when they are out in the field later on, Kelly commented.  

The camps are also highly beneficial to the campus community. Kelly noted that at least one child of a faculty or staff member has enrolled in each camp. The camps provide evidence for research, give the MOT students crucial training and help North Central give back.  

As Kelly stated: “North Central loves a community program [that serves] people, and it’s serving our students, so it’s a win-win.”

North Central College master of occupational therapy students work with children on their handwriting.

Chippy's Handwriting Helpers