“How do you teach 3 & 4 year olds to print letters and numbers?”
Sorry for the click bait headline but it’s the truth: you don’t need to be working on handwriting (or printing) with 3 and 4 year olds.
It’s not the right time for that.
Although three and four year olds are (typically) not developmentally ready for handwriting skills, a myth has formed that handwriting and letter formation is, in fact, a preschool skill. This myth is in large part due to a shift in academic standards asking children to learn/do more earlier in life (Almon & Miller, 2011).
There’s also an expectation that children will enter kindergarten with skills that are not developmentally appropriate (Faguano, 2019). Handwriting and printing letters is one such skill.
This post is a collaboration between me (Susie from Busy Toddler, BA in Elementary Education) and Laura of The OT Butterfly, pediatric Occupational Therapist.
I love a good topic sentence to here’s the goals of this post:
- Acknowledge the current myths around handwriting as a preschool activity
- Give you more context around just how complicated this skills is
- Provide ideas for what you can do at home to help your child form PRE-writing skills
Let’s talk child development and handwriting
Handwriting is a visual motor skill that develops over time.
Handwriting requires a whole host of foundational skills for a child to be successful and ready to (literally) put pen to paper.
Here are some of the foundational skills that go into handwriting:
- Core strength to hold their body upright
- Postural stability to support fine motor precision
- Strong pincer grasp (to pick up the pencil)
- Arm and hand strength (can they manipulate an object one-handed?)
- Ability to cross the midline (crossing their arm from one side of their body to pick up something on the other side)
- Concentration skills for focus
- Visual memory skills (to remember, copy, and translate how a letter looks)
- Visual motor skills for their eyes and hands to communicate
- AND MANY MORE THAN EVEN THIS
All that to say: there is a lot more that goes into handwriting than might be immediately considered.
We can’t ask a child’s body to develop faster just to get them to write earlier.
What is the sequence of visual motor skills?
Similar to many, many other skills in childhood, developing visual motor skills follows a predictable sequence.
- Visually recognize shapes and letters (we can’t expect them to draw what they don’t “know”)
- Tracing shapes and letters (this gets skipped a lot – tracing is a HUGE step)
- Imitating a shape or letter (using step by step guidance for each stroke)
- Copying shapes and letters
- Independently drawing a shape or writing a letter.
These five steps, this sequence, is not expected to happen over night and will take many months and years. This is yet another plug for “you cannot rush into handwriting.”
Just like kids walk before they run, there are a lot of skills to build before they’re ready for learning handwriting
The truth is: rushing into handwriting before a child has truly mastered and developed all the skills needed to successfully print letters and numbers can often lead to a frustrating process and potential problems (Faguano, 2019).
Expecting children to learn a skill before they have the ability
to store and call upon prior learning, can lead to a number of problems.
No one wants handwriting to be something kids dread. We want a smooth transition into writing, if possible.
We can often give our children that by giving them the gift of time. It’s noted that children often learn better literacy skills through natural processes than through drilled activities – handwriting included (Faguano, 2019).
There’s also bone development at play here: don’t forget that piece
While some kids will master these foundational skills earlier than others, and may start putting pen to paper sooner, remember that is not typical of all children and is not a sign that your child is behind.
But if you have concerns about your child’s motor skill development, trust your instincts and talk to their pediatrician not people on the Internet.
It also requires that the bones in a child’s hands have developed – and again, that’s not something we can rush just because we “want” to get our child writing or because our neighbor’s child is already printing.
Hand bones develop throughout childhood. No amount of pressure to write earlier will make those bones grow any faster.
Activities to grow foundational skills for learning handwriting
In the preschool years, let’s shift focus from “teaching handwriting” or “working on printing letters” back to more developmentally and age appropriate pre-writing activities.
These are activities that provide children the chance to work on those foundational skills that are so important.
Now, these activities are NOT a check list. This is not “try it once and move on.” These are on-going strength building activities. Imagine only doing leg-day one time at the gym and saying “I’m good! Mastered those lifts and ready to move on.”
Continuing to do these strength and skill building activities with your child is IMPORTANT. So important that it calls for all caps.
Quick pre-writing skill building activities to add to daily life:
(First, let’s get a simple list of easy things in day to day life that build writing foundational skills – things you don’t need a blog link for)
- Letting kids dress themselves
- Zipping up jacks
- Play dough
- Lacing beads
- Craft projects (painting, coloring, etc)
- Playing at a playground or park
- Building with blocks or bricks
- Digging in dirt or sand
- Feeding self and using utensils
10+ Fun and Easy Pre-writing Activities for Preschoolers
(Click the photos for full descriptions of the activities and supply lists)
Toy Parade: Crossing the midline, fine motor movements, visual motor skills
Save the Pups: Arm and grip strength, visual motor skills, crossing the midline
Working on a Vertical Surface: Arm strength, body strength, concentration
Pouring Station: Visual motor skill, arm and grip strength, crossing the midline
Threading Station: Fine motor skills, pincer grasp, visual motor skills, hand strength
Animal Rescue: Grip strength, motor skills, concentration
Match & Glue: Grip strength, body stability, visual motor skills
Dot Sticker Line-up: Visual motor skill, fine motor skills, concentration
Baking Soda Bin: Fine motor skills (pincer), grip strength
Color Mixing Bin with Peri Bottles (yes, peri bottles): Grip strength, body stability, visual motor skills
Painting Toys: Concentration, grip and arm strength, body stability
Puzzle Unwrap: Fine motor skills, visual memory, crossing the midline
The Quick Summary
Do you need to be teaching your preschooler how to write letters? No.
We don’t need to be pushing children into this skill earlier – and earlier is usually not developmentally appropriate and can lead to this being a very frustrating skill.
Is it possible some kids will pick up a pencil at an early age and start writing? Absolutely. Just like some kids will pick up a bike early and are like “I got this.” But also, early bike riders aren’t better bike riders as adults… and early writers aren’t better writers. They’re just early.
What can you do to help your child be ready for writing? Get those foundational skills brewing. Give them every chance to work with their hands, to build grip and arm strength, to reach, stretch, manipulate, and create. Make their whole body development the focus rather than zooming in on one skill (like printing letters).
Support their future in handwriting with opportunities to grow and develop at their own pace – no need to rush this skill. In fact, it’s a great skill to let kids really take their time on.
Almon, J, & Miller, E. (2011). The crisis in early education: a research-based case for more play and less pressure. College Park, MD: Alliance for Childhood.
Faugno, R. S. (2019). Pediatric prewriting stroke developmental stages: Are expectations evolving beyond the child’s natural capabilities? Journal of Occupational Therapy, Schools, & Early Intervention, 13(1), 19–39. https://doi.org/10.1080/19411243.2019.1647811
Susie Allison, B.A. Elementary Education
Author and Creator
Susie Allison is the creator of Busy Toddler and has more than 1.6 million followers on Instagram. A former teacher and early childhood education advocate, Susie’s parenting book “Busy Toddler’s Guide to Actual Parenting” is available on Amazon.
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