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How Children Learn to Write

We often take for granted the natural growth of children that happens without our direct involvement. Just think of the physical changes that take place in the first year of life. We do so many things to encourage and support our children's growth, but often without knowledge of what we do or how we do it.

We help children learn to talk by talking and singing with them. We provide activities and toys to play with which develop their muscles. We play games to help the development of abstract concepts and we name people and objects to expand vocabulary.

Large Muscles Develop Before Small

All muscular coordination begins with the large muscles. So many things must come together before children learn to talk and walk. By the age of 2½ or 3, children can begin more directly to develop the small muscles that will enable them to control a pencil.

Developing Eye-Hand Coordination

Before children grab a pencil or crayon to write, there has to be an ability to follow moving objects in the environment and pursue the desire for something. Observe the toddler going after a ball or the family pet. Many such successful experiences help connect the mental thought to the physical pursuit. Put another way, there is now a brain-body connection.

Developing the "Pencil Fingers"

You've watched children chase peas or Cheerios around the high chair tray and eat them even before they can hold a spoon. Many activities help the hand become stronger and help the pencil fingers (thumb, index, and middle finger) develop control. Anything to grasp, from balls to brooms, helps here. Move the process along by playing games of catch or balance. Larger heavy blocks develop strength while smaller blocks and puzzles help with hand control and precision. Grasping little knobs on puzzles or squeezing clothespins help develop the pencil-holding ability.

Writing and Art Materials

Remember the "large to small" muscle development as you provide writing and drawing supplies for children. Large muscle activities continue to be important, so this is not an either/or, but rather a way for you to determine readiness.

  • Use large surfaces to experiment with finger paints, chunky chalk, or large washable crayons. You might want to use an outside table or even go to a park to use a picnic table. Easels are fine, too; use large brushes at first and make sure you are comfortable with the paint containers, aprons, etc. Children love to water "paint" on rocks or walls or fences outdoors; use real paint brushes and little paint buckets.
  • Explore options: Crayons shaped like pebbles, blocks, or crystals are easier to grasp and can make satisfying marks on paper. (Markers are not recommended as little effort is needed and control is not developed as a result.)
  • Activities with scissors, paste, construction paper, and stickers all help the process along.
  • Try different sizes, shapes, and colors of pencils and crayons. Triangular ones are easier to grasp and reinforce the correct grip for writing.
  • Until some control is apparent, children will make free-form drawings. Later show them how to make simple geometric shapes, and then how to color them. Coloring inside the lines successfully is a sign that they might be ready to write letters of the alphabet.
  • Point out specifics ("I like all the red in this picture." "You kept the blue inside the lines.") rather than raving about the artwork. Children know intuitively when there is room for improvement and will stop trying if perfection has supposedly been reached.

Be patient! Children move at their own pace, one that adults may not be familiar with. Just enjoy the process and keep things simple and available. Somehow, miraculously, it all happens. Just as children learn to walk when all the muscles work together, they will learn to write.

— by Jane M. Jacobs, M.A., Montessori Educational Consultant at Montessori Services. She is a trained primary Montessori directress and also a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. She has taught children aged 2 to 7 years in Montessori schools, Headstart, and also in a preschool for children with developmental challenges. In her counseling practice, she helps individuals, couples, and families.

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