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Children sit next to each other on a classroom carpet. One child has her hand extended, thumb raised.


Paulette Maggiacomo

Paulette Maggiacomo

June 11, 2020

Hi Everyone,

Aahhhh……..the ongoing debate between educators, their administrators, and parents: "Why aren’t your students (my child) writing their names, letters, and numbers? They are going into kindergarten and must have this skill" - how many times have you heard that? Now wait, if you are not a Pre-K Teacher, please don’t stop reading. You are vital to helping children, no matter how young they are, develop their fine motor skills so that they can write when they are developmentally ready. Vanessa Levin is an early educator guru and a lifelong learner. Her blog Pre-K Pages has almost 1,000,000 (yes, one million) visitors a month! At the Transform Challenging Behavior Virtual Conference, she presented What to Do About Power Struggles Over Writing and Other Table Activities.

When children refuse to write, they are trying to tell us that they have not developed the muscles necessary to do so. Take a look at the palm of their hand – is it concave or chubby? The chubbiness is evidence that they still need skills to develop handwriting readiness. Some of these include:

  • Hand & finger strength

  • Crossing the midline

  • Pencil grasp

  • Hand eye coordination

  • Holding and moving the pencil with the dominant hand while the other hand helps holding the paper

  • Visual perception

  • Using just the thumb, index, and middle finger for manipulation, leaving the ring and pinkie finger tucked into the palm to stabilize the other fingers (as Dr. Gibbs calls them, the Sleeping Fingers)

Goodness gracious, that is a lot for our little ones to accomplish! This cannot be done in one year – it starts with teachers of infants and continues up the ladder. So, we take these skills of writing and break them down into smaller parts and teach these parts. Once again, it is important to be very intentional when we design classroom activities – it is not fine motor skills time from 9:30AM – 9:45AM. These activities should be available to the children all day so that they can strengthen their skills.

Well, how do we do this?

If you know anything about Vanessa Levin, you know that she is such a strong proponent of play dough (check out her website for recipes). At the beginning of the year, she puts the play dough out by itself. Tools are not added until the children have gotten accustomed to using it. Then, she rotates in tools such as cookie cutters that vary according to the season or interest of the children. As the children use the play dough, they are developing their hand muscles and using their imaginations. She brings up very interesting points:

  • Don’t assume that every child has played with play dough. Model how to use it correctly. Her big secret is that she does not care if the colors get mixed. If the children mix the colors and make a comment about it, that gives her an opportunity to teach the consequences of their actions. If you are worried about it getting on the carpet, put a tray, tarp or a shower curtain on the floor.

  • With advances in technology, children often do not see the purpose of writing. We need to let them see us writing all the time. Show them how you write grocery lists, make cards, write letters, and take food orders. Vanessa Levin carries Post-it notes wherever she goes. If a child has an idea or question and she cannot get to it right away, she writes it on a Post- it and puts it on the wall. Put paper (unlined, lined, different colors and sizes) with crayons, markers, colored pencils, and golf pencils in all centers. Let them have unlimited access to these tools.

As a child I loved to color. I have many fond memories of spending countless hours at the kitchen table with my Dad coloring. He would take out his handkerchief when he finished a page and rub it over the coloring. It gave it such a beautiful sheen. But I was lucky, I enjoyed it and had a connected adult in my life who enjoyed it also. Vanessa Levin made an interesting point: Not all children like to color pre-made coloring sheets. What is the intent of these pages? Is it to be creative or color within the lines?

All of this drawing and scribbling at such a young age leads to writing. Children are using their imaginations. They are having fun and developing their fine motor skills.

For children to use scissors, they must have gone through the following progressive stages:

  1. Crumpling - collect newspaper flyers, put them in large tubs and let them have it!

  2. Ripping – give them small pieces of paper first

  3. Snipping – tape strips of paper to a table and just have them snip, not cut all the way through

  4. Fringing – tape paper to a table and fringe to make grass

  5. Cutting – once they have mastered the above stages, let them cut through the paper

  6. Cut right angles

  7. Cut round objects

The open and close skill is a complex one. Work fingers by:

  • Putting googly eyes on a clothespin and let them be alligator eaters of pom poms

  • Using the play dough extenders that you push dough out of

  • Use tongs to transfer objects from place to place

  • Legos are great at working on these skills

  • Sticking spaghetti or pipe cleaners in a colander

  • Take a walk through your favorite Dollar Store with an open mind to see what items you can turn into fun pre-writing skills

Vanessa Levin concludes by reminding us that if you have done everything in your power that you think you could have done, and this child still has not taken to writing, he or she just needs more time. 

Remember, you are each child’s advocate. If not us, then who?

Until next time, I wish you well.

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