I’ve been talking about early math and language skills here for the past couple of weeks, and today for part three I’ll talk a bit about preparatory activities for writing. The main point of this series was to highlight the fact that many skills actually precede reading and early math, and that these academic skills are often pushed far too early. The skills I talk about can and do unfold naturally in children with time, but I believe it’s best to give them time to unfold before guiding children toward formal academic reading and writing work. If we wish to work with our children and move toward the mastery of these academic skills, we can begin with some of the activities discussed in this series.
Once again, I’ll look first at how these skills are fostered in the Montessori classroom. That’s the inspiration for my ideas, and can surely spark many in addition to mine.
You can see part two of this series for a discussion of how organization in the larger environment can help to order the child’s mind and improve cognitive outcomes in general. I also discuss the organization of individual activities as it’s done in the Montessori classroom, and how that relates to language learning. All of that is relevant here, too, so it may be worth going back to take a look if you missed that part of the series.
Fine motor skills and the pincer grasp
Fine motor skills are an important part of writing preparation, actually strengthening and preparing the muscles necessary to form letter shapes. Key to writing, of course, is the pincer grasp, which is involved in the use and control of pencils and other writing instruments.
In the classroom, fine motor skills are strengthened in a great many ways. Most younger children spend a majority of their time working in the practical life area, where various materials encourage the gradual development of fine motor skills, from transfer activities where manipulatives are transferred from one container to another with the whole hand, to work involving the precise use of tools such as droppers or tweezers. Puzzles with knobs in the cultural area, the knobbed cylinders in the Sensorial area, and many other small manipulatives and tools are used throughout the environment.
In the home, small manipulatives, knobbed puzzles, and other similar toys and materials are equally as useful as they are in the Montessori classroom. The following are a few more ideas for encouraging fine motor refinement. By no means is this an exhaustive list. It’s simply a jumping off point for ideas of your own.
Seek out things with knobs
Puzzles and other toys with small knobs encourage the use of the same three finger grasp necessary for proper writing. Keep an eye out for things like pegboards that also give children the opportunity to strengthen the pincer grasp.
Offer a wide variety of art materials
Early art in general is a great preparation for writing. It allows children to experiment with different writing instruments, with making marks, and with making lines and shapes. Providing varied experience with art materials gives children plenty of opportunities to perfect their fine motor skills and to build their confidence with various writing implements. While just about any materials are beneficial in some way, there are some truly fantastic early art materials out there that are specifically made to help prepare small hands for writing. One example is these Crayon Rocks, which we love. The ideal for any art material is that it be appropriately sized for the child so that they can handle it with maximum control.
Involve your children in the kitchen
A great way to begin developing fine motor skills in the kitchen is by allowing babies to feed themselves. For this very reason, many pediatricians recommend offering things like Cheerios to babies as they get older. To me, it makes a lot more sense to simply allow babies to feed themselves from the beginning: Baby-Led Weaning. Early on, babies can grasp appropriate foods with the whole hand, and as they refine their skills, they can begin picking up smaller bits of food with the pincer grasp. Child sized utensils can be offered at mealtimes, and babies and toddlers will experiment with and perfect their use of them as they are ready, further strengthening skills that will be extremely valuable when they begin writing.
As they get older, toddlers and preschoolers can help with meal preparation, strengthening their hands as they stir, spread, knead, and whisk. No special preparation is really needed, just a willingness to involve the child, but the right tools can make this even more beneficial.
The kitchen is also a great setting for deliberate fine motor practice through special, seasonal activities. Montessori favorites include using tweezers to remove dried corn from the cob, or pressing cloves into an orange to create pomander balls, but the possibilities are endless.
Embrace cleaning up as fun and educational
Cleaning up messes can offer fantastic, spontaneous opportunities to strengthen the pincer grasp. Spill dried beans on the floor? Don’t sweep them up! Invite your child to help, and make a relaxing and enjoyable activity out of picking up each one and placing them in a container together.
Make plenty of room for increasing independence
Everyday life offers a huge variety of ways for children to develop their fine motor skills and embrace their burgeoning independence at the same time. Getting dressed by oneself, fastening buttons, helping to hang clothes on a line, setting the table, pouring food for a pet, watering plants, and so many other activities in the home allow children to blossom in a number of different ways, and as an added bonus, strengthen their fine motor skills as well.
Forming shapes and making lines
In the classroom, children are exposed to geometric shapes in the sensorial area, and most schools allow plenty of exploration with creating any shapes and lines the children might dream up in the art area. One material, however, is designed specifically to prepare children for writing: the Metal Insets. The Metal Insets are used in essentially the same way as stencils, with the child first tracing the inside of a basic geometric shape using a pencil. When the teacher presents them, she traces the shape in a counter-clockwise direction, making the movements of the hand quite similar to those made when writing letters. A number of different activities of increasing difficulty are presented as the child improves in their pencil control and precision, and through these a number of pre-writing skills are developed.
Create with stencils
There’s no need to buy a set of metal insets for the home, but a wonderful alternative would be basic stencils. Large, simple stencils can be hard to find, but you can always try making your own by cutting simple shapes out of squares of foam core board. A fantastic first stencil is a large circle, which is a far more interesting activity for the young child than one might expect at first. When the novelty wears off, you can offer different art materials for filling circles in, or even use the circle as a template for something else – add ears, eyes, a mouth, and whiskers, to turn one into a cat.
You can move from the circle to more complex shapes, and more challenging ways of filling them in. One of the more challenging exercises with the Metal Insets involves first tracing a shape and then filling it in by drawing lines, from one side of the shape to the other, beginning with dark lines at the top and then moving to progressively lighter ones by pressing more lightly with the pencil. Not only does this require precise pencil control, but it also gives children the opportunity to practice lightness of touch. This is an important skill when it comes to writing, as pressing too hard, as many children start out doing with a pencil, makes fluid writing difficult.
Make your own dot to dots
I’m not a big fan of worksheets, but connecting dots can be a great way to develop pencil control. For children who are still developing their early writing skills, numeral recognition is likely still developing as well, but you can develop your own dot to dots without numbers, by drawing simple shapes or designs in dots that the child can then connect with a pencil. For very young children, you can start again with a simple circle, or just a curved line with a few points to connect, and enjoy creating designs of increasing complexity together as the child gets older and their skills improve. This is a great impromptu activity when you find yourself stuck in a non child-friendly environment, looking for something engaging to do. It’s the sort of thing we love when the food takes too long in a restaurant, or we end up in a long line someplace.
Bridge gaps by tracing
Another great way to develop pencil control and work on forming, or preparing to form letter shapes, is by tracing. Older toddlers and preschoolers will often ask adults to write or draw certain things for them. My usual way of responding is to encourage the child to do for themselves, but sometimes it is appropriate for the adult to help, as when a child wants to add their name to artwork, or include a specific message on a card for a loved one. A great idea I took from the teachers I learned from in my intern year, was to write or draw what the child requests with a highlighter, and then encourage them to trace over it with a pencil or other writing implement. This is great for children who are learning to write their name and, knowing how it should look, become frustrated with their still developing skill.
Many children love to “write” their own stories, or notes to others, long before they can actually write them. It can be great fun to have the child dictate a story to you, write in highlighter, and then hand it back to them to illustrate and trace. I always added “starting dots” to each letter to encourage correctness in tracing by showing children where to begin. For children who have worked with the Montessori Sensorial apparatus, tracing in a counter-clockwise direction comes pretty naturally, so a starting dot is usually enough, but for very young children with very little experience forming shapes, tracing letter shapes is not a particularly beneficial activity.
Tracing images using tracing paper and a soft pencil can be great fun, too. The paper can be taped or clipped on top of pictures in a book, photographs, or anything else the child is trying to reproduce. I prefer to encourage a more freehand approach to reproducing things that we see, but for many children there are times when only exactness will do, and attempts to copy without a control only become frustrating. At these times, tracing paper can come in very handy, both in building confidence and in preparing for writing.
Of course knowing how to write letters is not particularly meaningful before children have learned to identify, and associate them with the sounds they represent. Learning the sounds in Montessori is a huge topic that I want to cover in detail, so I’ll be doing so in a separate post, to come later in this series.
The Montessori material designed to help children learn to form (and recognize) the individual letters is the Sandpaper Letters, which children are shown how to trace individually. Tracing the sandpaper letters helps to build muscle memory of how they are formed, which prepares children to write them on paper later on. There are a number of ways to encourage further practice with letter formation at home. Some of the following are used in many Montessori classrooms as well, but are not officially part of the curriculum.
Make DIY letters for tracing
While the average household may not want to invest in a full set of Montessori sandpaper letters, there are plenty of inexpensive ways to build muscle memory and create the sensory connection between letter shapes and their sounds. You can use balsa wood, foam core board, or heavy cardstock as backing for letters cut out of fabric, sandpaper, or any other textured material. A set of stencils helps keep things uniform.
Practice letter formation on sensory trays
Many classrooms use a sand or cornmeal tray for additional sensory practice with letter formation. A shallow tray filled with sand, cornmeal, or any other similar material, can be used by the child for writing letters a child with the fingertips, or later on for practicing writing with an unsharpened pencil or other implement. A gentle shake “erases” writing so that children can practice again and again.
Encourage writing with different materials
To provide plenty of inviting opportunities for writing, consider offering a variety of materials and surfaces: Small chalkboards, or even a whole chalkboard wall and colorful chalk; small dry erase boards with markers; sidewalk chalk and a nice, smooth surface outside. Making your own writing visible, too, can inspire an enjoyment of the practice. My toddler, Annabelle hasn’t begun writing letters meaningfully yet, at least that I’m aware of, but because she sees me do it so often, she loves to write “lists.” If you keep your grocery or to do list on a dry erase board, you might want to get a similar one for your child, and keep it low enough on the fridge for them to use. As with anything else, modeling is huge when it comes to inspiring a love of writing.
Preparing children for writing is incredibly simple, really. Providing plenty of art materials and other opportunities to explore with forming shapes and, in due time, letters is absolutely enough. Modeling can be undervalued either, however, and there are plenty of other ways to encourage the preparation of the muscles for writing through fine motor practice.
Next in the series, we’ll discuss early reading exercises, and following that I’ll explain how letter sounds are introduced in Montessori, and share ideas for a similar approach in the home. In the meantime, I would love to hear your experiences with and ideas for developing writers.
This post, and the rest in the series are linked up with Montessori Monday on Living Montessori Now.