Category Archives: Play

Fine motor skills, handwriting, or writing? What’s the difference?

I recently received a call from a program administrator asking for an opinion on a practice that was concerning to her. Several parents have enrolled their preschoolers in an enrichment program based on “Handwriting Without Tears.” The parents are telling her their preschool children need to know how to write before they enter kindergarten, so the enrichment program has been very popular, for the parents. The administrator asked if, indeed, children do need to know how to write, and what did I think of this practice?

First, let’s sort out the difference between fine motor skills, handwriting, and writing, and what exactly is developmentally appropriate for preschoolers.

Fine motor development is all about strength and control of the small muscles in the hand.

Developmental progression of fine motor skills involves the mastery of the following:

A young child using this grasp will tend to grab indiscriminately at objects, hoping that something stays within his/her grip. Chubby crayons, puzzles with large knobs, and fingerpainting all support development of the palmer grip. As the name implies, gripping an object is mostly done by placing the object in the palm of the hand and closing the fingers around it.

As children’s hand strength and coordination improves, the pincer grasp involves grasping an object between the finger(s) and thumb, allowing more control over smaller objects. Picking up an individual Cheerio, playing with clay, and stringing beads support development of the pincer grip.

Development of eye-hand coordination involves the strength and control of the fingers and hand, as well as the ability to visually focus attention on what the hand and fingers are grasping and how to control the movements of the fingers and hand to accomplish a task. The above tasks all involve some amount of eye-hand coordination, but a child’s developmental maturity will influence how successful he/she is at each task.

Handwriting is all about the proper way to form letters and words, typically using paper and pencil.

Handwriting is NOT a developmentally appropriate skill until a child is in first grade. Where many early childhood educators get stumped is on how to promote the proper grip for holding crayons and pencils. Google the word “handwriting” and you’ll find many, many links to downloadable worksheets for handwriting practice. As a skill, handwriting involves many steps:

  • Knowing the letters
  • Visual perception skills, i.e. being able to interpret and understand what is seen
  • Following a sequence of steps
  • Controlling the pencil on paper to stay within the guidelines
  • Repeated practice of individual letters or groups of letters
  • Understanding left to right progression
  • Understanding top to bottom progression
  • Tracking the movement of the hand, the pencil, and the paper

Writing is about putting your ideas on paper.

Communicating ideas so that others understand what you want to say is a lifelong skill. Written communication begins in toddlerhood with the first marks a child makes with paper and crayon, and maybe even a wall. There are fairly universal typical stages of writing development and drawing development in children. Writing for young children takes many forms:

  • Making marks on a page
  • Scribbling with crayons
  • Drawing or painting a picture
  • Using letter like shapes and symbols to represent words
  • Writing words, phrases or sentences
  • Drawing a sequence of pictures to tell a story

So what is really important for a 3 or 4 year old? Is it forming the perfect letter “a” on a page, or drawing a picture of your family and scribbling to represent their names?

Legible handwriting is important, for an elementary school age child, but what is far more important is the ability to express your ideas. In preschool, attention should be focused on providing a wide variety of activities and experiences that build fine and gross motor skills, eye-hand coordination, the opportunity to express ideas in multiple ways. Handwriting has other important benefits, besides the formation of letters, however, as a developmental skill, handwriting success doesn’t come until children are in Kindergarten and First grade.

Handwriting emphasizes one right way to put the letter on the page. It involves many coordinated skills, as well as lots of repetition in order to master this skill. Handwriting Without Tears claims it is a research based program, the research cited does not explicitly state that handwriting practice is an essential early childhood skill. The research quoted references the need for children’s play, and the development of language and literacy skills. All of this can be accomplished in well- developed program that focuses on best practices in early childhood education.

Written communication emphasizes expressing yourself so that others understand your message.

Some might even argue that handwriting is becoming obsolete with the growth of electronic media. We all know what spell check has done for us! . However, there will always be a need for well-written thank you note.

Success in school and in life depends on how well you are able to communicate your ideas, not how neatly you form your letters.

As much as I despise standardized tests, none of the tests out there measure handwriting ability, but they sure do measure how well you can communicate your ideas. Early childhood screening tools don’t measure handwriting ability. Screening tools measure fine motor skills, and communication skills.

So what’s a parent to do?

Find ways to support your child’s fine motor development. Roll and throw the ball to your child. Vary the size and texture of the ball. Paint. Color. Play with clay. Make pizza dough. Practice using a mixing spoon in a bowl. Use tongs to place pom poms in an ice cube tray. String beads. Do jigsaw puzzles. Use stampers and ink. Play in the sand. Dig in the dirt. Build with blocks. Race cars around a track. In a nutshell, PLAY!

Encourage your child to express his ideas. Tell stories. Ask your child questions about what interests her, why he likes or doesn’t like something, or how he solved a problem. Read books. Make predictions, about a story, about the weather, about what might happen next, about a game. Talk to your child. Have a conversation. PLAY together. BE together. The rest is icing on the cake!

Inspiring Curiosity and Wonder

Each purple link in this post will take you to an ECE blogger 
that has inspired me in some way. Check the blog roll on
the left for more inspiration.

Young children are fascinated with anything that stimulates their senses. Consider the newborn that is drawn to human faces and the sound of Mommy’s voice, or the toddler who delights in blowing and chasing bubbles, and the preschooler who can’t get enough of GAK or OOBLEK. These experiences not only delight multiple senses, they inspire curiosity and wonder.

Childhood should be filled with the kinds of experience that engage the senses and challenge children to expand their thinking. Musings such as “I wonder what will happen if…” should be a mantra in any early childhood setting. To observe a child and see the concentration on his face, or the deliberateness in his hand movements is utterly fascinating. As an adult, watching this exploration from the outside makes me wonder what this child is thinking and what is motivating him. I wonder about what this child is wondering about.

Will he figure out how to make the mobile move?

Will she discover how to make a bubble land on her hand without popping?

Will he find a way to re-create the sound of crashing blocks using the musical instruments?

Then of course, my thoughts turn to how I can support this exploration.

  • What other materials can I provide to encourage the process of discovery?
  • What provocations can I set up to continue to spark this child’s curiosity and wonder?
  • How can I engage this child, either through an experience or a conversation, to learn more about what she is thinking or what motivates her?
  • How can I support the process of discovery without taking over, gently finding just the right words or interactions to extend the learning?

I am constantly fascinated by the depth of a child’s thinking and understanding. While their language skills and vocabulary may not provide a means of expression, their actions certainly do. This takes me back to the look of concentration, the focus of their attention, or the engagement of their hands.

When I visit a program where the teachers share this fascination, it’s obvious. The wonder and curiosity of the teachers, about the children, is so clearly evident in the layout of the environment, or the documentation that is displayed. How a teacher or caregiver sets up an invitation for play and learning is directly related to the value that caregiver places on capturing the hearts and minds of the children in their care.

I shared my excitement in a previous post about how fascinating it is to watch teachers truly engage with young children. I so truly enjoy watching teachers have conversations with children. I love to see their descriptions of various experiences through photos and written documentation. It’s especially gratifying for me to see (hear) the teachers voice in the documentation, opening the door to what makes that teacher wonder about the children.  To see the reflections of the teachers, and of the children is so delightful. Margie Carter and Deb Curtis from Harvesting Resources have written great articles and books about this kind of reflective practice that engages curiosity and wonder in teachers.

Sometimes, I don’t have the opportunity to be in a program with a caregiver to see all of the engaging experiences that take place, but I get to live it second hand when these caregivers share stories during a workshop with me. I live for the opportunity to talk with caregivers about what inspires them, what creates that sense of curiosity and wonder within them, and what they can do to continue to engage and inspire the children in their care. So a shout out to all my teacher friends who have allowed me the opportunity to question and challenge them about why they do what they do. The questions aren’t always easy, and they don’t always lead to answers, but the process is invigorating for me. I hope it is for them too!

So tell me what inspires you? What creates a sense of curiosity and wonder in your work with young children? I’d love to hear your ideas!

Learning Through Play

I teach a workshop by this title, but also include the topic of learning through play in many other trainings. So often teachers tell me they provide time for children to play, but that “play” time is interrupted by teacher activities, small groups, or otherwise teacher directed choices.Teachers tell me they do this because the parents want it. They need to be more “academic,” whatever that means! Really, we’re talking about three and four year olds.

What most teachers mean when they say “academics” are school readiness skills. So let’s define readiness skills:

  • knowing how to get along with others
  • being able to work or play independently, with a partner, in small groups, and with the whole class
  • expressing your feelings in an appropriate way
  • understanding how to share and take turns (although this doesn’t mean that you are able to do this all the time)
  • listening to others
  • talking to others, communicating your ideas
  • following simple directions

Notice that “reading”, “counting”, “sorting”, etc. are not on the list. Why? Because at 5 years old, it is not developmentally appropriate to expect children to be masters of reading and math skills.  In preschool programs, if children are exposed to a variety of developmentally appropriate experiences in a print rich environment, they will learn the pre-reading and pre-math skills necessary for success in school. They will, in fact, be ready.

So how do children develop these readiness skills? Through PLAY! When children have the TIME for open-ended, child-directed play that is joyful, and allows for children to make choices, the social skills needed for school readiness will develop.

When children play, they learn how to resolve conflicts. Who will go first? What rules will they play by? How will they share the materials? When children play, they learn self-control. How can we build a block tower without knocking it over? How can I paint at the easel without getting paint drips everywhere? I want to play in dramatic play, but there are already 4 friends. What will I do while I wait for a turn? When children play, they learn self-concept. I figured out how to put the puzzle together all by myself! I like how my friend rolled the clay to make a snake. I can do that too! When children play, they learn how to communicate their needs and share ideas. Interacting with other children in dramatic play, blocks, on the playground, at the sensory table encourages children to talk with each other. They describe what they see, hear, feel, or want to do. They act out stories they’ve read or social situations they’ve experienced.

When children play, they also learn:

  • How to be lawyers by practicing their negotiating skills. “I want to be the waitress today. You were the waitress yesterday!”
  • How to be architects by creating structures. “Let’s see how tall we can make this building.” “Do you think we can make ramps and bridges that stretch across the whole room?”
  • How to be scientists by making comparisons and engaging their natural curiosity. “I wonder what will happen if I roll the ball up the ramp?” “This leaf looks just the one we saw in the story.”
  • How to be composers by using a variety of materials to explore sound. “I can make music with this can filled with beans.” “When I tap this stick on different objects it makes different sounds.”
  • How to be artists and express themselves. “This painting is my blue mood.” “Look, when I dip the tissue paper in glue I can make a collage shape like Eric Carle.”
  • How to be authors and communicate their ideas. “I want to use the photos from our nature walk to make a book.” “I wrote a story about my dog. See my picture? There’s her fluffy fur.”

The list is endless. The best thing we can do for children is to give them time to make choices, let them play for long periods of uninterrupted time, and encourage their budding curiosity and explorations.

Sometimes, we just need to get out of the way!

The hard part for many teachers is giving up control. Sometimes we think that if we plan for everything, and we set up specific experiences and direct where and when children play, we’re teaching them more. If we don’t do that, then chaos will ensue. The truth is, and I learned this the hard way, the more we give control to the children to make choices, and the less we interfere with their play, the more relaxed the group is. There are fewer behavior challenges. There are fewer conflicts. Children are far more engaged when they make choices, and they are more likely to play for extended periods of time.

For many teachers, allowing for open-ended, child-selected play requires stepping out of their comfort zone. That’s really hard to do.  The key is setting up the environment so that there are many opportunities for children to use materials that are interesting and capture their attention. Try it for one afternoon’s play session. See what happens, and let me know!