Now that COVID -19 is pushing EI into telehealth, I see exactly what parents have at home when they hunt around for pre-writing tools. These egg-shaped crayons, and crayons where the child pokes a finger inside a cone-shaped crayon, are popping out of bins and drawers like little spring flowers. I (mostly) hate them.
Because the only kids that benefit from them are infants and kids who have such limited grasp that a cylindrical crayon isn’t a realistic choice. For absolutely everyone else, they teach kids nothing about grasp, and they make it harder to control a stroke. They are fun to bang together and on a table, but they are really difficult to control to make more than a poorly executed mark. This isn’t pre-writing at all.
So why are they in the house? That is simple: marketing.
Parents are eager to give their toddlers and preschoolers an edge, and these are heavily promoted on sites and in stores (remember when we used to go into stores?) They are uniquely shaped and colorful, sold with excellent packaging. A standard box of crayons gets none of this kind of love.
Please, please: don’t believe the hype. Just like those spoons shaped like bulldozers, these crayons aren’t helping anyone but the people selling them. They are gimmicks, not tools for motor development. If your child is older than 12 months and has enough motor control to hold a spoon in a fisted grasp to eat, they are ready to hold a thick crayon and make a stroke. Experience picking up and using a crayon, and watching an adult demonstrate how to make a stroke on a large sturdy piece of paper is so much more helpful.
The greatest criticism an older sibling can level at a young child’s drawing is to call it “scribble scrabble”. But wait! If you want to develop finger control for future handwriting success, then you want more scribbling and coloring! Random strokes aren’t going to move the needle forward for a child older than 3 years of age with typical visual and motor skills. This is the time for good tools and materials that are selected to build skills and creativity. Before a child writes letters, coloring and scribbling with intention and focus builds hand strength, hand control, visual-perceptual skills, and more! Here are suggestions on how to harness the power of the scribble with young children:
Pick sturdy paper. Young children are learning to control the amount of force they use, and if the paper tears, they can become discouraged. Cheap coloring books have thin pages and will not survive the enthusiastic strokes of younger children. Print out pictures from the internet on your thickest paper or buy great coloring products from companies like Melissa and Doug. Their coloring pads use wonderfully sturdy paper. Short on cash? Study the quality of your junk mail. Some of my junk mail uses nice sturdy paper, so I flip it over to the other side and use it for scribbling.
Some threes and fours enjoy the possibilities of a blank page, but there are young children who color more, and color longer, on a simple graphic that is meaningful to them. Handwriting Without Tears does an especially good job with their “My Book” and their preschool workbook pages. I also search the internet for free coloring pages that have simple drawings with strong appeal. In therapy, I will find very simple coloring pictures that have designs that require the target strokes a child needs for writing. Develop circular strokes and small wiggle strokes with bubbles or chocolate chip cookies, and swords or kite strings drawn on a diagonal for a child that is practicing “K” or “X”. Coloring on a simply drawn Darth Vader or Rapunzel picture is so much more fun for these children than filling in a geometric design.
The shape and coloring properties of your tools matter more at this age. Handwriting Without Tears sells their flip crayons, those tiny two-sided crayons that require a tripod grasp. Genius. But some of my kids, even the 4 year-olds that the flip crayons are designed for, need a thicker crayon. They have low muscle tone or another issue that affects their ability to sense what is in their hand. They need more “square footage” to refine their grasp in this pattern. I break the thicker crayons in two. Crayons are waxy, and that waxy grippy-ness helps kids feel what their hands are doing. Markers just glide, and don’t give the kids with low tone or coordination issues enough sensory information about what is happening as they color.
Look beyond the crayon. Chalk has the same grippy input as crayons, plus the sound on a chalkboard gives another sensory reinforcer to boost attention. Don’t buy thick sidewalk chalk and expect to build pencil grasp. It is way too wide for little fingers. Buy thin chalk once a child doesn’t press so hard that it crumbles all the time. One of my clients used pastels for extra grippy input and fabulous colors. They were super short but a little thicker than flip crayons. He graduated to Crayola’s preschool pencils and is on his way to a standard pencil.
For kids whose strokes barely registered paper when they scribble, the Magna-Doodle boards with magnetic pens can reward them with a dark mark on the screen from only light touch. Finally, a tablet stylus (my favorite is iCreate’s stylus that looks like a preschool crayon) also gives some resistance and actually builds control while trying to drag and swipe while using it.
Why haven’t I mentioned pencils? Because until a child has a decent amount of control with their strokes, I agree with HWT and don’t bring pencils into the conversation. Pencils require a lot of control to avoid falling into a fisted grasp. I did review Crayola’s preschool pencils last yearPreschool Pencils That Develop Hand Control (and with tips that won’t constantly break!), and I use HWT’s pencils with the older 4’s and all kindergarteners. This year I started using the Grotto grip The Pencil Grip That Strengthens Your Child’s Fingers As They Write.with thin colored pencils for my kids that did not progress their grasp pattern with a heavy diet of play-based hand strengthening, but had all the other components of readiness to start writing. It has worked better than I ever thought possible!
Color with a child and make your comments count. Why? Preschoolers don’t always want to be told how to do something, but they watch everything we do and listen to everything we say. Describe exactly how you plan to do a good job, how you match your stroke to the shape of the design that you are coloring, and how you fill in a design without going over the lines. Be proud of your work if you want a child to value their efforts too. Narrate what you are doing and why with lots of details, But don’t direct the child to copy you. They might start to do that spontaneously.
Extra Bonus Round: Use prepositions and describe shapes that kids need to know in order to follow handwriting instruction later on. They need to find out what is right and what is left, what the top-middle-bottom of a shape means, and what triangles, rectangles,straight lines, curves and diagonals are. HWT teaches all that in the preschool book, but if you are using these concepts with 3.5-4.5 year olds, you never know what is going to stick. It all adds up to writing readiness.