As a pediatric occupational therapist, I would guess that every third IEP I have seen for preschool children includes some version of being able to cut with scissors. Understanding anatomy and neurology certainly help therapists understand why a child struggles. But when teaching a motor skill, it also helps to know what tools make a difference.
The type of paper offered to children can make such a huge difference that I am devoting an entire blog post to it.
Here is the simplest suggestions that I can make:
The younger or more challenged the child, the more important paper selection will be.
Moderately stiff paper will be most successful for almost all children.
Cheap printer paper is the equivalent of an adult cutting out a trapezoid from a facial tissue.
The younger the child, the smaller the paper should be, down to 4 or 5 inches square. Paper smaller than this size requires greater grasp control. Paper sized 8.5×11 inches is more difficult for almost all children under 5 to control.
Slightly textured drawing paper provides some tactile input for children that struggle with sensory registration.
Every part of a high-quality piece of paper can be used. Paper strips can be made, scraps can become collages, etc. There is no need to waste paper.
To learn why I only use one type of safety scissors, read:
As a pediatric occupational therapist, scissor use is something I assess but also something I teach. And I teach it early. I also teach safety early, and teach it with a focus on early success.
What makes it easier to teach children to cut with scissors?
Good timing. Typically-developing children have the visual-motor skills to start snipping with scissors at 24 months. YUP; that early. What they don’t have is safety awareness and the ability to select what they should be using. To teach scissor skills this early, you have to know about fine motor development, child behavior, learning skills, and have access to the right tools. If a child is unable to attend to your demonstration, unwilling to tolerate assistance of any kind, or unable to use both hands at midline, then 24 months of age is too soon.
Good tools. My long-time readers know that I use only one type of scissor until a child is 4 or 5: Lakeshore Scissors for Toddlers That Only Cut the Paper, Not the Toddler Nothing derails training like needing a bandage! In addition to the right scissors, beginning to cut is helped when the paper is a bit stiff. The cheap printer paper most teachers and even therapists use to make copies of cutting sheets is difficult to cut. We don’t experience it as difficult, because adults have better graded grasp. We can control the scissor more easily as well. Young children do much better with card stock or at least high-quality printer paper. Try getting the administration to pay for it, though. But if you want success, use the right tools. My private clients learn using the Kumon “LET’s Cut Paper” series of books, or “Paper Playtime”. Read more about these excellent books here: Kumon Learn to Cut Books: Paper Truly Worth Snipping Up .
Good demonstration. Some children watch every move you make. Others are completely oblivious. Most are somewhere in the middle. But learning to cut isn’t intuitive. Not any more intuitive than changing the air filter in your car is. Could you learn to do it? Sure, but it would really help if you could watch someone before you tried it. I make sure that a child is able to observe me, and being that close to a scissor is another reason to use Lakeshore’s brand of safety scissor. If a child grabs my hand or my scissor, I might not be happy about it, but the will not be injured. If they ONLY watch me the first or second time I use a scissor in front of a child, that is just fine. Some kids are risk-averse, and pushing them to try isn’t smart. The next time I bring the scissors out, they may be more eager to try to use them, and they will have some information stored away about how they work.
Good experiences. Learning should be fun. Play should be fun. Learning to use scissors should be play, not work. Make it fun. I will demonstrate cutting on a page that results in something fun to play with. The “Let’s Cut Paper” books make some cut things. Another thing that is fun is cutting pieces of paper that fall to the table. I am doing telehealth during the pandemic, so I am teaching parents to cut 1/2-inch strips of paper and have kids cut across the paper. They joy in a child’s face when they snip across the strip is wonderful. It isn’t the same as snipping on the side of the page. You need to make it fun, or it isn’t going to work.
Lakeshore Learning sells their own brand of plastic safety scissors, and I like then so much that I wouldn’t recommend any other brand for children under 4. Toddlers are just too curious about how scissors work and too excited to listen to safety precautions. These scissors mean that they can develop solid hand skills earlier and without bloodshed.
Scissors are the second actual tool a child masters (eating utensils are first) and the earlier a child understands how scissors work and how to handle them, the safer they are when using them. I wouldn’t give anyone under 2 a pair of scissors unless they impressed me with their maturity and fine motor control. Before 2, most children do not have the requisite coordination to make snipping on paper a success. Toddlers with older siblings immediately earn a slightly earlier-than-usual first lesson from me, as I know that older children often leave regular scissors on a table without thinking. I want them to understand correct grip, correct carrying and that using scissors is a “big kid” privilege.
One of may favorite work memories is a child to whom I offered a pair of these scissors and tried to help him put his fingers into the handles. He resisted me, and with a combination of derision and fear, uttered “Dane-ge-wous!!”. Apparently he had heard about scissors from someone else! This version will prevent you from shrieking and grabbing a scissor away from a child just as he is really learning how to cut.
Lakeshore’s own brand of safety scissor will break easily if a child tries to twist the blades apart. Luckily they are very affordable, and I generally encourage parents to buy a few at a time in the same color when shopping. They will not cut skin, hair or clothing, but they will pinch fingers. Of course, if your child tries to stab someone in the face they will cause injury. Just because they are not going to cut a child doesn’t mean that they cannot be used as an intentional weapon or create some accident. Supervision is essential, and not just for injury prevention. I always bring 2 scissors with me so that a child can see me demonstrate cutting without having to rip a pair out of his hands. You know that the toddler commandments include “If I am holding it, it is mine” . If I have only one pair of scissors, toddlers are so intent to retrieve that pair that they cannot watch my demonstration.
Combine these great scissors with the high-quality paper and creative designs of the Kumon cutting books (see earlier post) and you have hours of fun and solid preschool skill development!