Toolkit: Developing Your Child’s Pre-Writing Skills

Learning to write is an important part of every school curriculum. Not everyone writes in the same way; some children will use paper and a pencil, others will use a keyboard or other equipment to aid in writing. But all children benefit from developing their fine motor skills first to get ready for more challenging activities like writing. To encourage your child’s fine motor development, here are suggestions for activities you can do at home together.

Balance skills and upper body strengthening:

  • Children can do puzzles or use crayons and paper on the floor while lying on their stomach. This promotes stability and allows them to practice new skills.
  • Standing at an easel to scribble or paint offers the opportunity to strengthen shoulder muscles while making large movements. Have the child wash or erase the easel afterward for further shoulder strengthening.
  • Kneeling at an easel or small table to draw encourages strength and stability in the muscles of the trunk and hips.
  • Doing puzzles or playing with crayons and paper while on all fours (quadruped) on the floor encourages shoulder and hand strengthening.
  • Squeezing out wet sponges and washcloths, playing with squirt guns and toys that must be squeezed strengthens the muscles of the hand.

Sensory play and creative building skills:
Children need time to experiment with different textures and sensations especially when they are using their hands. By spending time building designs and shapes, your child is improving his spatial awareness and how to orient shapes and eventually letters.

  • Use bare hands or sticks to make sand drawings in a sand box at the park.
  • Use Sticky Wickies to create designs on paper or trace textured shapes with a finger.
  • Water paint with a paintbrush dipped in water and create designs on the sidewalk or dark paper.
  • Make designs such as shapes or letters out of popsicle sticks.
  • Use a pastry bag to squeeze out frosting into designs or letter on a cake.

Crayon/marker play:

Once a child is no longer mouthing crayons or tearing/crumpling paper, she is ready for opportunities to develop paper and pencil pre-writing skills. In the beginning, offer her many opportunities to draw with crayons to encourage a mature grasp and eye-hand coordination. Your child will develop these skills at her own pace which may be later than some of her peers. Most children follow this general sequence for developing grasp and pre-writing skills, regardless of the age that it is mastered. Here are some beginning suggestions for helping your child learn to use markers and crayons:

  • Make sure your child is well-supported in her chair, with her feet on the floor. The table should be a height that allows her to rest her forearms on it.
  • Offer your child large, jumbo, or even ball-shaped crayons/markers, which are easier to grasp.
  • Place the crayons in front of your child so she can decide which hand to use (right or left-hand dominance may not be clearly established until as late as kindergarten)
  • Tape the paper to the table for stability for a toddler new to crayons; encourage children with more experience to stabilize the paper with their “helping” hand.


Children start grasping a writing utensil with all four of the fingers on one side of the crayon and the thumb on the other with the thumb pointing upward (pronate grasp). They progress to the same grasp with the thumb pointing downward (digital pronate grasp). They will eventually progress to a tripod grasp which is the efficient grasp for writing. Here are some ways to help them develop this skill:

  • Encourage mature grasp for the more experienced child by placing the crayon between the child’s thumb and fingers with the little finger resting on the table.
  • Offer a small, two-inch crayon to children who are ready to practice a mature tripod grasp.
  • Triangular shaped crayons and later triangular shaped pencils and pens encourage a tripod grasp.

Progressing from scribbling to imitating and copying:
Encourage your toddler’s scribbling and free play with crayons and markers. If your child is using markers, allow her time to practice uncapping and capping the markers independently. For a child who has mastered this skill, offer the cap backwards so that the child can practice turning the cap around with one hand. Take the opportunity during scribbling activities to name the colors and talk about colors.

  • Generally, children make random marks up until 18 months of age.

Children then progress from scribbling in a random way to scribbling horizontally, vertically, and then in a circular pattern.


  • Once your child can scribble in one direction independently, she is ready to imitate you. To encourage imitation, you model making a mark or shape while your child watches. Then you encourage her to imitate the mark. To begin teaching imitation, let the child see you make a horizontal line and then encourage her to scribble in the same direction. Children will learn to imitate these directional marks in the same sequence as they learn them in random scribbling: horizontal, vertical, and circular.


  • Well after your child can imitate a mark that you’ve modeled, she can learn to copy a mark without your modeling it first. Once your child is proficient at imitating lines and a circle, generally around three years of age, she will begin to copy a line.
  • Start with a horizontal or vertical line. Eventually, a preschooler can imitate a circle and is ready to practice a cross, right/left diagonal line, a square, an X, a triangle, and a diamond. These children are now ready to practice simple letters or coloring pictures.

Copying and imitation of more complex marks are skills that children generally develop between 3 ½ and 4 ½ years of age.

Links & Resources »

Miller, L. J. and Fuller, D. A (2007) Sensational kids: Hope And Help for Children With Sensory Processing Disorder. New York: Penguin Group.

Tecklin, J. S. (2007) Pediatric Physical Therapy. Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.
Wilms Floet, A.M. (2006) “Motor Skills Disorder.” Emedicine: Medscape’s Continually Updated Clinical Reference.