I was recently skipping through the photos taken at nursery over the past month, selecting a few to put up on social media. I usually select a broad range to showcase the range of exciting things the children have been up to. This month one photo stood out to me and it got me thinking. A little girl is sat on a the carpet. She has one hand on the ground and the other is holding a pencil. She is not using a tripod grip. Her paper is at 90 degrees to the direction she is trying to write.
Her head is on one side. She is doing everything wrong according to the handwriting conference I attended last year. She is not anchored by feet flat on the ground, her paper is at the wrong angle and she sitting in the dreaded w-sit position. More on that later. However, her letter and number form is excellent for her age. I know the little girl and knowing my team I can guess the context.
At both nurseries, our staff are trained not to push handwriting. Pencils are available but handwriting 'activities', tracing and following the dots are not part of our curriculum. So what is happening here?
Well, the answer is, we are child led. This little girl has been with us since she was a baby. She has had access to all the pre-writing activities daily. She has excellent fine motor skills, attention and a natural motivation for these sorts of activities. She is a rare exception to my dislike of handwriting in preschool. So just as I disagree with teaching handwriting in preschool, we must also be mindful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
One of my talented educators has spotted an interest and natural ability and scaffolded her learning. She hasn't broken the child's play to relocate the child to an appropriate chair. She hasn't corrected her pencil grip or told her to sit 'properly'. She has gently drawn some letters to copy, (but not trace), allowing freedom to mark-make however the child chooses. And the result, a happy, motivated, uncriticised child with fostered growth mindset and a can-do attitude who has chosen to write at the right time for her.
So, how did we get to this point? If we're not tracing letters at two and a half, what ARE we doing? Well, I firmly believe that handwriting does not belong in preschool. I also believe that bad handwriting habits often form in preschool when children are pushed too soon. So what do we do to support a handwriting ready child. First of all we have to understand what skills a child needs to gain in order to write. And these skills will not be gained from workbooks of letters and numbers to trace!
The first broad set of skills are the gross motor skills, these include core body strength, imitation of movement, bilateral arm and hand use and crossing the mid-line (more on that later). These underpin the next set of skills, the fine motor skills. Pinch precision, hand strength, finger opposition, finger isolation, thumb dexterity and strength and the development of a dominant hand and an assisting hand.
Children also need a broad range of visual processing pre-writing skills including visual memory, attention and hand-eye coordination. And finally, none of this is any use without the cognitive skills of following directions, attention and focus, memory and awareness of the left-right direction following in books.
That's a whole load of skills, which is why sitting a two year old in front of some letter tracing activities is going to end in nothing but boredom and frustration. For everyone!
So how do we support the development of these skills? Well back to my skip through the last months photos. To an untrained eye, there's a lot of mud. I see clay, heavy work (pouring and tipping), I see large tool use with axes and hammers, I see pipettes for pincer grip. I see scooping, running (a lot of running) which involves navigating space and obstacles and building a strong core. I see hammocks and swinging, I see books, a lot of books. Reading, storytelling. Mark making everywhere, with charcoal, chalk, mud, water and paint. But most of all I see happy children, self directed, self motivated, developing problem solving skills, relationships and ALL the pre-writing skills through self motivated play.
This is how we do pre-writing school readiness at Seasons!