Pre-Writing Skills & Fine Motor Skills for Preschoolers

How to Help Preschoolers and Kindergarteners with Pre-Writing and Writing

Pre-writing skills in OT are a strong area of focus when helping preschoolers AND even kindergarteners.  Before you begin working on printing with children, it’s important to check fine motor skills and writing readiness skills.

As a pediatric OT, I absolutely love when I see (and hear of) developmental preschool and kindergarten programs.  So much learning and skill development happens when you let it occur naturally through play, games, and a variety of sensory-based activities. 

These programs appropriately focus on the process of skill development in young children.  They value a child’s ability to build fundamental skills rather than only focusing on academic performance. 

Developmental programs allow children to take their time gaining skills at the right pace and in the proper sequential order.  They offer natural opportunities to build skills.

These programs focus on play-based learning and use crafts and art projects for learning.  Many of my favorite pediatric OT activities are embedded into the daily routines of developmental preschools and kindergartens.

The other programs out there have unfortunately evolved to become too academic, too soon.  This has happened beyond teachers’ control.  Changes are made at higher levels, and educators have to adjust to the new expectations.

I might sound like a broken record when I say that some standards and expectations have changed for kids’ learning… but the developmental sequence has not changed. 

In addition to this, kids’ bodies are not getting enough appropriate play opportunities during the crucial early years.  (Decreased tummy time, increased time spend in containers as babies, lack of problem solving during play, decreased physical play, too much screen time, etc.)

The good news- and my hope- is that we can work together to still meet developmental needs of kids!  If you have been expected to change your curriculum, there are still ways to compliment your program with developmental activities.

Especially when it comes to pre-writing skills and reading readiness skills

What Are Pre-Writing Skills in OT for Preschoolers and Kindergarteners?

Pre-writing skills are the building blocks for the body, the hands and the brain in order for kids to have success with drawing, printing and writing.  They’re fundamental skills children need to develop before starting to practice letter and number formation. 

Part of these building blocks are basic developmental skills covered in other posts.  (Click on the links in the list for more information.)

Body and brain readiness skills for pre-writing (an OT perspective) can include the following:

Many of these skills are developing in toddlers and preschoolers.  They continue to develop and become more refined into kindergarten and first grade.

By preschool and kindergarten, many of the foundational skills should be developing: proper seated posture in a chair, attention, following directions, bilateral coordination and crossing midline. 

Motor skills developed during play support hand dominance, grasping skills, hand strength, and finger dexterity.   Visual perception supports identifying and remembering letters and their position in space.  (This continues into first grade.)

Visual motor skills develop through arts and crafts and play based learning.  Kids gain skills through activities such as drawing in paths, tracing, coloring inside lines, and completing cutting activities

All of these areas of development help support getting their bodies ready for writing.

What Pre-Writing Skills Should You Focus on with Your Preschoolers and Kindergarteners before Starting Writing Activities?

Following the developmental sequence is important for kids!  All of the skills previously mentioned help support pre-writing skills.

But, before you start actually working on printing, check to see how well kids can draw various vertical lines, horizontal lines, diagonal lines, and simple shapes.

A child’s success with drawing shapes is a great way to see if they’re ready to start printing letters and numbers.  

When I assess kids as an OT- I always check for mastery of pre-writing forms using the criteria on the Beery-Buktenica Developmental Test of Visual-Motor Integration.  A child should be able to copy the following forms and shapes – presented in a developmental sequence – before printing:

vertical lines, horizontal lines, circle, intersecting lines (+), right oblique lines, square, left oblique lines, X, and triangle.

Preschool and Kindergarten Pre-Writing Skills OT

Kids first learn to imitate these pre-writing forms when they’re little, then they copy them, and finally they draw them independently. 

During imitation of shapes, you show them how to draw the form and you give verbal cues.  For example, for an intersecting line, you might show them each motion and say, “Down. Over.”  And then you say, “Your turn.”

Or, for a triangle you might say, “Start at the top.  Slide, slide, over” as you’re showing them how to draw it in 3 parts.  (This ensures better control and mimics forming an A.) 

When copying shapes, children see an example in front of them and you tell them to “draw one just like that” WITHOUT showing them how to draw it.     

When kids can copy all 9 of these forms and shapes, they are ready to begin learning to draw and form letters. 

It’s really important to see what level your kids are on.  If they can’t copy a shape, back up and teach them through imitation.  This will help build their skills and confidence!  (Kid Sense has a very helpful chart with ages and pre-writing expectations.)    

After practice with imitating and copying shapes, children can draw independently.  This is when visual memory supports their learning; they remember the shape without needing to see it.

As you’re playing and learning, add positional words like top, middle and bottom.  This will help with understanding where to start and stop letters.  Make sure they always start from the TOP when drawing lines and forms.

[In addition to working on pre-writing forms, you can easily add appropriate OT activities to your lessons and centers to support fine motor development for printing.  Check out Learning Centers in the Classroom – OT Activity Ideas for some fun, helpful ways to support skill development.]

Challenges Found in Preschool and Kindergarten Students During Pre-Writing & Printing  

There are many challenges that I’ve come across as an OT when addressing pre-writing skills and printing skills.  When helping parents and teachers help kids there are sometimes difficulties within the kiddos themselves! I’ve seen many of them, so chances are – you will, too!

These difficulties interfere with the proper development of prewriting skills and printing skills.  I’ve highlighted three challenges and also provide solutions below in the next section.

I can’t stress enough how important it is to focus on proper letter formation, getting kids interested and making sure their bodies are ready…

Challenge #1 The Over-Achievers

First, I often see kids that start to print and write TOO SOON

And I understand why!  Young kiddos start to show an interest in learning letters and numbers.  They’re excited to recognize their name and to learn to write their name. 

So they begin drawing letters everywhere.  Parents and caregivers (and even early childhood programs) become excited and supportive of this milestone!  And it IS exciting!

However, I often see these kids print letters incorrectly from a young age.  They continue the incorrect formation and it’s difficult to change the bad habits after their motor memory is established. 

Incorrect formation can lead to messy writing and poor line placement when they get older.  I see it A LOT!

Challenge #2 Lack of Interest in Pre-Writing and Fine Motor Activities

Second, there are other kids who don’t have much interest in preschool pre-writing activities.  They tend to avoid sitting down for fine motor play.  It’s hard to get them interested in or motivated for these tasks! 

These kids tend to avoid sitting still and don’t choose fine motor activities.  Parents try to encourage this (maybe more than the kiddo would prefer) because you worry that they’ll be behind in pre-k and kindergarten.

Pushing these kids can lead to further avoidance and dislike of fine motor pre-writing activities.  Their avoidance behaviors can become a habit.

Challenge #3 Lack of Readiness and Pre-Writing Skills Coupled with Program Expectations

Third, there are a handful of kids who begin instruction with printing, but they aren’t ready. This is an area that I see the most in preschools and kindergartens as an occupational therapist.  With a large number of kids! 

This group of kids has decreased postural and fine motor development.  They lack the required visual motor integration skills for printing. 

The kids have difficulty even holding the pencil.  Controlling it to draw pre-writing shapes needed for letters is too challenging.

Their pre-writing skills are not fully developed, yet they’re expected to start printing as part of their learning standards.

Plus, they’re expected to draw smaller than they’re capable of doing.  (Small spaces, on lines, etc when they’re not ready for these targets.)

These kids start to feel stress.  Anxious behaviors begin because they know they can’t do what’s being asked of them.  They become frustrated and develop a lack of confidence.

How to Help Early Printers, Kids Who Lack Interest, and Kids Who Aren’t Ready for Pre-Writing or Printing

The three challenges that I mentioned have some easy solutions.  To avoid potential problems with each group of kids, here are some tips:

How to Guide Kids Who Want to Print at an Early Age in Preschool

First, for the preschoolers that love fine motor activities and love to learn to print early, start with capital letters.  (After you make sure they can draw all of the shapes!)

Capitals are easier to form developmentally.  Each letter takes up the same (similar) rectangular space.  And basic letter strokes are used.

PLEASE teach them proper letter formation.  (Click the link for 9 helpful tips and some great resources to help you.)  Teach kids to start forms, shapes, and capital letters at the top.  Practice counterclockwise movements for circles.

And, don’t worry about using the lines!  Give them room on plain paper or an easel or chalkboard to draw as large as they need to.

Practice building and drawing pictures that contain shapes.  Encourage coloring, puzzles, and gross motor play as well.

Additionally, please don’t expect any drawings (shapes) to be perfect!  Follow the sequence previously mentioned and know that it’s okay if a square has some rounded edges.  Or that a triangle may be tilted or have a wavy side or two. 

How to Help Preschool Kids Who Aren’t Interested in Pre-writing Skills or Fine Motor Activities

Second, for the preschool kids who aren’t interested in the fine motor activities, it’s okay.  Please don’t worry.  I know many mothers of preschoolers who are nervous that their kids won’t be ready for kindergarten. 

Learning and readiness skills can still be developed – through an alternate path.  They’ll gain skills from their preferred gross motor and sensory play. 

Some kids need more movement, more outdoor activity and more creativity.  This is actually great for the brain and nervous system anyway.   Sensory-motor development for all kids is crucial foundation for higher level learning.

You can focus on the body and brain readiness skills and learning concepts during play.  Start with their interests and follow their lead. 

If they like building with blocks, talk about top-middle-bottom when building structures.  You can build lines and shapes and various forms with them. 

For the car lovers and the figurine lovers, tape paths on a floor or draw with chalk on an outdoor wall or sidewalk.  Work on helping these kids learn about the lines, diagonal lines, and shapes this way.

For the outdoor lovers (my boys when they were little,) draw in dirt or sand using a stick as part of a game.  Make a scavenger hunt to gather outdoor items.  Build forms and shapes with rocks as you’re designing the play space. 

Gradually increase the amount of time spent on a task to increase their focus and attention.  If there’s an activity they love (building shapes with rocks or driving cars on taped lines) – eventually bring it to a table top so that they can work on the activity when sitting. 

How to Help Preschoolers (and Kindergarteners) Whose Bodies and Brains Aren’t Ready to Begin Pre-Writing or Printing

For kids who aren’t ready to begin pre-writing, focus on whole body learning activities. Avoid jumping into the academics too soon and don’t worry!  They will meet the benchmarks by the end of the year.

Check readiness skills and provide appropriate activities for them.  They may need extra movement activities and classroom exercises to help strengthen their bodies. 

Use ribbons and music to encourage crossing midline and imitation of basic pre-writing forms.

These kids benefit from brain breaks throughout their learning day (a brain gym exercise sequence and/or proprioceptive brain breaks to increase focus.)

Students who aren’t ready need a variety of positions to work in to use different muscle groups.  Vertical surface and prone activities are super helpful, as well as 16 core strengthening activities (Your Kids Table) or 40 core exercises for kids.

Additionally, flexible seating options can also be explored to increase focus and attention as well as to improve posture for fine motor tasks.

Focus on grasp development and hand dexterity activities during play and learning.  Build shapes rather than using a drawing tool.

Check the pre-writing skills by seeing which forms they can imitate and copy.  Focus on the order listed above and in the image.  Don’t push them to work on ones that they’re not ready for.  Stick with the sequence!

When you are working on the pre-writing forms (or possibly even easy capital letters,) give their bodies larger spaces WITHOUT lines or borders! 

Start with big movements on a large surface, large paper, an easel or wall space.  Big movements (more muscles groups) help the brain and body learn the proper formations. 

Final OT Tips for Pre-Writing and Printing Readiness (AND Reading Readiness) for Preschoolers and Kindergarteners

Toddlers, preschoolers, kindergarteners, first graders… ALL need a variety of sensory and motor input for their brains and bodies.  THIS input is an important part of their academic instruction. 

Check out The Pyramid of Learning to see the visual of how sensory input serves as the foundation for academics.  (And find posts and activities to support building blocks on the pyramid.)

PLEASE avoid screens & technology.  Avoid them in school and avoid them at home.  Increased screen use is creating such a negative effect on our children.  It hinders many areas of development.

Encourage gross motor play, outdoor play / games, and creativity.  Engage your kids in games, fun activities, puzzles, music and story telling.  Play games that work on auditory and listening skills!

Build in time for unstructured play.  Let them feel bored.  Encourage them to come up with activities on their own! 

We need to work together to start shifting back to the basics.  It’s what our kids’ bodies and brains need. 

For Continued Guidance, Support, Tips and Information:

Click on the links throughout this post for topics related to pre-writing.  Additionally, check out (and share) these important ones:

Kindergarten and Preschool Writing ACTIVITIES that Use Sensory Input – helpful, fun multi-sensory activities to help kids practice pre-writing forms and letter / number formation

Play-Based Learning in Kindergarten

40 Core Strengthening Activities for Kids (Free Printable)

107 Easy Hand Strengthening Activities for Kids

Screen Time Effects on Sensory Processing and Development

School-Based OT

Amy Hathaway MOT, OTR/L, CIMI-2 is a licensed and registered occupational therapist.  She is the founder of Develop Learn Grow. 

Amy has 22 years of experience as a pediatric occupational therapist.   She enjoys collaborating with teachers, parents, therapists, administrators, and support staff in preschools & schools, as well as coaching and guiding parents of infants and toddlers in their homes.

She is married and has three children.  Click to read Amy’s bio.  

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