Writing and drawing is an area where children are often put under a lot of pressure. They have to hold a pen a certain way, write in a certain formation, remember finger spaces, grammar, spelling. Everything has to have a meaning. Even in the English Early Years framework there is a large emphasis on writing rather than drawing by the end of Reception (age 5).
‘Early Learning Goal Children use their phonic knowledge to write words in ways which match their spoken sounds. They also write some irregular common words. They write simple sentences which can be read by themselves and others. Some words are spelt correctly and others are phonetically plausible.’ (Dfe, 2012, Development Matters in the EYFS)
But, mark making doesn’t have to be stressful. In fact it should be the opposite. It should be creative, fun and something children want to do. For some children it needs to be purposeful, else ‘why bother?’. For other children its about expression and exploring the movements and marks left behind. Both are perfectly acceptable.
I have encouraged mark making since J was a baby. We would make marks in the baby food on the tray of his bumbo or high chair. As he got older I made sure J could access pencils, crayons, chalks etc whenever he wanted to. I brought different drawing and writing resources that were fun and would grab his attention. Now J is 3, I talk about marks a bit more. What they look like, the shape of them, what my own marks represent. We write cards and thank you letters with J beginning to write his own name (in his own way). But we also have fun making random marks both indoors and outdoors.
So today I will share some activities that we do, and talk about what I expected from children during my years as an Early Years Professional.
Mark making can happen anywhere and at any time. It doesn’t have to be worksheets at a table, or colouring in books. We often make marks outside using sticks, poles or whatever we find. Use mud, use snow, use the water from puddles.
However, there is nothing wrong with being sat down and having a sort of work station. After all some of us have offices and desks, at many early years providers they have ‘writing tables’ so you could set up a table and chair with pots and storage full of paper, pens, notepads, hole punch and string, chalk and chalk boards, stencils etc. Whatever you feel will inspire your child.
Mark making can be spontaneous or you can have special time for it. Eg: making a shopping list before heading to the shop. I often ask J to write down or draw what we need from the shop. Ok, so it squiggles and lines but its still something meaningful to him. At special times of year encourage children to write or draw in birthday cards, Christmas cards, Eid cards, thank you letters. If your child is an older 3 or 4 then you could write their name on a piece of card for them to practise copying.
I also go by the time of year. We often go on ‘Treasure Hunts’ when the season changes so we can see the new things that are growing. We use Twinkl’s Checklists for our treasure hunts (simply because it’s ready made). It’s ‘only’ ticking or making a mark in a box but it’s meaningful and fun!
Talk about your own mark making. Say what it is you are writing or drawing. This may encourage your child to then talk about what they are doing without the pressure of feeling like it ‘has’ to be something. It also shows children make can be meaningful. If they see you enjoying it then they’ll see it as a positive. Talk to them as you write your shopping list, make notes to remind yourself of things or labelling items.
(I drew Kylo Ren, so J then drew his own Star Wars pictures).
You can practise letter formation with your fingers. ‘Write’ in the paint on the paper, in a plate of flour or salt. You can practise circles, lines, going ‘up and down’. My advice is to be a role model. When you draw a circle make sure you are doing in anti-clockwise (this is the movement needed for ‘c’. ‘o’, ‘e’), retrace your lines (this is the movement needed for ‘m’, ‘n’, ‘p’). If children practise making these movements it will make forming letters later that bit easier.
There is a pathway to holding a pen/cil. It all starts as a baby. Basically the progression goes:
- 0-1 years: Making movements with arms, hands and fingers. Reach out and hold objects (using whole hand movements).
- 1-2years: Begin to have a dominant hand. Hold writing tools with three fingers (tripod grip).
- 2-3years: Holding pencil with thumb and two fingers (beginning of pincer grip) and starting to draw circles/lines (often in larger movements rather than small ‘letter shapes’).
- 3-4 years: Has a confident dominant hand, hold pencil firmly with pincer grip and can control this to make specific shapes, letters etc.
There are ways to encourage children to move toward the tripod and pincer grips. Often its everyday situations where children pick it up naturally such as picking up individual peas, small toys off the floor, using the pegged jigsaw puzzles. However you can also encourage it by playing threading games, peg games, buying triangular crayons and paintbrushes. All these require what’s called ‘fine manipulative skills’. Basically put, this means small movements. So these are wrist, hands, finger and thumb movements. If children have weak movements here then holding and controlling a pencil will be more challenging.
As well as using some of the resources above you can also encourage other control and strength building activities:
- Playdough-squeeze, pinch and pull, patting.
- Songs with actions such as ‘Tommy Thumb’, or ,’1, 2, 3, 4, 5′, ‘Wind the Bobbin’ Up’
- Scissors-plastic ones to cut playdough, cut up old birthday cards etc.
- Filling and Pouring games: filling up jugs in the bath, emptying into cups or pots. Fill a bowl with lentils and scoop them into pots to pour in baking trays etc.
- Climbing equipment such as pulling themselves up the slide, on the ladder of the climbing frame etc.
- Tweezer games: You can buy plastic tweezers for children and encourage them to use these to pick up pompoms, split peas etc.
Check our your local Children’s Centres or Libraries and see if there’s any ‘toy library’ lending schemes. If your child goes to an early year provider see if they lend resources. This way you can ‘try before you buy’ or just have access to different resources without breaking the bank. Otherwise pop into toddler groups and sensory play groups as they often have great activities, with the bonus of not having the mess in the house.
Mark-making on the go
Some children (like J) are ‘on the go’. They are active and like to be doing. If this sounds like your child then you may find having mark making resources that can move with your child helpful…
- Tool belt/apron with pocket: children can wear these and have a notepad and pen inside, or carry stick for mud, clean paintbrush for puddles.
- Tool box: You can get ones with handles so children can carrying them around with them. Fill it with notepads, pens, chalk board and chalk, brushes and pots to put water in.
- Clipboards which you can leave around outside or inside.
- Pots of chalk around the garden (you can use flower pots or storage boxes that hang on the fence, over low walls etc).
- Chalk board on the fence/wall so children can stand up and move around whilst they create.
- Tie a notepad to the ride of cars/bikes and a pencil on a long string so children can mark make at any time (depending on how imaginative your child is this notepad can be shopping list, parking tickets, receipts etc).
If you feel your child is ready to start writing and forming letters then great, go for it. It’s all about what you feel your child is ready for and will enjoy. Most early years providers teach phonics as the method for learning to read and recognise letters. I have written a parents guide about phonics which I recommend having a nosey at if you are going to start letters.
I would start by encouraging the letters in your child name. That is going to be the most meaningful word they can write. I show J that he first letter is a capital and the rest we write in phonics (lower case). After all, how many of you write in all capital letters when writing a letter, or a birthday card? I’ve seen lots of different ways to learn letters from dot to dot to tracing, to copying underneath the letter and ‘hand over hand’ (where adult holds the pen as well as the child). I usually write J’s name on a piece of card or top of the paper and then talk about the shapes each letter makes as he copies.
Similar to suggestions above, you can practise the letters in tubs of flour, salt, paint with your finger. Or write in the mud and on walls with paintbrush and pot of water. There’s also lots of apps you can buy which have letter formation games and companies such as Twinkl who provide print outs with writing activities and resources. You can also buy wipeable books where children can copy over the top of letters then wipe clean. One of my favourite activities is where you write the letters of a chalk board and instead of copying over the top they have to make the letter disappear by using a paintbrush and water. It’s still tracing over the top but makes it more fun as they see the letter vanish!
The most important thing is to have fun and give lots of praise for childrens attempts. Not just ‘that’s nice’ but ‘wow you worked hard on that drawing’, ‘I can really see those letters more clearly’, ‘you practised really well’. Ask them questions eg: ‘can you tell me about your picture’ or ‘can you read your letter to me?’ rather than ‘what’s that?’ to encourage talking about the marks in more detail. We want our children to enjoy mark making and be eager to give it go by the time they go to ‘big school’ (or home learning and ready for the next level of writing).