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Build Pre-Writing Skills from Birth Through Preschool

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The ability to write, once a child is old enough, largely depends on the finger and hand strength and the coordination he has developed in his early years. You would think this would happen naturally, but teachers and physical therapists are seeing more and more children whose hands and fingers are not up to the task. Even in third and fourth grade, teachers are sending home notes asking parents to please help their children to do tasks which develop finger strength.

Good news! There are many fun activities from infancy on that you can do with your child to prepare him for success in this important area of life.

Tummy Time

Giving your baby tummy time from her newborn days is an important part of developing needed strength. (If your little one is no longer an infant, and she didn’t get much tummy time, don’t worry! Read further down.) As babies begin to be able to lift their head, put an unbreakable mirror or cutouts of baby faces under their face so that when they lift their head, they are rewarded with something interesting to look at. Once they are pushing up well, put toys in front of them to encourage reaching and eventually pulling themselves forward.


Grasping is another important way to develop hand and finger strength. For babies, when they are laying on their backs, let them grab your index fingers. Gently pull upwards (just a little!) so they have to hold on.

Coffee Can Games

A big empty coffee can with a removable plastic lid is one of the best tools you can have for developing finger strength. You’ll need a series of them as you do different things with the lids—so I hope you drink a lot of coffee! Here’s the progression of how to use it.

Once babies are sitting up, you can encourage them to develop their motor skills by giving them a coffee can with things to put in and take out (balls, scarves, craft clothespins, jar lids). Babies love this!

As they get more adept at this, cut a large hole in the lid of the coffee can (about the size of a tennis ball). Give them clothespins (the kind without metal are the safest) to drop through the hole. As their skills improve, make smaller and smaller holes. Eventually they will have to move from using their fist to grasp to using a pincher grasp (between 9 and 12 months).

Here’s the very best game for developing finger strength with a coffee can. You will need a group of flat metal lids (the kind on frozen lemonade or juice cans). Cut a slit in the coffee can lid that’s just a little longer than the diameter of the juice lids. Reinforce the slit all around with tape on the underside of the lid. Use a permanent marker to line the slit so baby can see it well. Now, show your child how to turn the juice lid in the right direction and to push it through the slit. It’s fun to push through, and it makes a satisfying thunk when it hits the bottom of the can. Best of all, it really works those crucial finger muscles!

Playing with Jars

For toddlers and preschoolers, opening and closing jars is another great activity for finger dexterity. Plastic jars work great; obviously, if you use glass, you should play on a rug and closely supervise. Toddlers find it fun just to try to put the lids on and take them off. However, you can play matching games if you have jars of different sizes. Start off with only two jars of distinctly different sizes. Mix up the two lids and ask your little one to find which lid goes with which jar and then to put it on. When they are good at this, you can play with three jars, again with obvious size differences. One note when it comes to size—a preschooler will be confused if a jar is bigger in one dimension but smaller in another (tall and skinny vs. short and fat). Which one is bigger? So make sure jars are straightforwardly big or small.

Playing with Clothespins

Clothespins—the kind you have to pinch—are perfect for developing the finger strength kids will need to write. Preschoolers can enjoy the pretend play of washing doll clothes in a tub of water outside and then hanging them on a clothesline. If it’s too cold outside, hang a clothesline between two chairs in your kitchen or bedroom (use dry clothes and just pretend to wash them).

You can use colored clothespins to make patterns. Take index cards and draw a pattern on them–two dots of blue and one of red, or red, blue, red, etc. Show the child how to clip clothespins onto the card to match the pattern. Remember that coffee can? Kids can also clip clothespins all around the edge of the can. Try making a sequence around the can’s edge—red, blue, yellow, red, blue, yellow. Or, again using index cards, write a number (or draw a number of dots) on the card, and have the child clip the same number of clothespins onto the card.

Crawling Games

Crawling is one of the best activities for getting your child’s hands ready for writing. Many children crawl naturally, but if your child developed different ways of scooting around, you can still give him plenty of crawling practice through games.

Pretending to be an animal is a fun reason to crawl. Play cat and mouse and try to catch each other. One cat and mouse game uses a big blanket or parachute. The mouse is under the blanket. The cat is on top of the blanket with her eyes closed. Both cat and mouse crawl around, and the cat tries to find the mouse just through feel. Remind the cat that she is a gentle cat who just pats the mouse when she finds him rather than pouncing.

Have animal races down the hallway. Let one child be a lion and another be a tiger and see who’s faster. Play race for the colors but with crawling instead of running or walking. Have kids crawl to a costume box, put on a costume, act something out, and crawl back.

Stage an Easter egg pushing race. Put playdough or marbles in the plastic eggs to weight them a little. Then have kids roll the eggs by pushing with their noses. Put down pieces of tape as the start and finish lines. Start with a short distance because it’s hard!


Any art with paintbrushes, markers, or crayons strengthens fingers and gets kids ready to write. Playing with playdough or clay is strengthening too. Have kids paint with water on the sidewalk outside. Give them an old paintbrush or toothbrush and a bucket of water and let them create pictures. Just warn them that these pictures go away because the sun dries them up!

Kids will naturally start out grasping a crayon with their fist. When you’re ready to move them to a three-fingered grip, start giving them very short crayons so they have to grip them with their fingers only.

Other Activities

Many other activities give the hands a workout. Cooking, stirring, pouring, cutting, and spraying with a spray bottle all help the hands and fingers get stronger. Outdoor games are helpful too. Climbing, throwing, catching, and hitting with a racket or bat will all contribute to writing skills later on.

Whether your child is a baby, toddler, preschooler, or even already in elementary school, you can do fun and interesting activities to ensure future success at writing.


Photo Credit: Pink Sherbet Photography via Compfight cc