I have to confess; my refrigerator being covered in art projects is one of my least favorite parts of parenting. As a teacher, I send home LOADS of art projects that surely makes their parents give a great sigh also. If I did not know what it took for their brains to accomplish these feats of art, I am sure I would throw them all away instead of display them proudly around the house. Today, I want to dispel the myths about writing with young children. I will give you the best strategies on how to teach writing skills with babies. Let’s turn those scribbles into keepsakes!
How to Teach Writing Skills with Babies
The motor and cognitive milestones in scribbling are quite marvelous, even though their marks may seem insignificant in the grand scheme of things. To help parents understand their little Picasso is on the path towards writing and artistic glory, I send home the following note with my students’ seemingly less than frame-worthy first free drawing (different from an organized art project):
Fat with skills like self-expression, thinking creatively, visualizing outcomes, and taking risks. This “disaster” you may think is your child’s artwork is nothing short of miraculous. It separates them from all other mammals. If you saw a hippo draw this, you would be impressed and probably sell it for a million dollars. Your child’s work is worth twice that.”
Yes, my student’s parents were convinced to keep the drawing, but more often than that, keep my funny note for their memory books too.
Myth: Babies Cannot Write
Between 15 months and about 2 1/2 years, their drawings ARE their writings. This early in your child’s development, your child cannot yet make a distinction between the two when asked to write. As your child moves through this stage, they can begin to make separate marks representing “writing” apart from their drawings. This is a key developmental event that indicates to you as the parent/caregiver that your child has begun to understand the functionality of writing, and that it is separate from illustration.
What this looks like when you give them a writing utensil and a piece of paper is a bunch of directionless scribbles. Eventually, the same scribble will begin to take on features of written text. They will mimic what they are exposed to in their environment (books, magazines, billboards, signs, etc.). It will take time for those scribbles to become horizontal and moving from left to right on a page as formal writing does.
At this stage, your child uses their senses to truly enjoy each part of making art. They will love squishing playdoh or clay into their very own creations. They will also enjoy the smell of paint and seeing how it splashes and mixes. Using watercolors and finger paints are also magical for your little budding artist and author. You will begin to see actual lines and scribbles on the page rather than just random marks. If your child is overwhelmed by the sensory input of art supplies, start slow and introduce one medium at a time (ex. give a couple crayons then switch them out for a watercolor brush) until they can tolerate more.
Encouraging Your Baby to Write
1. Invest in large, chunky tools
These make it easier to write when you have very small hands. Thicker and larger writing tools are more appropriate as their hand muscles are still developing. Providing materials for your child to use different textures and associate them with vivid colors. At this age, there will most likely not be any recognizable “drawing” or “writing”.
Ideal writing utensils for beginners:
2. Everything should be washable
Early writing means a huge amount of mess. You and your child will be very frustrated, as well as creatively stifled if you are repeating “don’t do that” every 15 seconds. Your little one does not have a lot of control when it comes to writing, so creating a comfortable place for art is paramount. Washable crayons, paints, and markers are readily available in stores (or can be mailed to you). Also have an outfit(s) ready for your child that can be washed or that you don’t mind if it’s stained. It can be a fancy art smock or as simple as one of your old T-shirts. Protecting the floor is also a must; lay down a painting/camping tarp, or you can even use old grocery bags.
It is valuable to talk to your child about keeping their bodies and the floor as clean as possible so they learn that it is important. However, perfection is years away at this point. I remember the day I gave my daughter paint and did not stand over her maintaining the mess. The struggle with perfection is real when they are little, but the more exposure you give your child to writing, the quicker they will be able to manage themselves independently.
3. Talk about writing
Children draw instinctively as a language based impulse, so they do not need a whole lot else to support this. However, there are ways you can encourage or discourage your little writer through what you say about their drawings/writing.This is the most important part to connect language to writing. No matter how young your baby is, ask them “what did you write”. You can answer for them in the beginning and then follow up with your own comments. You are helping them understand that the random marks represent an idea or object. It does not matter if neither of you understand what the mark is yet.
Use your imagination to make SPECIFIC comments. If you read a book that day about an airplane, you could point to the crooked line or dot on the page and say “Wow, that looks like the airplane that we saw in the story today.” This is not disingenuous; rather it expresses you feel pride in their work. This encourages them to keep going and take risks as a new writer. Take the picture above; one amazing mother listened to what her 2-year-old child told her about her writing and created a watercolor masterpiece. Our babies will eventually be able to communicate and when they do, we need to be ready!
4. Give them Writing Autonomy
Resist the temptation to say the obvious things like “the sky should be blue” or the dreaded “let me fix it for you”. If they ask for help, no problem, but keep your paws off their drawings/writings from ages 0-5. Give them confidence first and teach skills later. Disclaimer: I am told from international teacher friends that this is a very American perspective. I have seen in many cultures where teachers ask students to “correct” their work early on. Although a highly-debated topic, I encourage you support your little writer in whatever way makes them feel most comfortable. I do not advocate celebrating mediocrity, but increasing brain development through parental approval at this age.
Don’t stop reading here! If you want to know how to continue developing writing skills in your toddler and pre-school child, click HERE for what to do next.
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