I asked my husband how to get a preschooler ready to write. He said, "Give them a pencil and find a clean place on the wall." Our frugal and practical ancestors would probably have laughed at the idea of writing readiness curriculum. Even so, most of our grandparents learned to write well, and their skills far exceeded modern expectations.
Perhaps today's educators have forgotten a simple truth: writing is just drawing symbols for sounds. Before children can write down sounds, they need to be physically, mentally, and emotionally willing and able to write. First they have to be able to hear and distinguish sounds and combinations of sounds (auditory awareness). Kids also need to recognize differences between different shapes. This is described as visual or perceptual skills. Next, they need to realize that one thing can represent another thing; in this case, sounds can be represented with combinations of ball and stick shapes. Finally, children must have the ability to remember which ball/stick shapes represent which sounds (cognitive skills), and develop the eye/hand coordination (fine motor skills) to use a writing instrument.
All this sounds complicated, but most kids learn pre-writing skills naturally. Writing readiness is like potty readiness. You can't make anyone do it, but you can watch for signs that they are ready, help instill desire, and encourage their attempts.
Start with a list of pre-writing goals. Educators often call this list a Scope and Sequence. Use resources such as Slow and Steady Get Me Ready by June Oberlander and M. Jean Soyke's Early Education at Home: A Curriculum Guide for Parents of Preschoolers and Kindergartners.
Your child has been working on writing readiness from babyhood, learning to get dressed, catch a ball, manipulate a spoon, and scoop up tiny pieces of food. Lend a hand by thoughtfully working prewriting activities (beading, building, stirring, squishing, zipping, buttoning, tying, cutting, and pouring) into your normal family routine. Most little kids love to help. Think about the things you do that involve using large and small muscles. Let your child "help" you when you are matching socks, putting away groceries, setting the table, and sorting silverware. You'll also be teaching preschool perceptual skills.
Manipulative toys like building blocks, clay, finger paint, and puzzles help small children develop skills needed for writing. Simple music and movement help kids make the connection between sounds and sound symbols used to communicate. When kids play fun finger plays and games, such as "I'm a Little Teapot," "Simon Says," and "The Itsy Bitsy Spider," they learn to imitate others, control their large and small muscles, and practice listening skills. Simple sign language combined with words and music may also train the brain and fingers for writing sounds down
Little kids love to make things, but activities need to be simple - otherwise, parents end up doing and kids end up just watching. Keep activities at your child's level, or somewhat challenging. At first a parent might draw a few simple lines, crosses, circles, or squares, and let their child trace with a finger or marker. If your preschooler seems ready, try gently guiding your child to draw a simple person with six parts. Add eyes, mouth, and a nose. Use your hand over his hand (manual guidance), until your child can do it. Or follow your child's lead - try to copy her lines and shapes. Take turns drawing, and have fun!
Preschoolers love homemade activities such as simple stencils, dot-to-dot games, mazes, and tic tack toe - especially if they can keep mom or dad from grown-up activities! If your child knows some letters, play a modified version of the old, but much maligned, game of hangman. (One family I know plays "Save Man" instead.) Make guessing games that include only one letter or number, or for older preschoolers use two- or three-letter words that name concrete objects, such as cat, bug, and bat. Teach your child how to trace his name on birthday cards and how to label his own art projects and books; he'll want to learn to write his name. You can also play with magnetic letters and numbers on the refrigerator, although I can't guarantee it won't delay housework (the secret goal of most preschoolers).
Preschoolers want to be like grandparents, older siblings, cousins, and friends, and often surprise parents with a sudden growth in their abilities when they are included in older people's activities. If your child wants to play school, you can indulge this desire with an inexpensive workbook or coloring book from a discount store. Your child might enjoy the inexpensive (less than $3 each) preschool workbooks in the "Preschool A-B-C" series from Rod and Staff Publishers, available from www.rodstaff.com. For a more structured and technical approach, you can find free examples from Developing the Early Learner by Simone Bibeau, available from www.iqbooster.com.
Let your child help you pick workbooks and writing materials; many preschoolers have already developed strong likes and dislikes! Wipe-off books can prove an inexpensive investment, as they can be cleaned and reused over and over. They can also be cheaper than paper if your child still scribbles.
Babies turn into preschoolers gradually; their muscles might not be ready for fine movement yet. Start large with gross motor and work gradually to fine motor movements. Many small kids love marker boards or chalkboards, because they have lots of room to write and draw BIG. Eyesight in small children can vary and change rapidly; it can't hurt to seek out or make materials with dark, thick lines and large pictures.
You don't need fancy or expensive art materials. First-School Preschool Activities and Crafts offers a thorough list of preschool-friendly craft materials you probably already own, such as tape, sandpaper, sponges, beans, plastic bottles and cups. Check out the list for developing preschooler's fine motor skills at www.first-school.ws. If your preschooler is ready to use safety scissors, show your child how to clip off the edges of used envelopes, old magazine pages, or papers. Next, help your preschooler cut strips and turn the paper to cut circular shapes. You could color the paper pieces and use glue sticks to make a collage.
Pre-writing activities can be done with very little planning and just a few minutes a day. Once your child masters a skill, check it off your list and offer more challenging activities. Before you know it, your preschooler will be moving on to kindergarten!