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“There’s no point giving a child a pencil before they have developed the right muscles”

Fiona Bland, NDNA's early years advisor, discusses what nurseries and settings can do encourage children's writing abilities

  • “There’s no point giving a child a pencil before they have developed the right muscles”

When do children need to learn about writing? Can they be put off by starting to soon?
Each child is obviously different and reaches goals at different times, so there is no hard and fast rule. Practitioners who work with children every day should observe them and note which stage of development they have reached, so they can provide relevant opportunities for them to progress.

There’s no point giving a child a pencil before they have developed the right muscles. A child who is standing at an easel grasping at chalk and making big movements from their shoulder isn’t ready to hold a pencil, but they are developing their gross motor skills. They need to master these big movements first before they can develop the finer movements needed for creating letters and numbers.

There must be purpose and context to their writing environment, so it’s important there isn’t just a ‘writing area’ set aside within a setting; there should be opportunities available in every part of the nursery. For example, the construction area should have pens and paper to use, and maps to look at or draw on. In the book area, children can write and draw their own stories. Writing should be embedded within the whole provision.

Why is writing so important to a child’s development?
Children will naturally grasp objects and make movements when they are ready to, so encouraging writing, drawing and making marks is good for their physical development, as well as brain development. Drawing or recreating the world around them helps them to make sense of it in their own way, and in turn supports their muscles to get stronger.

What is the best way to support children? What resources work well?
Really, it’s providing the right resources and opportunities for them at the right time. For example, you might sit babies up with treasure baskets to investigate and explore, while older children who are using a pencil grip, moving their hand from their elbow and making smaller movements, get given smaller items such as paint brushes or cotton buds to draw with, helping them to refine their fine motor skills.

It’s important to have a range of resources for children to use for continual progression, from sticks to chalk and pens. It’s a good idea to have massive paintbrushes, but also fine ones. Children are good at choosing which resources are best for them, but can always be encouraged. Practitioners could watch a child using a fine paintbrush and then offer a cotton stick or small item to use to refine their skills still further.

What can you do outside to encourage little writers?
It’s very important that writing is not seen as only an indoors activity. Outdoors, activities can be on a bigger scale. You could try filling spray bottles with paint, or give children sticks to draw in mud. Mobile mark-making stations are also useful outdoors, and can be filled with a range of resources.

Make sure there are plenty of surfaces for children to use, such as large pieces of paper taped to walls or the floor, bits of bark – they could even paint in snow and ice in winter. Youngsters love pop-up reading and writing tents – these could be moved to a different spot each day and feature different items inside. How about using torches in a dark space to look at books and pictures?

Help children to develop their shoulder muscles needed for writing skills by giving them brushes to sweep the floor, or any item that requires a pushing movement. Make sure they have plenty of room for this kind of activity.

What about using technology?
We are encouraging children to use their own muscles, but technology is something they will probably already be familiar with at home. To continue with the idea of getting them used to seeing a variety of writing, make sure they can have a go at typing words and letters using a computer keyboard or by sending text messages. They will probably even be keen to send emails, or look at keywords on internet search browsers.

What is expected of Reception-aged children?
A: Reception-aged children need to have social, communication and physical skills so they are ready to learn to write when they get to school. This expectation fits in well with preschool mark making and drawing. Contrary to what many parents think, children don’t need to be able to write their name; it’s about having those pre-writing skills in place. Reception class is there to develop those skills into writing.

Fiona Bland is early years advisor at the National Day Nurseries Association

NDNA’s ‘Let’s Look at Writing?’ course examines why writing is an important method of communication, the different stages of writing development and much more. It also provides activities to develop children’s writing skills, and ideas to create resources to support writing development. For more details on this and NDNA’s other training courses, visit www.ndna.org.uk/training

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