This is the third post in a 3-part series on early learning activities. See Part 1: Reading for three pre-reading activities and my thoughts on how to use these learning games. See Part 2: Math for two hands-on math activities great for kids ages 2-4.
These three ideas are perfect ways to introduce your child to the strokes required for writing letters even before they put pencil to paper. Be cautions not to move right into pencil writing when teaching handwriting. Writing with pens and pencils require several skills and abilities that many young preschools haven’t yet mastered.
Grasping and writing with a pencil (or pen) requires muscle strength and fine motor control some children do not have until year 4-5. Exercises like grasping tongs, pinching the trigger of a spray bottle, buttoning and zippering help develop the muscles needed for handwriting.
Before writing letters with a pencil, children should also have a proper pencil grip (using a tripod grasp with thumb, forefinger and middle finger) and move the pencil with the fingers vs. the arm and shoulder. They should have chosen a dominant hand (vs. move back and forth between the left and right hand), and use proper letter formation (writing letters from the top vs. bottom of the page).
Children who write too early and do not have proper letter formation often struggle with handwriting well into their educational years. Among other issues, they take longer to complete writing assignments and exams.
The three activities below are perfect for teaching letter formation and reinforcing letter names and sounds while preschoolers continue to develop the other skills and abilities needed for handwriting.
When to introduce: 2.5-3 years old
These cards are a great way to reinforce letter names and sounds while introducing your child to the strokes letter writing requires. They are perfect travel activities too. Grab several cards, crayons and tracing paper, and your kiddo will be occupied while you sip a latte at Starbucks. (Really, I did this all the time with the twins!)
- Several sheets of card stock
- Hot glue gun
- Large crayons (3-5 will be plenty)
- Several sheets of printer paper cut in half
- Cut your card stock into 54 pieces of 8.5″x5.5″ rectangles (enough for upper and lower case letters).
- Using a hot glue gun, print one letter on each piece of card stock.
- Cut printer paper in half so it is the same size as your card stock letters.
- Tear the paper off of your large crayons.
How to Play
- Take a piece of printer paper, lay it over the tracing cards and make a “rubbing” with the crayon by rubbing the long side of the crayon over the paper. You should see the letter appear (Think of Fashion Plates when you were a kid.)
- Have your child say the letter and its sound as she creates the rubbing.
- Have your child trace the raised letter with her finger using the correct strokes for writing the letter while saying the letter’s name and sound.
- Make tracing cards for numbers 1-20.
- Make tracing cards for blends (e.g., sh, ch, oo, etc.)
- Have your child find and make letter rubbings for each letter in her name, then lay out the letters to spell her name.
- Using the picture cards from the Match Box game, have your child make letter rubbings for the letter that begins the picture (e.g., “C” for cat).
- Using the picture cards for short, simple words from the Match Box game, have your child make letter rubbings and spell the words that represent the picture (e.g. “cat” for the picture of a cat).
Puffy Paint Letters
When to introduce: 3-4 years old
You can make puffy paint letters as an alternative to the letter tracing cards if you don’t have a hot glue gun. Click the link for downloadable stencils and a puffy paint recipe. They will not stand up as well to crayon rubbings, but they have an even better texture for little fingers to trace when learning the letter strokes.
Here are some things I learned when making my letters:
- The recipe makes enough paint to do the entire alphabet (upper or lower case).
- I used Kosher salt because I liked the gritty texture that resulted when forming my letters. The result is more like Montessori sand paper letters, if you are familiar with those.
- When using Kosher salt, you’ll need to add more water to your paint mixture. My mixture was midway between the consistency of cookie dough and waffle batter.
- I didn’t have a condiment bottle to use to squeeze my paint out of, so I used a circle tip from my cake decorating kit.
- To correct any mistakes I made when squeezing out my letters, I used a toothpick to move the paint around. I also smoothed out any rough spots with a finger of water (like when smoothing window caulk).
- I glued my printed stencils to card stock to increase the durability of my letters.
How to Play & Extension Activities:
You can apply the same activities to your Puffy Paint Letters as described for the Tracing Letters (save the crayon rubbings).
When to introduce: 3-4 years old
Once your child has mastered the strokes used to form a letter, she can transfer her skills to the salt tray.
- Table salt
- Food coloring (optional)
- Essential oil (optional)
- Foil (optional)
- Spray glue (optional)
- Tray (I purchased a canvas frame in the craft section at Wal-Mart for under $5.)
- If coloring your salt, simply add salt to a seal-able bag, add a few drops of food coloring and shake.
- If scenting your salt, simply add a few drops of essential oil to your salt in a bag and shake (I used lavender).
- I added foil to the bottom on my tray because I thought it was be a treat to see the sparkle come through when tracing letters through the salt. I simply cut the foil to fit the bottom of the tray and used spray glue to secure it.
- Pour your salt into the tray. Pour just enough to thinly cover the surface. If you use too much, the letters won’t show up as clearly when “writing.”
How to Play
- Have your child “write” the letters in the sand tray with the correct strokes while naming the letter and saying its sound.
- Shake the tray gently to erase.
- Practice writing numbers in the salt.
- Encourage your child to practice writing her name and short words in the salt.
Salt trays make great sensory play too! Use cookie cutters to “cut” shapes into the salt. Or use a slightly larger tray and pour the salt deeper to make pouring and scooping with cups and spoons easier. Add rocks, a small rake and other small toys (cars, etc.) and watch your child’s imagination run wild with this sensory play. Of course, this is salt, so make sure your kiddo doesn’t try to eat it!