Should my child be learning to write at four years of age?

What can I do to help if my child seems to be behind or not interested in writing?

These are questions we often hear from parents, as their child’s first year at school creeps closer and the expectations for young learners seem to be getting more and more advanced.

In this article we teach about the critical period of development that needs to come before a child is taught to write, and take a look at what child development norms are for four year old when it comes to learning to write.

The period of development before a child learns to write is called the prewriting stage. The prewriting stage is the developmental stage a four year old child is expected to be in. A four-year old child should be developing the fundamental hand skills needed before learning to form letters and write.

Prewriting skills include developing a dominant hand, strengthening the small muscles of the hand, hand skills such as being able to move objects around in the hand and strengthening the muscles of the shoulder and forearm to help the arm be stable to support more precise hand movements.

The prewriting period is a critical developmental stage. Children are often rushed to start learning letters and writing and may skip this stage. If prewriting skills are missed, a child is significantly more likely to experience difficulty developing good pencil control and learning to write.

For boys that are not interested in sitting at a table to draw there are many activities they can do to be developing their prewriting skills, that initially do not involve using a pencil or sitting down, but still targeting the key muscles and actions that support writing skills. Keep presenting them with opportunities to draw or color with a pencil, or to complete mazes, dot to dots, or painting. There are many different types of activity books and games that encourage prewriting skills.

By four years of age, children should be developing a tripod or quadripod grasp, meaning that they should be holding the pencil with the tip of their thumb and index finger and resting it on the side of the middle finger or fourth finger. The thumb and index finger form a circle shape.

With this grasp, a child of four years should be able to connect a series of dots to trace lines, draw lines and circles. As they move towards five years they should be starting to learn to control the pencil enough to draw corners on squares and other shapes.

At four it is expected that a child can make drawings that are starting to represent something such as a person, a house, a flower or an animal.

When picking up scissors, children should be able to cut along a straight line and make simple changes in direction with their scissors, to cut out a square, cut along a curved line, and cut out a circle.

If your child hasn’t yet achieved these abilities, here are some activities that may help:

  • Practice coloring and drawing with thicker writing utensils first, such as jumbo chalk, egg crayons, thick markers, or a thick paintbrush. Thicker or rounder tools for early writing help your child develop a rounded hand for writing, activating more muscles to develop more stability, strength and control.
  • Have your child trace shapes in the bathtub, with bubbles on the wall or in the steam on the shower screen.
  • Use an easel or stick a piece of paper to the wall to draw on a vertical surface. Drawing on a vertical surface helps strengthen the shoulder girdle which is important for stability when starting to write.  Encourage a position of wrist extension (wrist tilted back rather than hooked forwards) as this helps activate the small muscles of the hand and fingers during writing.
  • Ensure that your child knows how to hold scissors, with the thumb in the small hole and positioned up, and the first few fingers underneath in the large hole
  • Play games with coins, marbles, and other small pieces so that your child can develop the small “intrinsic” muscles of the hand. Have your child pick up the pieces using the tips of their thumb and
  • Practice making shapes with play dough, as well as pinching rolling small pieces of play dough between the fingers

If you’re concerned about how your child’s prewriting skills are developing or are having difficulty developing your child’s interest in these activities, contact an occupational therapist who can help guide you and your child targeting the most critical skills so that when school starts your child is ready to go!

At Grow On Children’s Occupational Therapy, we run a school readiness group: Ready Set Prep! In this group, children work on pre writing skills as well as other activities preparing them to start school. If you think this would be helpful, feel free to book in for a Startup Session to check the group is a good fit for your child.