When your child was a baby, do you remember feeling slightly anxious about whether or not they were meeting developmental milestones on time? As a therapist mom, it was constantly on my mind. Looking back, I can see how ridiculous I was, but at the same time I can’t really blame first-time-mom-therapist me. Happily, I can report that I no longer worry if my child is behind on a skill or struggling with any particular activity that I know is normal for their age range.
Consider this list of preparation skills for preschool a guideline, and not something to get worried about. Children can start practicing these skills anywhere from age 2-4. The list below breaks each skill down from very easy to more advanced in skill level.
Having practiced some of these at home, your child will feel more confident in their new preschool environment. And don’t worry—these are basic activities that won’t require any Pinterest-worthy-craftiness. You can practice them all in the comfort of your own home with little to no materials.
It is just preschool, after all!
Scissor skills & pre-scissor skills
Learning how to orient and hold scissors correctly
Before kids learn to cut, this is the first logical step. The prompt I use is “Is your thumb in the small hole?” and/or “Is your thumb on top?” Usually kids who are learning to cut will pronate (turn over) their wrists at first so they need this reminder. Practice 3 times in a row to make sure they have scissor orientation down.
Learning how to snip by cutting play dough, cutting straws or small strips of index card paper
This is the fun part! Kids seriously love learning to cut this way. It provides immediate feedback with no stress as far as which way to aim the scissors. Get ready for some tongues to come poking out as it might take some serious concentration. The thicker consistency of these materials gives more proprioceptive feedback and requires less graded control of the scissors.
Learning how to cut on a line
While this is the end goal, don’t feel pressured to have your child complete this skill if they simply aren’t ready. Go back to numbers one and two and have fun! In-hand manipulation of scissors, while using the other hand simultaneously to hold paper AND steering to stay on a line is a very advanced skill.
Coloring, pre-writing & other visual motor skills
Identifying basic shapes, colors and letters
Read, read and read some more! You can even practice letter sounds while you’re at it.
Start with having them “fill in” very small objects first (i.e. stars in the sky) then gradually move to larger objects. Pictures with one solid object and no background are typically easier for them to tackle as it’s less distracting for children in this age group.
Imitate straight lines horizontally then vertically
I have found that drawing a line and saying “zoom!” (and then inviting your child to imitate you) is the most effective way for kids to learn this skill.
Imitate a circle, a cross, a square
After they have mastered the lines, move on to a circle. It’s okay to start with just circular motions if that is where they are at, then move onto a circle with a definite end. Next you can try a cross: A cross is very difficult for some, as it requires the brain to cross midline. If they can do all of those things, go ahead and try a square!
Have them draw a line from one dot to the next. If that’s too easy, try multiple dots in a row or draw a picture with dots. Connecting dots helps to improve visual tracking for pre-reading skills and improves motor planning skills.
Trace straight lines then curvy lines
You don’t need any fancy tracing books to practice this skill. Just sit alongside them and have them trace on top of your lines. This will improve their visual attention and visual tracking skills.
Practice imitating easier vertical letters such as L, E, F, H, T and I
Always work on capital letters first before attempting lower case. Most letters of the alphabet are too difficult for pre-school aged children. Diagonals and curves are the hardest, so start with letters that use straight lines such as those listed above.
Practice writing their name
This can mean recognizing and saying the letters in their name, imitating the first letter of their name or even writing the whole name—remember to use capitals! Respect where they are at and don’t push them when they’re not ready. Try using multi-sensory approaches vs using standard pen and paper, for example, writing their name in a sandbox using their fingers, or using playdough to form the letters of their name.
Hand and grasp development
Practice holding crayon/marker correctly
Keep in mind, a tripod grasp isn’t expected to emerge until age 3.5-4. It is natural and okay for them to use alternative grasps at first. In fact, there is a very natural progression of grasp. You can try my tried and true “point, pick and flip” trick to teach proper grasp. Have them point the writing utensil at themselves, use thumb and index to “pick” it up near the tip, then flip the back end of the crayon into their web-space and there you have it: a tripod grasp!
Writing/coloring/drawing on a horizontal surface (window, chalkboard or easel)
The angle and position that this places the arm in is going to help develop stability of the shoulder, wrist and forearm. We call this “proximal stability.” A stable base is necessary in order for small, fine motor movements of the hand to develop.
Use small or broken crayons/chalk to facilitate proper grasp
This is one of my favorite ways to help strengthen the fingers that make up a tripod grasp (the index, middle and thumb). Since there is very little to hang on to, using broken crayons forces these three fingers to do all the work. (Credit due to Handwriting Without Tears for this concept.)
Clothespins strengthen the three fingers that make up the tripod grasp, which also strengthens the muscles of the thumb space and helps develop proper hand arch. Use clothespins to attach to literally anything—a string, a piece of paper, a shirt.
You can use the tongs from your kitchen and have your child practice squeezing them together to pick up literally anything! I promise your kiddos are going to love this one. Some easy household items you can use are: cotton balls, toy cars, ice cubes, markers or crayons. Just put them into a pile and grab some bowls or a muffin tray for them to use as a target drop. This is going to strengthen so many muscles of the hand and arm and promote an age-appropriate grasp.
Playdough is great work all around for strengthening the hands. I like it most for developing the arches of the hand, especially when rolling into snakes or small balls against the palm. You can do so much with playdough—roll it into a snake and then pinch along the length of it, place small toothpicks into it for a birthday cake, spell out their name, etc.
How else will your child learn how to take turns if you aren’t practicing this skill with them at home? Ask them for a turn using their prized toy, or play a simple board game that involves reciprocal turn taking (Go-Fish, Hungry Hungry Hippos, Don’t Break the Ice or Candyland are classic examples).
When they are finished playing with all those toy cars or dolls, have them clean them up before choosing a new toy.
Sit and finish an activity in its entirety
Generally speaking, pre-school aged children should be able to sit down for at least 5 minutes to complete a preferred task, whether that’s finishing a puzzle, coloring a picture or building a structure with blocks or Legos.
Learn how to ask for help
This is so important. If they aren’t learning to ask for help at home, then they won’t be able to ask their teacher for help when they need it.
Make eye contact
It is important to teach children how to make eye contact when they are speaking to someone or saying hello. It tells the person who is being spoken to, and it also shows respect and tells the other person you are paying attention to them.
Practice taking off and putting on shoes and pulling down and pulling up pants
They will need to put shoes on and off occasionally at school. They will need to know how to pull pants up and down by their knee level so they can use the potty.
Practice washing their hands
Break it down into simple steps:
Step 1: get soap
Step 2: rub hands together
Step 3: rinse hands
Step 4: turn off faucet
Step 5: dry hands
My hope is that you and your little one can practice these skills in a pressure-free, natural environment that is fun for both of you. If your child has a hard time with any of these activities, let them know it’s okay and pick something else that might be closer to their interest level.