How to Help 3 & 4 Year Olds Learning Handwriting – Busy Toddler

How to Help 3 & 4 Year Olds Learning Handwriting - Busy Toddler


“How do you teach 3 & 4 year olds to print letters and numbers?”

You don’t.

Sorry for the click bait headline but it’s the truth: you don’t need to be working on handwriting (or printing) with your 3 and 4 year olds.

A myth has formed in the education system due to the shift in academic standards asking children to learn/do more earlier in life (Almon & Miller, 2011) that handwriting and letter formation is a preschool skill, and a skill that begins immediately post-toddlerhood.

It is not.

This isn’t a whimsy “not” or a “because it’s not how I do it” type-post urging parents and caregivers to make a conceptual shift.

This is science. This is body development. This is how kids have developed for all of time – but only recently have we gotten this itch to ask them to write letters and numbers in the early years.

Here’s the “thesis” for this post: “In this post, I will unpack current handwriting myths (see above), give more context around how hard a skill this is, and provide ideas for what you can do at home to help your child be ready for this skill.” (Look at that 3-point topic sentence. Someone call my high school English teacher and tell him what a great job I’m doing).

This post is a collaboration between me (Susie from Busy Toddler, BA in Elementary Education) and Laura of The OT Butterfly, pediatric Occupational Therapist.

Let’s talk child development and handwriting

Handwriting is a visual motor skill that develops over time.

Handwriting requires a whole host of foundational skills for a child to be successful and ready to (literally) put pen to paper.

Here are some of the foundational skills that go into handwriting:

  • Core strength to hold their body upright
  • Strong pincer grasp (to pick up the pencil)
  • Arm and hand strength (can they manipulate an object one-handed?)
  • Ability to cross the midline (crossing their arm from one side of their body to pick up something on the other side)
  • Concentration skills for focus
  • Visual memory skills (to remember, copy, and translate how a letter looks)
  • Visual motor skills for their eyes and hands to communicate

All that to say: there is a lot more that goes into handwriting than might be immediately considered.

We can’t ask a child’s body to develop faster just to get them to write earlier.

Just like kids walk before they run, there are a lot of skills to build before they’re ready for learning handwriting

The truth is: rushing into handwriting before a child has truly mastered and developed all the skills needed to successfully print letters and numbers can often lead to a frustrating process and potential problems (Faguano, 2019).

Expecting children to learn a skill before they have the ability
to store and call upon prior learning, can lead to a number of problems.

No one wants handwriting to be something kids dread. We want a smooth transition into writing, if possible.

We can often give our children that by giving them the gift of time. It’s noted that children often learn better literacy skills through natural processes than through drilled activities – handwriting included (Faguano, 2019).

There’s also bone development at play here: don’t forget that piece

While some kids will master these foundational skills earlier than others, and may start putting pen to paper sooner, remember that is not typical of all children and is not a sign that your child is behind.

But if you have concerns about your child’s motor skill development, trust your instincts and talk to their pediatrician not people on the Internet.

It also requires that the bones in a child’s hands have developed – and again, that’s not something we can rush just because we “want” to get our child writing or because our neighbor’s child is already printing.

Hand bones develop throughout childhood. No amount of pressure to write earlier will make those bones grow any faster.

Activities to grow foundational skills for learning handwriting

In the preschool years, let’s shift focus from “teaching handwriting” or “working on printing letters” back to more developmentally and age appropriate pre-writing activities.

These are activities that provide children the chance to work on those foundational skills that are so important.

Now, these activities are NOT a check list. This is not “try it once and move on.” These are on-going strength building activities. Imagine only doing leg-day one time at the gym and saying “I’m good! Mastered those lifts and ready to move on.”

Continuing to do these strength and skill building activities with your child is IMPORTANT. So important that it calls for all caps.

Quick pre-writing skill building activities to add to daily life:

(First, let’s get a simple list of easy things in day to day life that build writing foundational skills – things you don’t need a blog link for)

  • Letting kids dress themselves
  • Zipping up jacks
  • Play dough
  • Lacing beads
  • Craft projects (painting, coloring, etc)
  • Playing at a playground or park
  • Climbing
  • Building with blocks or bricks
  • Puzzles
  • Digging in dirt or sand
  • Feeding self and using utensils

10+ Fun and Easy Pre-writing Activities for Preschoolers

(Click the photos for full descriptions of the activities and supply lists)

Preschooler playing with a simple kids activity: she's lining up animal figurines onto strips of blue painters tape in a simple toddler or preschool activity from Busy Toddler

Toy Parade: Crossing the midline, fine motor movements, visual motor skills

PAW PATROL SEARCH AND RESCUE SENSORY BIN: A Paw Patrol activity for toddlers and preschoolers; quick and easy sensory bin; scoop and transfer bin, montessori sensory bin; scooping station; water activity from Busy Toddler

Save the Pups: Arm and grip strength, visual motor skills, crossing the midline

Working on a Vertical Surface: Arm strength, body strength, concentration

POURING SKILLS: How do you introduce pouring skills to toddlers? A quick and easy toddler sensory bin activity; a life skills activity for toddlers; pouring station activity; easy indoor activity; montessori activity from Busy Toddler

Pouring Station: Visual motor skill, arm and grip strength, crossing the midline

Threading Station: Fine motor skills, pincer grasp, visual motor skills, hand strength

Animal Rescue: Grip strength, motor skills, concentration

PRESCHOOLER FINE MOTOR SKILLS ACTIVITY: This match and glue activity is AWESOME! Kids will love this pom pom activity that's so quick and easy to set up; an easy gluing activity for preschoolers from Busy Toddler

Match & Glue: Grip strength, body stability, visual motor skills

STICKER LINES: A quick and easy fine motor skill activity; easy toddler activity; easy preschool activity; dot sticker activity; indoor activity; rainy day activity; fine motor activity from Busy Toddler

Dot Sticker Line-up: Visual motor skill, fine motor skills, concentration

Baking Soda Bin: Fine motor skills (pincer), grip strength

Color Mixing Bin with Peri Bottles (yes, peri bottles): Grip strength, body stability, visual motor skills

MESSY SENSORY PLAY: Do messy activities make your skin crawl? Check out these tips to help make messy play not so messy.

Painting Toys: Concentration, grip and arm strength, body stability

Puzzle Unwrap: Fine motor skills, visual memory, crossing the midline

The Quick Summary

Do you need to be teaching your preschooler how to write letters? No.

We don’t need to be pushing children into this skill earlier – and earlier is usually not developmentally appropriate and can lead to this being a very frustrating skill.

Is it possible some kids will pick up a pencil at an early age and start writing? Absolutely. Just like some kids will pick up a bike early and are like “I got this.” But also, early bike riders aren’t better bike riders as adults… and early writers aren’t better writers. They’re just early.

What can you do to help your child be ready for writing? Get those foundational skills brewing. Give them every chance to work with their hands, to build grip and arm strength, to reach, stretch, manipulate, and create. Make their whole body development the focus rather than zooming in on one skill (like printing letters).

Support their future in handwriting with opportunities to grow and develop at their own pace – no need to rush this skill. In fact, it’s a great skill to let kids really take their time on.


Almon, J, & Miller, E. (2011). The crisis in early education: a research-based case for more play and less pressure. College Park, MD: Alliance for Childhood.

Faugno, R. S. (2019). Pediatric prewriting stroke developmental stages: Are expectations evolving beyond the child’s natural capabilities? Journal of Occupational Therapy, Schools, & Early Intervention, 13(1), 19–39.

Susie Allison, B.A. Elementary Education

Author and Creator

Susie Allison is the creator of Busy Toddler and has more than 1.6 million followers on Instagram. A former teacher and early childhood education advocate, Susie’s parenting book “Busy Toddler’s Guide to Actual Parenting” is available on Amazon.


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