March 24, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Tips for the Littlest Writers | First Steps

Lisa KroppNormally I don’t like New Year’s resolutions, but one I’ll try in January is to incorporate more fun, open-ended writing activities in early learning classes and play areas.

Why? The more my conversations with friends and family turn toward texts, tweets, or other social media, the more I worry that writing is becoming a lost form of communication. More schools are doing away with handwriting lessons. Does writing still matter?

For little ones, absolutely. Pre-writing and writing activities are important skills to master before formalized education begins—and writing is one of the five practices (reading, writing, singing, playing, and talking) recognized by Every Child Ready to Read as a precursor to school success.

By writing, I mean all forms—from nonsensical scribble to shaky, oversize capital letters to strings of letters that may (or not) spell words. It can also include caregivers’ writing and providing a model. A tot might tell you a story that you transcribe.

One caveat: Stay away from trace-a-letter sheets. ­Instead, try incorporating some of these ideas into storytime and floor activities for caregivers and young kids.

♦Encourage scribbling, which helps build fine motor coordination. Tots need to manipulate a lot of things to “teach” fingers how they work and to build strength and muscle memory for writing. Also let them:

  •  Cut scrap paper up with child-safe scissors.
  • Trace letters with watercolor paint and paintbrushes.
  • Finger paint (or pudding paint, shaving cream paint, etc.).
  • Using a sensory tray, trace letters in flour, salt, or ­cornmeal.
  • Lace large beads onto shoelaces or pipe cleaners.
  • Paint using Q-tips instead of paintbrushes.
  • Bend Wikki Stix (irresistible sticky wax sticks) into letters and shapes.

♦Buy a metal mailbox—the kind with the red flag on the side. Add a sign in a Lucite holder asking children to “write” a letter to a favorite book character, create a Valentine card to share in a library seniors program, etc.

♦Facilitate drawing, which counts as writing! Hang a bulletin board to display kids’ creations, or put empty frames on the walls for their drawings and writings.

♦Build an interactive word wall. Cover an end cap or the back of a low shelf in felt. Place strips of card stock in a bucket for little ones to write words and stick on the wall with Velcro.

♦Provide pencils, chunky crayons, paintbrushes and water in a closed-top container, chalk, and washable markers. The early learning area is a great place to recycle scrap paper with a clean blank side for writing. And don’t worry about kids writing in library books. It rarely ­happens. If it does, chalk it up (no pun intended) to the cost of doing business.

♦Create “All About Me” books during storytime. Sample sheets to include:

  • I am ____ old.
  • My favorite story is ______.
  • I like to eat _____.
  • When I grow up, I want to be a _____.
  • There are ____ letters in my name.
  • I like coming to the library because _______.

Parents can help kids write responses, or tots can draw answer pictures and adults can write words. Stories to use in an All About Me program might include:

  • Be Who You Are by Todd Parr (Little, Brown, 2016)
  • I Like Myself! by Karen Beaumont (HMH, 2006)
  • Shades of People by Shelley Rotner and Sheila Kelly (Holiday House, 2009)
  • Whoever You Are by Mem Fox (HMH, 2006)
  • Why Am I Me? by Paige Britt, Selina Alko, and Sean Qualls (Scholastic, 2017)

Want a real New Year’s challenge? Incorporate writing into every literacy-based early learning class. You might bring just back the phrase “You’ve got mail” in a whole new way.

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This article was published in School Library Journal's December 2017 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Lisa G. Kropp About Lisa G. Kropp

Lisa G. Kropp is the assistant director of the Lindenhurst Memorial Library in Lindenhurst, NY, and a forever children’s librarian.



  1. Another way to help children develop fine motor skills is to have them interact with mazes. Solving mazes (using print books or print-outs) has been shown to improve young children’s handwriting.

  2. Thanks for the great suggestion!

  3. Jan Keaveny says:

    Lisa, could I have permission to reprint this article to share with parents who attend weekly Story Hour at our Public Library. It was full of practical ideas. Great job!

  4. Lisa Kropp says:

    Of course Jan!

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