Teaching a preschooler name writing is an incredibly complex activity and can be a daunting task. It’s not just about putting a pencil in their little hands and hoping for the best (which is what I see way too often). There’s so much more to it than that. So, let’s break it down…
What should a Preschooler be Able to Do?
Before we talk about what it takes to be able to write your name, let’s first decide whether or not this is even an activity we should be addressing in preschool at all…
Typical child development charts will tell you that by ages 3 to 4 a child should be able to copy circle and cross shapes, use hands together efficiently, snip with scissors and build a tower of 9 blocks high.
Then by age 4 to 5, they can cut on a line, write numbers 1 through 5 and…be ble to write their name. They can also copy more complex shapes, such as a squares and ‘x’ and copy letters. At this age is also when you start to see an increase in independence with daily tasks since they can now manipulate clothing fasteners on their own.
Here’s a chart that I created with the fine motor milestones as we typically see them develop in the early years…
So that answers the question “should we be focusing on name writing in preschool?” The answer is “yes”. But I want to go beyond just “yes” and say that it’s also important to note where your child is in his/her development. These are only meant to be norms, and not all children develop at the same pace.
Save these Name Writing Tips for later. pin them to your favorite pinterest board…
It’s important not to put a pencil in a child’s hands too soon. That may seem like a strange thing to say. Most of us our taught that practice makes perfect.
But I remember something that my gym teacher taught me in middle school…”If you keep standing in the same place and shooting a basketball at the hoop over and over again…only to miss each time…the only thing that you’re teaching yourself is to miss the basket.”
We don’t want to be teaching our children to “miss the basket”. It’s important to first build a strong foundation so that they will find success when they shoot that ball (you get that I’m actually talking about name writing…right?)
Pushing a child into practicing skills that their body is not ready developmentally ready to tackle can lead to frustration for both and you and them. It also leads to poor habits and may cause your child not to want to try new things.
Don’t be that parent that leans the other direction and never challenges your child to try anything new. This can also be detrimental. We have to find that line where the child is challenged but not overwhelmed and is developmentally ready to find success with the new task. I know…easier said than done.
Pay careful attention to your child’s response to the new task when it’s introduced so that you know how to proceed. Be careful not to take “whining” as a sign to stop though. Sometimes some gentle encouragement is needed…because new things are hard.
The Components of Name Writing
In order for a child to form their name legibly, there are a lot of moving parts that need to be fine turned first. Not only that, but all of those elements need to then coordinate together to achieve the task of name writing.
First off, a child needs to be able to recognize and identify letters, specifically the letters that are in their name. (For the purposes of this article, we are referring to name writing as the child’s first name only.) And, then of course, they need to be able to place those letters in the proper order to form their name.
They also need to know how to properly form each letter…Where to put the pencil first and how each stroke goes and in what order.
Too often I see little tykes being given a paper when they arrive to daycare or preschool that has their name on it, along with a pencil or crayon. They’re expected to trace and copy that name without any direction or even much oversight from an adult.
And they do…but usually letters are not properly formed. They get an end result that looks somewhat like the original, but how they go there is far from what is ideal. It’s like trying to put a piece of IKEA furniture together without using the directions…you might end up with an acceptable set of shelves the end of it, but where do you suppose all of those leftover screws were supposed to go?
They repeat this day after day…again, shooting but missing the basket. This leads to habits that are very hard to break moving forward and to children with slow writing or writing that is messy and hard to read. Frustration builds because they feel like they’re not able to succeed.
Another element that must be in place is the ability to maintain focus. It doesn’t have to be prolonged attention, but long enough to understand directions and follow them. As a general rule, kids should be able to pay attention for about 3 minutes per year they are old. They means that a 4 year old typically has the ability to maintain about 12 minutes of sustained focus.
This is often tied to sensory regulation. Often to achieve appropriate focus for a task, a child’s sensory needs will first need to be addressed. I could writing an entire book (and many books have been written) on this subject. For now, I just want to make a note of it. For a little more info on recognizing sensory red flags, check out this article by The Inspired Treehouse.
When we think of writing, we go right to the hands, but the rest of the body must also cooperate for the task to be successful. A child must have well developed bilateral coordination (the sides of the body working together), core strength, shoulder stability, wrist and arm strength, visual motor integration, visual perceptual skills, visual accuity…just to start.
And, of course, for name writing to be successful, a child’s hands must be strong enough and coordinated enough to hold a pencil properly. Putting a pencil in a child’s hand before their ready causes them to compensate, forming bad habits that are very difficult to break moving forward.
A poor pencil grasp may not seem like a big deal in preschool, and even kindergarten, but once that same child is challenged with more complex writing tasks as they move through elementary school and beyond, they will likely struggle. They may find it difficult to write without fatigue or even pain when using an awkward posture to hold a pencil. This is easily avoided by first building the foundation and then introducing a writing implement.
Where to Start
As an OT, my first step is always to build those foundational fine motor skills, without ignoring the rest of the body.
That means doing lots of play activities to get the body ready for school tasks. Climbing and playing in the sandbox outside, cooking together, coloring with broken crayons, making crafts, lacing activities, playing with play dough, etc.
Of course, our printable fine motor kits are specifically designed for exactly this. Even though they are printable “worksheets”, they are so much more than that. Each one is meant to be combined with manipulatives to create a learning through play experience that also enhances fine motor skills.
You can start with the COORS AND SHAPE FINE MOTOR KIT or go right to the ALPHABET FINE MOTOR KIT to start getting familiar with all of the letters.
Learning the Letters
So where do you start when teaching name writing? There’s no one way to do it, but I recommend that you first start with letter recognition and sequencing.
For example, you might first have the name written as a reference and give your child 3×5 cards, each with a different letter on it. As them to put them in the same order. Say the names of the letters out loud and then read the name out loud once it is in the proper order.
The next step would be to remove the model and just give them the cards. Instruction them in the same way. If they’re struggling, reintroduce the model or place the first couple of letters and let them fill in the rest. Keep doing this, having your child do more and more on his/her own until they are completly independent with the task.
Writing Without Writing
Now that they recognize the letters of their name, it’s time to begin to learn how the letters are formed. I don’t want you to jump right to putting a pencil in the kiddo’s hand. Instead, we’re going to do some writing without writing activities.
First of all, we still want to be sure that the fine motor muscles are developed enough to hold a pencil properly, and that may not yet be the case.
Secondly, we want to be sure that we’re keeping everything that we do at this age based in play. There is so much power in play. Once we start to sit down with worksheets and ignore how vital play is to learning at this age, we’re doing are kids a disservice. This is not my opinion…this is backed up by LOADS of research.
They’ll maintain what they learn so much better and, more importantly, want to continue learning if we remember to keep the focus on play. Worksheets definitely have their place, but let’s hold off just a bit longer…and when we do get to worksheets, we’ll be taking a more tactile approach than what we typically see in schools.
“writing” Activity Ideas
Instead, let’s start “writing” letters in medium, like sand, sugar, rice, beans, etc. Or form letters using play dough (my personal favorite because it also builds strength in the hands and helps develop the arch of the hand).
You can also have the name written out and place items on the letters. Cover them in torn pieces of paper to form a mosaic or place stickers on top. Or use alphabet coloring pages. We also have pages in our Alphabet Fine Motor Collection that are roads to be driven over with a toy car.
Throughout all of these “writing” activities, it’s important to include verbal directions for how the letters are to be formed. My favorite way to do this is in a sing songy way, always sticking to the same script for each letter. For example, when writing the letter ‘A’, I will melodically say “Start at the top and slide down one side, jump up, slide down the other side. Now connect the middle.” You may even want to guide the child’s hand the first time until they understand how the letter is properly formed and can do it on their own.
How to make a squishy bag
Another one of my favorite non-writing writing activities is to make “squishy bag”. If your child has never played with a squishy bag, I promise you that they’re going to absolutely love it.
- Gallon sized freezer Ziploc bag
- Clear hair gel (unscented)
- Duct tape
- Food coloring (optional)
- Items to put in your bag, like pony beads, alphabet beads, mini pompoms, etc. (optional)
Squishy Bag Instructions
- Open the top of the ziploc bag and fill it with about 12oz of clear unscented hair gel.
- Optional: If you’re going to add an color, squeeze in a few drops of food color at this time. Be careful not to overdo it because you want to be able to see through the bag.
- Close up the bag and blend the food coloring into the hair gel gently.
- Optional: At this time add any beads or other little items into the bag. Be sure that you don’t use anything that will puncture a hole when it’s moved around.
- Carefully squeeze out any air bubbles from the bag.
- Seal the bag back up and secure the top and sides of the top with some duct tape.
Check out this Video Tutorial for Making a Sensory “Squishy” Bag
How to Know When It’s Time To Start Name Writing (with a Pencil)
There are a few indicators that you can watch for to know if your child is ready to start name writing with a pencil in hand…
- They recognize the letters of their name and are able to put them in the correct order.
- They have already mastered drawing forms like a circle, square,x and cross.
- They are able to pick up items without using all of their fingers and instead use just the tip of the index finger opposed to the tip of the thumb.
- They follow simple directions.
- They don’t easily drop items.
- They are able to attend to a non-preferred activity for at least 2 to 3 minutes.
- They sit up straight and tall in a chair.
Your child doesn’t need to be doing everything on this list, but it certainly helps if they are. Basically, you may not know if your child is really ready until you just give it a try. If they truly are struggling big time, then go back to doing more of the “writing without writing” activities we talked about and continue to build hand strength and dexterity through fine motor activities (our Shapes and Colors Fine Motor Collection is the perfect starting place).
Name Writing Progression
There’s not just one correct way to teach name writing (but there are definitely wrong ways). I’m going to go through the step-by-step process that I’ve used with hundreds of preschoolers during my time as a pediatric occupational therapist that has been tested and proven to work…
Name writing step 1: Tracing
Draw a line of blocks (about 1″ wide) for each letter of your child’s first name. In those blocks, write each letter of the name in uppercase using a highlighter. Put a dot where the pencil is to start. Then have your child trace the letters of his/her name.
Be sure to verbally or even use hand over hand guidance the first time through so that they understand how each letter is formed. I also encourage you to say the names of the letters as they are written and then say your child’s name out loud once they finish the word. This increases the learning by adding an auditory element to the process.
Name Writing Step 2: Swapping Out
Once your child has begun to master tracing the letters, repeat step 1 with a slight variation. Begin to leave out one letter at a time from the end of the name until your child is able to write all of the letters independently.
At first, you may need to give them a model to copy and a starting dot for the letter. Wean these things away also as they progress until they are writing all of the letters of their first name in uppercase inside the blocks without tracing or copying.
Name Writing Step 3: Progress to the “kindergarten way”
Once your child is able to write all of the letters of their first name in uppercase, it’s time to introduce title case (capital letter at the beginning with lowercase letters following). I like to call this the “kindergarten way”. This let’s your child know that they have accomplished something big and are now ready to get ready to be a kindergartener…It’s a big deal.
I’ve heard it said that this will confuse kids…but, trust me, I’ve used this technique successfully to teach hundreds of preschoolers name writing. It really works!
Repeat step 1 and step 2, but now using title case writing. Also continue to give your child blocks to write in to keep the letters a reasonable size. You can reduce the size of the boxes as the writing improves or give the child a line to write on instead.
If you want a done for you set of name writing printables that follow this process, I’ve created a set of seasonal worksheets that follow this exact method. They just spice up the process a little more by having your child write inside of shapes, like balloons, pumpkins, rocketships and more, instead of sticking to simple blocks. You can purchase the printable name writing system here.
Name Writing Step 4: Independent Writing
Once your child has learned to write their name using the steps we have gone through, it’s time to take off the training wheels.
Simply give your child a line on which to write his/her name and let them go for it. If you see that the letters are very large or are too far apart, go back to using blocks for practice. (Remember our basketball analogy?)
Writing their name on a line is exactly what they’ll be asked to do over and over again once your child gets to kindergarten, and now they will be ready for it.
Using the tips and tricks we’ve talked about in this article is sure to set your child up for success for name writing. Don’t rush it. Take your time with each step in the process and give lots of praise and encouragement along the way, even when things don’t go perfectly.