How do children gain writing skills through play?

One of the most common questions I receive from prospective parents about our play-based program is, “How do children learn if they are playing all day?” It’s a fair question. As adults, we know how to read, write, add, and subtract, but we may have no recollection of how we learned these things. I certainly don’t! It’s very difficult to put ourselves back in the mindset of a child, to really understand what children experience as they learn. Fortunately, our teachers are VERY good at precisely this! Our teachers have studied child development and devoted their careers to understanding how to meet children where they are developmentally, all while making learning fun. So how, exactly, do children learn through play? Let’s take a look at ZHPP’s writing curriculum and how children progress from the Two’s to the Five’s.

There are so many skills that are required for writing: hand strength, hand-eye coordination, dexterity, and spatial awareness. In the Two’s program, our first focus is introducing writing tools—paper, paint, markers—and the concept that writing begins as a mark on a paper. Our second focus is developing hand strength. Playdough and stamps are great for this. Age-appropriate knob puzzles serve triple-duty: hand-eye coordination, hand strength, and, as children grasp the knob, the beginnings of a pencil grip.

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As children move from the Two’s to the Three’s, they begin to understand that their mark on a paper represents something. What may appear to an adult eye as a bunch of scribbles may be a story or a drawing. The Three’s is often the height of the scribble phase, and children delight in relaying what their writing represents—be sure to ask them about their work! Children begin to realize that writing is a way to convey information, and during circle time the teachers point out words on the calendar, displays, and in books. Children often model what they see and know; a perfect example occurs in dramatic “restaurant” play, where the “wait staff” takes orders on a notepad to let the “chef” know what to prepare. Letter recognition is also introduced in the Three’s, while we continue to build on the skills introduced in the Two’s, including hand strength, pincer grip, and coordination.

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We keep building on letter recognition and sounds in the Four’s, and on developing strength and stamina with clay, kinetic sand, and putty. We also practice cutting to work on fine motor skills, and the pincer grip is refined with every coloring, drawing, or creation. Spatial awareness is a major focus in this age group: tracing loop-to-loops from left to right, making the swirling vines of a pumpkin patch, putting puzzles together, and placing blocks in order from biggest to smallest. Legos are particularly popular and address so many domains required in writing: hand strength to snap pieces together or apart, fine motor skills, spatial awareness, and hand-eye coordination. The teachers intentionally model writing skills at every opportunity, and again the children emulate. The social component is such a big part of the Four’s, and often we see children writing notes and letters to their friends and family, while regularly signing their names on their work.

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In the Five’s, the children are tracing and forming both uppercase and lowercase letters. Hand grip is reinforced, and a variety of materials are used for this purpose: triangular pencils, broken crayons, and small markers. The writing is prolific and the children label everything they do. The Five’s students build a three-dimensional barn with boxes and cartons and label “silo,” “hayloft,” and “door.” They create a large-scale map of a town and write “hospital,” “ambulance,” “school,” “fire station,” “fire truck,” and “library.” The evidence of the children’s writing abounds in classroom play and in our hallways.

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As adults, we may not remember how we learned to write, and we may take for granted all the individual skills that are required. Your children are working on these skills daily at ZHPP. All of the materials set out for the children each day and the lesson plans that the teachers create, are very intentional, purposeful, and developmentally appropriate for each classroom. The writing—and learning—happens while the children are happily playing with blocks or play-acting restaurant with their friends!

—Jessica Joy