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If you’ve worked with young children, you’ve seen them picking up a marker or crayon, finding a piece of paper, and getting right to work.  They may not be writing “real” words yet, but the process is meaningful.  Writing is important work! Children understand that marks on a paper represent objects and information in the world.

In this tool kit, we will explore why writing skills are important to young children, the stages of development that lead from pre-writing to writing, and the importance of play in learning to write. 

Why is Writing Important to Young Children? 

There are many pieces to early literacy, including speaking, listening, talking, reading, and writing.  

When children write letters, words, and numbers, they become familiar with their forms, and that makes it easier for them to find those things later, in other printed material.  When a child writes his name often, he’ll be able to quickly find it in the classroom, on paper, or even in a story. 

As children learn to write, they develop fine motor skills. These skills include gripping a pencil or crayon, pressing it down hard enough to make a mark, and holding a paper in place while they work.  Children need these skills as they get older and do more written work.

When children move from preschool to kindergarten, they have less play time.  They spend more time writing letters and numbers. As children get even older, they want to write their ideas more quickly.  Early handwriting experiences set the stage for later writing speed.  

When children practice writing letters, they develop perceptual skills and hand-eye coordination. They will use these skills for cooking, getting dressed, and exercising.  Handwriting also leads to brain development. 

Learn more in 7 Reasons Why Handwriting is Important for Kids.

Handwriting Development

Children follow common paths as they learn to write. Writing Skills at Different Ages describes development by age. Promoting Preschoolers’ Emergent Writing describes development by stage. 

Development by Age

Children 1-2 years old may show an interest in writing.  Toddlers often hold a crayon in their fist. They understand that crayons can make scribbles on a paper.  At age 2, children may try to write. They understand that marks on the paper represent something else. 

Children 3-4 years old may draw wavy lines that look like text. They can make distinct marks, draw pictures and try to label them, and write real letters (especially those in their name).  Preschool children begin to recognize writing in other places, such as cursive in a thank you note. 

Young grade schoolers (5-7 years old) learn to hold pencils correctly and know the sounds that letters make.  They can develop letter knowledge even earlier.  See Phonological Awareness in Young Children for more information. 

Development by Stage

Emergent writing has three stages.  

  • The first stage is conceptual knowledge.  In this stage, children learn functions of writing. For example, seeing the McDonalds logo means the restaurant is nearby. 
  • The second stage is procedural knowledge. In this stage, children understand that letters represent sounds. They also learn how to write letters.
  • The third stage is generative knowledge.  In this stage, children learn to write with meaning. For example, they create stories, notes, or lists.

As children learn more, they create more advanced writing. Children begin with drawings and scribbles. They eventually learn to write words, spelled correctly.  See Promoting Preschoolers’ Emergent Writing for a chart of steps along the way. 

Children Learn Pre-writing Skills Through Play

There is no need to rush young children to write with paper and pencil.  Adults can help children develop good habits needed for writing later. Preschool Pre-Writing Skills describes classroom routines that support good habits. Early Reading and Writing with Preschoolers offers more ideas.  Here are activities that support skills like fine motor development, following directions, and putting items in order. 

Sensory Table

  • Use tweezers to pick up water beads.
  • Use measuring cups to scoop corn starch or flour.
  • Write letters and words in sand using fingers or a stick.
  • Find small items hidden in sand. Use a spoon to scope them out.

Table Top Activities

  • Make letters with rolled out pieces of play dough or pieces of wood.
  • Complete puzzles and lacing activities. 
  • Pick up pom poms using clothes pins.


  • Use paint brushes, crayons, and markers to create drawings and paintings.
  • Make pictures using bingo stampers.
  • Draw letters in colored shaving cream.  Place a paper on top of the surface to make a print.

Dramatic Play

  • Use buttons, zippers, and fasteners on dress up clothes.
  • Arrange items (e.g., carefully setting forks and spoons on the table).
  • Use notepads to create menus, jot down orders, or write a bill.

Writing Center

  • Trace letters by using a pen or marker over a highlighter.
  • Draw and label pictures on a story told to a teacher.  Young Authors at Work: Story Dictations offers great ideas. 
  • Write letters of own name using different tools (e.g., pens, markers, colored pencils). Using only capital letters is fine.
  • Create and sign autograph books. 
  • Trace sandpaper letters with fingertips.
  • Use stencils to create letters and shapes.

Classroom Routines

  • Sign in for the day; sign out when leaving.
  • Watch as the teacher writes the question of the day during large group.
  • Label items around the classroom (e.g., crayons).
  • Write simple directions (e.g., Take 3 crackers). Include pictures.
  • Use clipboards for writing at any time (e.g., clipboards in blocks to draw a building, clipboards outside to draw signs seen on a walk).
  • Read stories about characters who write.  Engage with those stories.  Young Authors at Work: Literature Response Journals provides great suggestions.
  • Take a home a class “pet” (stuffed animal). Write a journal entry about his time over the weekend and share it with classmates. 

Handwriting Development Through Developmentally Appropriate Practices From Ages 2-5 and 7 Fun Pre-Writing Activities for Preschoolers provide even more ideas. Learning at Home Activities: Literacy and Communication Activities offers suggestions for parents to use at home. 

As children learn to write, adults should be positive. Encourage children to help each other.  Celebrate all attempts at writing. 

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About this resource

Setting(s) for which the article is intended:
  • Home
  • Family Child Care
  • Child Care Center
  • Preschool Program

Intended audience(s):
  • Parents / Family
  • Teachers / Service providers

Age Levels (the age of the children to whom the article applies):
Reviewed: 2024