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How craft activities help young children train their muscles for writing

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My son’s Year One teacher lets them do a lot of colouring and paper crafts with staplers. I thought this was preschool work. He seems to enjoy it but it is not really proper education, is it?

In early primary a lot of the more “academic” skills you might hope to see are still a little ahead of many student’s abilities. Instead children are often asked to tear up strips of paper, scrunch, staple or stuff them into a shape, colour, choose items for a task, follow instructions and describe to another child what to do.

The teacher will need to gauge how ready her class is for a lot of writing. Pushing a small child to write a full page of text is exhausting and counterproductive if they have yet to develop the fine motor control to hold a pencil correctly.

Looking at a child’s gross (big muscle groups) and fine motor skills will help the teacher decide on how to divide classroom time between muscle development and actual writing. Tearing up strips of paper uses the shoulder and core muscles as they twist and pull. These are part of the writing muscles, too, bending over paper and moving hands across it. They also support a child’s ability to lift shapes and focus on their properties or place cubes to develop maths skills.

Further down the arm are the bigger hand muscles used in scrunching, stapling and stuffing.For small children it can be tiring after an hour or less. Combining activities such as tearing, scrunching and stuffing gives a child the chance to rest one set of muscles while they use the other.

The opposable thumb is something humans have over other animals but it uses a muscle we need to strengthen. Teachers are very aware of the impact a lack of strength and coordination will have on students’ ability to fully engage in and learn from other activities.

Folding origami or paper springs works the finger muscles and the brain. Consider how the brain has to visualise the item they are working on, communicate with the fingers, rotate the item and the hands to create the desired outcome. All of this is developing your child’s abilities to think, observe and physically manipulate. These skills will be so important in many academic areas, a good foundation is essential.


Paper crafts can develop a child’s abilities to think, observe and physically manipulate.

It is perhaps easier to see the importance of colouring skills. Teachers (and parents) can provide children with bigger shapes and larger or even triangular crayons to help develop their hands towards writing well. Colouring also gives teachers a chance to observe and correct pencil grip so that when they are writing letters they will not have to focus on refining their grip. It is always better to correct one element rather than two so while students enjoy the colouring, the teacher can guide the grip. Every more detailed drawing refines the fine motor control and further prepares them for writing.

Independence is developed in the classroom with the freedom to choose. Getting the colour they need, the paper they want, asking to use coloured pens or pencils rather than crayons, these all encourage a child’s ability to complete tasks on their own. The act of choosing and negotiating is essential for developing brains.

Children develop their reasoning by explaining why they want grey paper for the sky or black for their grapes. They also learn to explain and reason and choose, growing independence and confidence that is essential for a successful academic career.

As they work on a craft, students also have to focus on following instructions. This can be written on the boardor spoken by the teacher step by step. Also the number of instructions a young child is able to follow in succession needs to be appropriate to their abilities, and strengthened and lengthened. Listening to other children explain what to do gives them chances to develop their oral interaction and prepares them for writing out their own instructions.

Children need to be able to describe something orally before they can write about it. If they cannot instruct you or tell you a story they are not ready to write them.

Craft activities are chosen to be part of the curriculum, be it creating an undersea creature when learning about oceans or a basket of fruit when learning about nutrition. So it is good that your son enjoys these activities, he is getting a lot out of them!

Kris Gienger teaches at a Hong Kong primary school

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