The fastest way to failure for kids

I once had a reading specialist tell me that the only way for children to learn to read is for them to read. I never have figured out how one learns to do something she can’t yet do by doing it! But I sometimes feel as though I’m in the minority here, as this attitude seems to be a fairly prevalent one – and not just in the area of reading.

This week I had the opportunity to talk with pediatric occupational therapist Angela Hanscom and early childhood specialist Amanda Morgan on my radio show, Studentcentricity. As I told these two dedicated professionals at the beginning of the discussion, while doing some instructional coaching last fall, I watched as a kindergarten teacher handed out pencils to the children, along with some lined paper, and instructed them to practice their writing. And what I witnessed made me sad. Not only were these children not prepared to write; also, their little hands were having a terrible time controlling those long, skinny, yellow things. But despite those two overwhelmingly obvious facts, it was clear that the teacher believed that the only way the children could learn to write was by writing.

For those who understand child development, however, it’s clear that this is a serious misconception. All forms of development, including the fine motor development required to manipulate a pencil, involve a process. And unless a child has progressed through the stages necessary to ensure the appropriate hand strength and fine motor control, trying to write is an exercise in futility and frustration.

Motor skills develop from the inside to the outside of the body, and from the large to the small muscles. That means that until a child has control over such body parts as the trunk and arms, control of the hands and fingers just ain’t happening. And it is due to this progression, put in place by none other than Mother Nature, that it’s been said – believe it or not — that the best way to prepare children to write is to let them swing on monkey bars. Or, as Angela recommended during our conversation, to let them hang from tree limbs, because the limbs stimulate more parts of the hands than do the monkey bars. She also recommended crawling, particularly in the outdoors, where the arches of the hands will contact far different surfaces than they would indoors. And, of course, hanging from tree limbs and crawling have the added benefit of strengthening the body’s large muscles, which must take place before the hands and fingers are ready to write!

Among the other activities Angela and Amanda suggested were playing with turkey basters, digging in the dirt with both large and small tools, manipulating Play Doh, and using a wooden spoon or other tool to write either in sand or in a cookie sheet filled with salt. And before children are given pencils with which to write, they should play around with small broken crayons, which are much easier to manipulate than those long, skinny, yellow things.

There’s one other belief, prevalent these days, that aligns with the idea that one must do something one doesn’t yet know how to do in order to learn to do it. That belief is similarly misconceived and it’s the one that states that children will have to learn to do a particular task eventually (like using technology, for example) so they might as well start now. To quote Amanda Morgan on that notion: if we’re going to employ that logic, we might just as well allow children to begin driving cars.

Why, I wonder (far too often!), do we refuse to honor the progression and immutability of child development? Why do schools seem to be doing their best these days to ensure failure, as opposed to success? I mean, isn’t success in life our ultimate goal for children – and the principle reason children go to school?

The truth is, unless best practices – developmentally appropriate practices – are employed, success is unlikely. Indeed, asking children to accomplish tasks before they’re developmentally ready is the fastest way to failure!

To listen to my discussion with Angela and Amanda, click here.



  • Thank you for this article.
    This is the kind of information everybody working with children should have at hand.

  • Shari Coy says:

    I’m an early learning literacy coach in a large district. We are trying to move away from that notion, and go back to DAP, but….are getting lots of pushback from teachers, and admin. Kinder teachers are being pressured by both, admin and older grade to teachers to get kindergarteners ready for the academic rigor awaiting them. It is a constant battle! ????

    • Rae Pica says:

      So infuriating, Shari. There’s no surer way to get kids to hate school — and learning — than with “academic rigor.” Argh.

  • Sarah says:

    This really resonates with me, and I’m stuck on what to do about it. My 4 year old is in public school kindergarten (that’s the age they start in Canada) – and the pressure on him to learn to write all his letters really horrifies me. They are pushing me to work with him at home on it, and I refuse because I don’t believe in homework, I believe in family time. Instead we cut paper, draw with the thick triangular crayons, climb, play catch etc. They also always complain that he is one of the slowest to put on and zip up his coat etc, to which I respond that he is in the bottom 25th percentile of the class (it is joint JK/SK and he’s born in August) But the other day the school sent home a referral to an OT. I’m choosing to see this as a positive – can it get worse? I hope not. But I’m also close to the end of my tether. I’ve seen the letters he can do and they’re all wrong – starts at the bottom not the top etc – which is no surprise when you have 1 teacher trying to teach this to 15 kids. I’m devastated by this start to his school career, but can’t really consider pulling him out and sending him to a private school, we just don’t have the funds. But I’d rather he wasn’t learning at all than learning in this slapdash, crowd control manner.

    • Rae says:

      Sarah, I’m so sorry you and your son are going through this! I actually hadn’t realized that public kindergarten in Canada begins when the children are 4. That wouldn’t necessarily matter, of course, if the curriculum was developmentally appropriate for a four-year-old but, clearly, it is not.

      I think an OT might be a good thing. She will likely do things with him that are similar to those recommended in the radio program. But I would also suggest that you do similar things with him at home. (KUDOS to you for refusing to do homework with him! When will teachers accept that the research shows there is NO benefit to homework in the elementary years?)

      Also, I’m not an OT but it seems to me that if he’s starting his letters at the bottom, he may have some spatial issues. So I would recommend you do a whole lot of movement and play with him. Things that involve spatial awareness and directionality. Ask him to take on the shape of letter with his body (play! — no pressure) and you do the same. Don’t correct him if he gets it wrong; maybe just ask a couple of follow-up questions to nudge him in the right direction. Also do cross-lateral activities with him — crawling around like snakes, seals, kitty cats, spiders, etc.

      I’d love to hear how he’s progressing so feel free to email me! Wishing you the best, Sarah.

  • Rose says:

    when exactly can kids start to write with proper pencil hold? my kid is 2+ n goes to playschool. no writing yet but i realised they’ve been trying to get him to do the 3finger hold while scribbling/colouring.

    • Rae says:

      Most children don’t have the fine-motor control to properly hold a pencil until the age of 4! If that playschool is making him try at age two, there’s too much pushing and not enough playing going on!

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