Early Drawing and Writing Play for Crayon-Eaters and Paper-Rippers

perfect writing and drawing play for one year olds. CanDoKiddo.com

Have you ever had to fill out a developmental screening checklist at a well-child check-up? You know, the ones that ask if your baby is babbling and banging two toys together? For parents these simple sheets of paper clinging to a clipboard can be no big deal, but they can just as easily stir up nerves, worry, guilt and defensiveness. I will never forget my best friend calling me years ago frantic, asking, "Am I a terrible mother because I haven't even noticed if he transfers toys from one hand to the other?!!" (My answer was NO.)

Drawing play for babies and toddlers - tips from a pediatric OT and mommy. CanDo Kiddo

Well, friends, I'm here to give you a heads up on a question that might surprise you on the 1 year developmental screening tools.  You may be asked if your little one is scribbling yet. Like with a crayon and paper. WHAT??!!! You mean a 12 month old is supposed to be doing anything other than eating crayons and ripping paper? I know, it can be shocking. And you're certainly not a bad parent for keeping your baby at a healthy distance from anything that could be used to destroy your furniture, poke an eye or be ingested. So today, I'd like to share some of my favorite early writing toys for babies and toddlers. 

Why Do Babies and Toddlers Need Writing Toys?

The short answer is that they don't. I'm a firm believer that the best way to prepare your kiddo for handwriting is to let them play - and not necessarily with writing tools. I was thrilled to contribute to an awesome 3-part series of articles called The Unconventional Guide To Improve Handwriting Skills for Blue Mango, LLC. It's an awesome read that discusses the value of floortime play, limited or no screen time, outdoor play, unstructured free play, and open-ended toys in the development of foundational skills that contribute to handwriting. 

So if the best way to prepare your baby or toddler for handwriting ISN'T to practice holding a crayon and writing, why are early writing toys valuable?

  • Early writing toys introduce the concept that what a child does with his hands can create something. These toys expand on a young child's understanding of cause and effect.
  • Portable writing toys offer great opportunities for screen-free entertainment in situations where you're stuck waiting with a small child (doctor's offices, restaurants, etc.).
  • Perhaps most important, they offer little ones an opportunity to imitate the adults and older siblings in their lives, which is a major occupation (or meaningful activity) of early childhood. 

So use drawing and writing tools as another way to have FUN with your kiddo - not with the agenda to be starting early academics or fine motor boot camp. 

An OT's Favorite Writing Toys for Babies and Toddlers

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*Note: Most of the toys listed below state that they are intended for children over 2 or 3 years of age. Close supervision is required for introducing these toys to younger children, as hazards exist (such as the lids to writing tools and or the string connecting the writing tool to the toy).

Magnetic Writing and Drawing Boards

The MagnaDoodle is a classic toy and a staple of most Occupational Therapists' toolboxes {affiliate}. Most large magnetic boards include magnetic stamps that allow little hands to pinch and pick up, rub and bang to make marks before they've really figured out how to put the correct end of the magnetic stylus to the board.

I recently purchased the smaller, slimmer Fisher-Price Doodle Pro travel version, which fit perfectly in my carry-on bag for a recent flight {affiliate}. It doesn't include stamps but shares its bigger counterparts' travel-friendly feature of having the writing tool attached with a string. 

Water Writing and Drawing Boards 

Yet another mess-free, mouthy-baby-friendly early writing toy is the Aquadoodle {affiliate}. Who needs a table?! The large mat is perfect for laying on the floor for play and big enough for multiples or multi-aged siblings to draw together. It's also available in a smaller flat, folding travel version {affiliate}. I also love our B. Toys water writing board from Target.

Real-world tip:  Since there are no colors on these boards, there is very little point in having more than one writing tool out at a time; it only increases the odds of losing one. You can easily store the others for when you need them.

DIY Sensory Writing and Drawing Toys

  • Foam Baby Soap on a cookie sheet, pan or tray: Spread a thin layer of foam baby soap on a flat surface and let baby make marks with his hands or fingers. 
  • "Sand" on a cookie sheet, pan or tray: Use baby rice cereal or finely crumbled crackers (Ritz work great!) to make taste-safe "sand" to spread on a flat surface for baby to make marks in.
  • Paint in a sealed Ziploc bag: Place a few dollops of dark paint (I use Crayola Washable Finger Paint {affiliate}) in a gallon sized food storage bag and seal tightly (I like to Duct tape for good measure!). Spread the paint around to coat the inside of the bag and place on a flat surface. Show your little one how to make marks with his hand or finger. 

Drawing and Writing Games for Babies and Toddlers

Tips and tricks for playing with crayon-eaters and paper-rippers. Baby and toddler play activities. CanDo Kiddo
  • "Tap, Tap, Tap": Tap the writing tool (or your hand or finger) to the writing surface as you say "tap, tap, tap." Wait and give your child a chance to imitate.

  • I Draw, You Erase: (for magnetic writing boards) Even the act of pinching and sliding the eraser knob on a magnetic writing board is great for fine motor strength and coordination. It also gives your kiddo the sensation of making a line (almost like they're tracing), which is an early writing skill. Your little one will likely enjoy erasing your beautiful illustrations - especially if they get a silly response from you!

  • "Zoom": Make long scribbles and lines on the writing surface as you say "Zoom!" and wait for your little one to imitate. For even more fun use a toy car to make "Zooms" on a DIY Sensory Writing Toy like described above.

  • Draw Your Favorite Songs: Given my son's current obsession with "The Itsy Bitsy Spider," this is a favorite in our home. I draw the spider as I sing and then hand over the writing toy for him to draw his version of the rain (whatever he draws or attempts to draw counts - even if he doesn't succeed in leaving a mark on the toy). He hands it back for me to draw the sun, and so on. 

  • "Achoo": (for magnetic boards and DIY Sensory Writing Toys) After you and your little one have made some marks on the writing surface, make a big dramatic fake sneeze as you erase the image. Then ask your little one to draw again. Little kids CANNOT resist a sneeze and will enjoy keeping the game going just to experience more of your high-quality acting. 

  • Free Drawing: This is my favorite. It probably won't last long and it will require you to practice the important parenting skill of sitting on your hands. Give your child a writing toy and then sit back and watch quietly as he bangs it, shakes it, licks it, drops it, turns it over, puts it on his head, shows it to the dog, puts it down and moves on to the next thing. Early learning doesn't always look the way we expect it to, but trust that it's happening!