"What does THAT say?" my toddler asked, pointing to a construction sign on our walk to the park.
It was a simple question, the sort I'll be asked 50 bajillion times a day for the next few years. But this time, it was momentous. It was the first time my 2 year old showed me that he understood that letters represent words and concepts.
"It says hard hat required," I responded with a smile.
"Oh," he said as he trotted ahead knocking on his imaginary hard hat, totally unaware that his child development nerd mother was having a misty-eyed moment a few paces behind him.
So how did we arrive at this point, and how do I, as a parent, continue to teach him to read and write letters? You might be surprised that my list doesn't include a desk, a workbook, or a preschool teacher. No, my list includes ways that may not feel like you're actually teaching them writing at all! But the secret is YOU ARE - and you're both having a lot of fun in the process.
5 Secret Ways To Teach Writing Skills
This page includes affiliate links, which means I earn a small commission when you purchase products through these links. I only link to products I use or love. Thanks for supporting CanDo Kiddo. See my disclosure page for more information.
Climbing, sliding, swinging, hanging, pushing, pulling, digging, jumping, rolling, and running: these are all ways that your child develops the strength, coordination, sensory processing, and self-regulation skills for reading and writing. Outside is best, but there are certainly ways to do active play indoors (follow my Pinterest board for ideas).
Exposure to Print Materials
Read books together every day, and go to a public library weekly if you have one available. Let your child see you read - books, magazines, and the newspaper. Don’t stress if you don’t have an adorable book nook or trendy reading teepee in your home - a kid-accessible book basket or shelf and a floor or couch work just fine. Make letter puzzles and letter magnets and letter toys available and trust that child-led play with these low-tech tools is every bit as educational as a fancy Leapfrog device.
Play With Manipulatives
Duplos, stringing beads, play-doh, kinetic sand, puzzles, stickers, doll babies with clothes to take off and put on, Magnatiles, and my toddler’s favorite - "little guys” to put in rescue vehicles - are all perfect examples of open-ended toys that encourage the hand-eye coordination and hand strength needed for writing.
Exposure To Writing Tools
The classic choice is crayons. But writing tools also include paint brushes, sidewalk chalk, Do a Dot markers, Magnadoodle boards, Water Wow paint-free painting pages, and even a stick to draw roads in the sandbox. Make these items available for your kiddo to get creative with.
Your Time and Attention
"Ooooh boy. Here she goes, telling me to put my phone down!” Well, yes, but it’s more than that. I’m as guilty as anybody of being on my phone a lot when I’m with my kids (occupational hazard of blogging and running an online business). But I strongly encourage you to be intentionally FULLY ENGAGED with your child during some of their playtimes and during your daily routines and to look for opportunities to talk about letters and numbers and to practice writing in play and in every day life.
Give your kiddo a voided check and let him write on it while playing grocery store. Practice number recognition by letting your kiddo find and push the button in elevators. Help your child make post-it note name tags for his stuffed animals (you write, he names and sticks them on his furry friends). Play I-spy with letters in a magazine in the doctor's office waiting room or the grocery store aisle.
Playtime or Writing Time? BOTH!
At their young ages, I take a very unstructured, child-led approach to teaching my kiddos. And I make a point to include high quality materials and toys that spark curiosity and open the door for us to play with letters and numbers.
Both clinically as an OT and as a mom, I've seen that young kiddos learn better from play with a trusted adult or bigger kid who casually infuses play with academic concepts, than from technology or structured, seated work.
One set of learning tools I’m grateful to have in my house are from Fundanoodle, an educational readiness program that was designed by two Occupational Therapists (and fellow mamas) I used to work with. If you’ve read here long, you know I don’t do “sponsored posts” or get paid to endorse products. But when I love something, I happily share it! And since some of my OT friends are the creators of Fundanoodle and others are Fundanoodle Ambassadors, our house is well stocked with Fundanoodle gifts.
Fundanoodle products fit perfectly into our playtimes, and they incorporate all 5 of the secrets I just described. As I use them with my kiddos, I can TELL these products were designed by developmental experts.
12 Ways To Play + Learn With Fundanoodle
To show you how playful and unstructured we are in our explorations of letters and writing, here are 12 silly and educational ways we play and learn with Fundanoodle’s products:
Letters In A Tunnel
Mommy makes a letter sound and then says the name of a letter. Then toddler finds the letter from 4-8 letter cards on the ground and then carries it through a play tunnel to Mommy. With practice, sometimes the letter sound is all that’s needed. (use Upper Case Muscle Mover Cards)
Guess The Animal
Mommy makes the initial letter sound and movement of an animal on one of the Muscle Mover cards. Then toddler stomps on the card spread out on the floor in a small group. (use Upper Case Muscle Mover Cards)
Erase Mommy’s Letters On Dry Erase Board
Mommy slowly writes a letter on the dry erase board talking through the strokes using their Fundanoodle names like “zip” and “zoom.” Then Mommy excitedly shows toddler, who uses the eraser end of the dry erase marker to erase the letter - (sometimes using similar writing strokes and sometimes a frantic scribble). Then Mommy pretends very dramatically to be sad or shocked because toddlers and preschoolers LOVE a good dose of drama in their play and are learning how to read the nonverbal communication of others. (use magnetic dry erase board)
Construction worker dress-up clothes optional. Toddler picks a letter card (our blueprint/ plan for construction) and find the “building supplies” that Mommy asks for (“I need a short pink piece of wood and a little green curve”). Then Mommy puts letters pieces on the magnet board to build the letter and toddler secures them by hammering and using various other very important tools. There are high fives and smiles until an earthquake (hurricane, flood or other natural disaster) knocks the pieces off the board and we have to rebuild a new letter. (use I Can Build Upper Case Letters! magnets and magnetic dry erase board)
We definitely don’t just stick to building letters with the magnet pieces. Since the magnet board is STRONG and really tough for toddler to pull pieces off of, we put them on the floor and make people, animals, and all sorts of pictures. I’ve attempted to build just about anything toddler can think of (water towers are my favorite request), and toddler has fun building, too. (use I Can Build Upper Case Letters! magnets)
DIY Dry Erase Activities
What started as an attempt for this budget conscious mama to re-use pages from our giant activity book, also turned out to be great for handwriting development. I taped the pages to the inside of our glass front door and let toddler use a dry erase marker. Writing on a vertical surface like this helps little ones learn to bend their wrists back as they hold a writing tool - an important position for handwriting. It also promotes shoulder strengthening. (use I Can Do Fun Activities! book)
Stack Up Wood
Sometimes we “stack up wood” by matching and sorting like sizes and colors of magnetic pieces. This is a great way to include color and size recognition into play. (use I Can Build Upper Case Letters! magnets)
Using the dry erase board and marker or the magnetic pieces on the floor, toddler makes a picture and Mommy has to copy it and then submit it to the toddler teacher for critique. I mean, what toddler doesn’t LOVE being the boss! (use I Can Build Upper Case Letters! magnets or magnetic dry erase board)
Match What Mommy Draws
Mommy needs to collect the letters but she can’t talk anymore (“Oh NO!”). So she has to draw the letter on the dry erase board, and toddler has to find it from a small group of Muscle Mover cards on the floor, letter-side up. (use Upper Case Muscle Mover Cards and magnetic dry erase board)
Letter Frog Hop
We use our number frog bean-bags but any bean-bag-type object will do. We spread Muscle Mover Cards all over the floor (sometimes the whole set of 26) letter-side up. We sit on the couch and toss bean bags down onto the letters. We (usually Mommy first and Toddler repeating) excitedly announce what letters get landed on. (use Upper Case Muscle Mover Cards)
Those magnetic letter pieces are great for building a long and winding road for little cars or little people to travel on. It’s a fun way to engage with manipulatives and to reinforce the names of the writing strokes (you can use the Fundanoodle names). (use I Can Build Upper Case Letters! magnets)
A few of the activity pages in the I Can Cut! activity book depict a character with long hair and a dotted line across the hair for cutting. This concept was sooooo hilarious to Toddler that now a favorite activity is Mommy drawing a face with crazy long hair and toddler cutting it. Even more fun is when Mommy then acts out a dramatic response or critique ("OH NO!!! It's so short. How will I ever put it in a ponytail again!" or "Wow - this is the fanciest haircut I've seen. Thank you! Thank you! Can you cut my friend's hair like this?") (use safety scissors)