The other day I heard a child expert say, “Teach your toddlers to be free thinkers, encourage them to color outside the lines.” Now, I am all for free thinking, I strongly encourage it even, but the occupational therapist inside me cringed, no shrieked! Can’t our toddlers be free thinkers, creative, and imaginative without compromising their fine motor and visual skills? I decided to shrug it off. Nobody would take that seriously, right? Later that same day a man said to me, “I am teaching my two-year-old grandson to color with both hands because I heard that will make him a better athlete.” Oh boy…
So let’s break this down…motor skills are emerging and fine tuning considerably in the toddler years and we need to encourage the development of these skills. Hand dominance should be getting established and visual motor skills are being refined. It is so important to take every opportunity to foster these emerging skills. Start by making sure your toddler is positioned appropriately, sitting at a child size table with their feet on the floor. You could also have them lie on their belly on the floor with good support through their forearms (this is a nice little trick for children with low tone or weak upper body strength). Because development occurs from head to toe and from the trunk of the body, outward, children will gain control over their shoulder movements first, then elbow, wrist and hand movements in that order. If you watch a toddler color you will notice that the whole arm is moving. The movement is most likely generated from the shoulder or elbow, while the muscles of the wrist and hand stay stationary, gripping the crayon. If you watch an older child color, hopefully their shoulder and elbow remain stationary while their fingers do the motion. This doesn’t necessarily happen naturally, and it certainly doesn’t happen if we say “go ahead, color all over the page”. Children need some direction and practice to refine these skills.
Here are some fun activities to practice basic coloring and handwriting skills: (A lot of these suggestions involve a sensory component, which helps engage the senses to memorize letter formation)
Write with fingers on a cookie sheet of shaving cream, flour, rice, or salt.
Write on a dry erase board or a chalkboard.
Write in the air with fingers.
Rainbow writing: write a word and then trace it with different colors.
Q-Tips, chalk and water writing.
Use window markers or dry-erase markers on windows or mirrors.
Bath crayons in the tub.
Write with glue.
Use disappearing ink or invisible ink to write secret messages.
Sidewalk chalk on the driveway.
Use a paint brush and water on the driveway
Draw letters on your child’s back and have them guess the letters, then let them do it to you.
Make letters out of pipe cleaners
Make letters out of blocks or leggos or scraps of paper.
Write with spaghetti.
Have an older child teach a younger child how to write something specific.
Make gift tags to practice writing names and Happy Birthday, Merry Christmas, etc.
Write with a stick in the dirt or in sand at the beach.
Sensory salt tray with ginger and cinnamon.
Use a drawing app on a tablet and write words with your finger or a stylus.
Fill a ziplock bag with paint or hair gel and write with your finger.
Make birthday cards or holiday cards.
Write on a AquaDoodle or MagnaDoodle.
Bring crayons to restaurants to color on the back of placemats
Use paper table cloths and color during, before or after dinner
Roll out a roll on parchment paper on the floor and color on it to make wrapping paper.
Now, as for the free thinking, I strongly believe that toddlers are natural “free thinkers”. We don’t need to teach it, we just need to foster it and not inhibit it. Children are inquisitive, imaginative, creative, and thoughtful. We just need to cultivate these qualities. While your toddler is coloring (in the lines) ask them thought provoking questions; Why do you think birds can fly and cats can’t? Why is an apple red on the outside and white on the inside? Why do we keep ice cream in the freezer and not in the refrigerator? What would you do if you were on the moon right now?
Encourage questions and respond enthusiastically to their ideas. Build forts in the family room, encourage them to take chances, play make believe, play dress up, consider a wrong answer an opportunity, never criticize, respect your child’s opinions, encourage unstructured play, get messy, think mudpies, fingerpaint, shaving cream, make time for unstructured play, create an art center in your house with lots of fun supplies, make puppets, dance to loud music, encourage your child to disagree with you or come up with new solutions, and most importantly read to your child and limit screen time. With just a little bit of thoughtfulness and direction our children can be free thinkers and color inside the lines!