scribbles to script: how children learn to write

When your new arrival makes their way into the world, there’ll be many thoughts going through your mind. “How can babies go through so many nappies?” “Will my newborn ever sleep through the night?” “Is green poo normal?!” But “How do children learn to write?” won’t be one of them. Not yet anyway. However, even your little one’s earliest developments will help them put pen to paper when they’re older.

From those early-day babbles to fridge-worthy doodles, there are many steps on their journey from scribbles to script. And yes, that probably includes making a mess of themselves, the furniture and maybe even the dog with what you thought was a small amount of paint. Here’s why…

how children learn to write

Before your little genius composes their Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, they first need to be able to understand and use spoken language. After all, they can’t write the words if they don’t know them. The development of their communication and language skills will continue as your baby gets older, helping them learn to count, read, and ask for something nicely (or is that wishful thinking?).

Another important step of learning to write is the development of fine motor skills. As your little one practices grabbing their favourite rattle (or your hair!) and stealing food from your plate, they’ll be improving the grip and control needed to correctly hold a pencil. From there, the focus moves to early mark-making (the messy paint stage) and learning to write the alphabet so they can construct words and sentences, and eventually write that novel.

children learning to write using paint

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Before they become an award-winning author, there are a few key developmental milestones to reach first. That being said, every baby is unique and progresses at a different rate, so the age brackets are just a guideline. After all, little ones aren’t exactly known for sticking to a schedule!

key developmental stages of learning to write

birth – 11 months:

• Babies instinctively reach for and grab objects with their whole hand in a palmar grasp
• Their grip gets more secure as coordination improves
• Language development begins with babbling sounds, like ‘baba’ or ‘gaga’

8 – 20 months:

• The palmar grasp is used to hold a pen or crayon to make random marks
• A pincer grip develops to pick up small objects between thumb and fingers
• Growing tots imitate words and sounds, experimenting to communicate different meanings

16 – 26 months:

• Toddlers begin to understand that different movements make different marks
• Two words are occasionally joined together to ask simple questions
• They can understand simple sentences with more than two words, like ‘Throw the ball’

little girl learning to write on a chalkboard

22 – 36 months:

• A tripod grip is used to hold writing tools between thumb, index and middle finger
• Toddlers can distinguish between the different types of marks they make
• A preference for a dominant hand may begin to appear
• New words are quickly picked up and used for communicating

30 months and up:

• Writing tools are held firmly in a tripod grip with good control
• Letters are copied until skill improves enough to produce them independently
• Toddler’s thoughts begin to link together in more complex sentences with ‘and’, ‘because’ etc

how to help your children learn to write

In the early days, just talking to your baby will grow their vocabulary and help them understand how conversations work. Reading stories, naming objects around you and playing games together are also great ways to foster your growing bundle’s ability to communicate from the very beginning. Keep these activities going as they grow too since speaking, reading and writing are so closely intertwined.

While you chat away, make plenty of opportunities for your little one to grab, squeeze, pull and generally play with things around them, placing them just out of reach. Whether that’s on the floor during tummy time or at the dinner table, any rattle or spoon will do. If they happen to feed the floor more than themselves, just remember that their fine motor skills will only get better with practice. Wet wipes and muslins were invented for a reason.

toddler feeding himself in a highchair

As baby gets older, paint becomes a wonderful plaything. Sand, shaving cream and mud too – anything they can draw in or with (just make sure they don’t eat it!). Put aside time each day for some sensory fun that lets them experiment with early mark-making which is a crucial step in how children learn to write. While they enjoy scribbling and splattering everywhere, they’ll be developing their grip strength and accuracy which are important writing skills.

completing the journey from scribbles to script

With a bit of help and encouragement, your children’s scrawls will gradually take on more meaning and become more purposeful. Soon you’ll find them writing the age-old inscription “This book belongs to ____” in their favourite paperbacks. Once at that stage, why not let them help with the weekly shopping list? Or keep a whiteboard in their room so they can write down one thing they’re happy about or proud of each day.

Just remember, learning to write takes time and it may come easier to some children than others. If you do have concerns about your little one’s development though, have a chat with their doctor or health visitor who can reassure you and provide support if needed. Otherwise, be patient and have lots of fun with their learning. If you get to rediscover the joy of a favourite childhood story or revel in picking up a paintbrush again, all the better!


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