Focusing on Play Before Pencils

On this week’s episode of the Preschool Podcast, we chat with Tania Ferrandino, Occupational Therapist and Senior Professional Learning Producer at Learning Without Tears. Tania dives into the importance of play in early childhood education rather than focusing on the end goal of having a child write their name. Parents and educators can learn valuable tips in this episode on how to help children build foundational fine motor skills while having fun.

A lot of times in early childhood we expect children to write and color before they’re ready before we’ve done those foundational skills and a lot of those skills come through play.

Tania Ferrandino. The Preschool Podcast

Before jumping into holding a pencil to write their name, children must learn the foundational skills, as outlined below:

  1. Understand direction and spatial skills such as top, bottom, beside, under, etc. In order for children to write letters and shapes with writing utensils they need to know directions, otherwise, they will not understand them.
  2. Ability to sit in a chair. If a child cannot sit in a chair on their own, they will not be able to write their name or focus for extended periods of time.
  3. Interest in coloring, writing or, other fine motor activities. Children must show some interest in writing and/or coloring in order to learn how to build foundation fine motor skills. Without the motivation, they’ll lack interest in writing letters.
  4. Social skills. A child will need to listen and pay attention as they learn to imitate an educator in order to understand how to write letters.

Tania suggests that as an educator or parent, your number one thing to remember to help your child develop these skills is to remember “play”. Getting kids to engage in whatever activity you’re doing with them is of utmost importance to develop these foundational skills. Tania also suggests incorporating as many senses as possible into the activity- touch, taste, smell, sight, and sound will fully immerse a child in learning and therefore make a longer-lasting impact on their development.

If we can give children the gift of crayon grip in early childhood, it’s going to translate when they start using a pencil.

Tania Ferrandino. The Preschool Podcast

Connect with Tania and Discover the World of Learning Without Tears

Tania gives our listeners a great Ted Talk resource by Rita Pierson about connecting with children on a personal level and a Ted Talk by Takaharu Tezuka about a kindergarten classroom that focuses on play and letting kids be kids. Tania also recommends our listeners sign up and attend a virtual workshop, Emergent Writing for Pre-K held by Learning Without Tears for educators to learn how to use the tools provided by Learning Without Tears. Learning Without Tears wants to give our Preschool Podcast listeners 10% off workshops and products by using promo code HIMAMA at checkout, until Dec 31, 2021. Visit their website here!

Episode 273 Transcripts-

Tania FERRANDINO:

When you’re working with young children, you see that naturally. You see that when they’re engaged in play, they are so often more motivated and engaged than when you try to set them at a table and do something where they’re not touching and moving.

Ron SPREEUWENBERG: 

Tania, welcome to the Preschool Podcast!

FERRANDINO:

Hey, thanks for having me on the webinar, Ron! I’m really excited to talk to you today.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

We’re excited to have on the show today Tania Ferrandino. She is an occupational therapist and senior professional learning producer at Learning Without Tears, which some of you may have heard of before. Lots of folks are using some of the products and services that have been so helpful to so many early-childhood educators from Learning Without Tears. And we’re going to talk to Tania today about focus on play before pencils. Before we do that, let’s start off as we do always learning a little bit about you, Tania.

FERRANDINO:

Well, thank you. I’m happy to be here and tell you a little bit about myself. And first of all, let me start by saying that the reason I sound a little different – my accent is different – is because I was born in England. But I moved to the United States after I finished occupational therapy school in England. So, I’ve lived more my life in America at this point than in England. So, I go in and out of some of my British accent.

But basically when I moved to America, my passion was working with children. So, I went into the school system. And as I went into the school system as an OT [occupational therapist], I found that I was getting a lot of handwriting-type referrals. And I really didn’t know what to do with these children. I started my career, I would pull these children out. I’d get photocopies of dot-to-dot letters to help with them. I’d asked teachers. And I really wasn’t making any progress.

And then a fellow therapist gave me some photocopies of this paper with gray blocks and double lines. And she told me a little bit about what to do and I did. And it was amazing. All of a sudden I was making progress with my children. But I wanted to learn more.

So, that’s when I went to my first workshop with John Olsen herself, the creator of Handwriting Without Tears back in the day – more than 20 years ago, at this point. And I really became inspired to suddenly help children. She gave me the tools I needed, not just the materials to use but she gave me the methods. Because basically she gave me the tools to help children in a developmental way with multi-sensory materials to help children with handwriting.

So, that’s really how I got started. And from there, I focused more on helping educators then help children. So, I went from pulling my children out of the classroom to suddenly engaging the teacher with children in the classroom. And of course, at that time it was children in elementary school. But of course, I worked in early childhood, too.

And fortunately for me, the next few years, Handwriting Without Tears developed Get Set For School, which is their pre-K curriculum. And of course you know now that our overall curriculum is Learning Without Tears because we don’t just have our Get Set For School or curriculum or our Handwriting curriculum. We have keyboarding as well as literacy, math and other things to help our young children, not just in early childhood but of course in our elementary years, too. So, I’m really passionate, I hope you can tell, as far as helping our young children in early childhood and the elementary years, too.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Wonderful. And I mentioned the focus of today’s conversation was going to be focusing on play before pencils. Can you tell us a little bit more about what that means from your perspective?

FERRANDINO:

Well, basically, so often we focus on the end goal. So, in all my years of working in early childhood, so many people want children to write their name, whether that’s mum or dad, whether it’s an educator, whether it’s a fellow OT. But we all want children to write their name. And of course we do – that’s a functional thing that children need to learn.

But for some reason, we seem to forget all the importance of those foundational skills that children need to accomplish that task. And of course, as an occupational therapist, I receive so many referrals for children with fine motor and perceptual motor delays, which related to children having to write their name.

But all children, whether they have difficulties or they don’t have difficulties, they need to do play-based learning prior to being ready and get those foundation skills to even be ready to just even pick up a crayon.

So, I think it’s really important to focus on play and all those skills that children need before they’re ready for pencils. We basically just have to slow down. We have to focus on activities to just generate those foundational skills that children need to hold a crayon or pencil.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

So, you mentioned that word or sort of that term “foundational skills” a couple of times. What would examples of some of those foundational skills be?

FERRANDINO:

Great. So, think about this, Ron. So, think about if a child does not know where the top is, right? So, you say to them, “We need to start at the top of the piece of paper for writing a letter.” If they don’t know what the top is then they’re not even going to be able to do that when they sit down to the task. Think about a child that, if they cannot even sit in a chair, then we can’t expect them to pick up a crayon and do something with it.

If a child, as far as with playing, too, all those foundational skills for those fine motor skills, those gross motor skills. If a child has difficulty with gross motor skills, that’s going to impact the fine motor skills. If they don’t have the ability or they’re not motivated to even color with a crayon, then they’re certainly not going to be able to have [and] be ready with those foundational skills to write their letters.

So, it’s all those foundational skills, such as spatial skills such as fine motor skills, gross motor skills, visual perceptual skills, social skills. Learning to imitate the teacher is just such an important one.

And part of what we do in our Get Set For School early childhood program is we use activities like music and movement to help children learn the ability to listen, to pay attention, to develop their spatial skills, their fine motor skills, gross motor skills, all of which will translate to ultimately helping them to hold a crayon, hold a pencil, which is where we want them to go, to be able to write their name, which is where we started.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

And what about for adults? You mentioned earlier, we’re always focused – most of us, especially those who are educated in the early years – on that final outcome, what we’re trying to get the child to produce at the end of whatever the activity is. Any tips on, like, for adults in terms of like how you can try to, like, I guess, reprogram your brain to, like, try to think about things a little bit differently when you’re working with children on activities and thinking more about the play versus the outcome?

FERRANDINO:

Oh, absolutely. So, what I would say with the adults, when I work with children, the number one thing is to think, “Okay, just think play.” So, just think that, “I want to help a child with just even getting them to be motivated to watch me and pay attention to me.” And a lot of times that’s going to involve some type of manipulative, some type of movement, some type of activity.

Children are going to learn through moving and through touching. They’re going to use all of their senses. So, whatever we do with them, we want to tie in to their natural discovery of wanting to learn because young children, they do want to learn. I mean, 85% of a child’s foundational skills of intellect, personality, skill development, they’re all formed during this early childhood time.

So, giving them fun, playful activities that will motivate them is going to get them to the place where they’re ready to sit down at a table with a tool, whether that’s a crayon or a pencil, and learn to write their letters. So, so many of those important skills that we build prior to that are obviously going to be play-based.

So, I think when adults, when you’re working with young children, you see that naturally. You see that when they’re engaged in play, they are so often more motivated and engaged than when you try to sit them at a table and do something where they’re not touching and moving.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yeah, totally. And what are ways… you’ve talked a bit about like music and motion, those are really good examples. Any others you can think of where we can help to guide their play?

FERRANDINO:

Absolutely. So, one of my favorite – and you’re going to have to kind of visualize a little bit with me here, Ron – but one of my favorite activities that we use with our young children is using four wood pieces. So, just kind of picture these wood pieces.

So, one would be what we call a “big line”. So, just imagine you’re feeling that big line. And half of that size of that big line would be the “little line”. And a “big curve” is in the shape of a C. And then the small one would be the “little curve”. So, big line, little line, big curve, little curve.

Now, picture young children exploring, taking turns with each other, learning about putting something at the top, putting a big line under, putting it in between their fingers. Think of them using these big lines with music and movement. Maybe they can tap them together as they’re learning position, as they’re learning to imitate you.

Think about the wood piece “pokey”, the Hokey Pokey song. We have a song called the Wood Piece Pokey where they can learn the names of the wood pieces. So, we’re doing all these foundational skills to learn as we’re doing something motivating as they’re touching. But ultimately these are going to help them learn to build their letters.

So, picture this: a big line, and right next to it you’ve put the big curve. All of a sudden it becomes the capital D – big line, big curve. If you put a big line, a little line at the top, a little line in the middle, a little line at the bottom, all of the sudden you have the capital E.

And we have these wonderful multi-sensory activities that are very deliberately designed with a smiley face in the top left to guide children to start and sequence their letters the exact way. So, think how powerful that is for English as a second language. All they need is four simple terms to build these initial 26 uppercase letters: big line, little line, big curve, little curve.

And think, of course, if you have children with special needs. Again, four simple terms. So, they are… I’ve used those more than 20 years and they guide me in so many different activities that I do with children because we build on that. We use these wood pieces but we build with other manipulatives where we’re using the exact same language. Because then when they go down to paper, they’re using the same words.

So, when they write the capital D, they’re saying, “Big line, big curve.” When they’re writing the capital B, they’re saying, “Big line, little curve, little curve.” It’s just incredible what a difference it can make to helping provide children develop mentally the ability to learn to write these letters when they’re ready for that. Obviously, they’re going to play with the wood pieces and build and do these foundational skills before we ever put that crayon or pencil in their hand.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

So, that’s a good segue way to my next question, which is, how do you know when they’re ready?

FERRANDINO:

When they’re ready to have a pencil?

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yeah.

FERRANDINO:

Yeah, well, first of all, I’m going to encourage parents and teachers to use crayons first. And the reason I’m going to recommend crayons is because, first of all, they’re more motivating because, of course, there’s a lot of different colors that comes in that little crayon pack. But most of all, they’re resistive.

So, think about – and you’ve got young children, Ron – think about when you give them a crayon and they put it on, they’re scribbling on the paper. That’s going to be a lot more resistive. They’re going to get that feeling through their hand much more than with a pencil. So,, young children start with crayons.

But the other tip I’m going to give with give you is we want to use broken crayons or little crayons. We actually have flipped crayons at Learning Without Tears. But you can just break crayons. So, if you’ve got a regular crayon, just break it in half. Don’t do it in front of your children, though. They’ll break it for you, I’m sure. But the reason you do that: how big are your children’s hands, Ron? How big are they?

SPREEUWENBERG: 

A lot smaller than mine, that’s for sure.

FERRANDINO:

They’re a lot smaller than yours. So, why on earth would we think that they need to have big fat crayons or big fat pencils?

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Makes sense.

FERRANDINO:

What do they do with them when you give them a big fat crayon?

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Well, usually they do end up breaking, actually, because that’s the way that they handle them.

FERRANDINO:

Because they know the smaller one is better. Or they usually they fist it, right? And that’s not what we want. Coloring is the first skill to really help children develop the ability for them to write letters. So, think about it: when you’re having children color, they are learning the strokes and movements needed to write letters. And they’re small – they’re not large. So, if you give them a little crayon, not only are you using small movement but, most importantly, the reason we give them little crayons for little hands is because it’s promoting their grip.

So, when you give them something small, they are more likely to hold it with their thumb, their pointer finger and their middle finger than they are when you give them something long. Some children just magically do it because, believe it or not, 50% of three year olds have the ability to use those three fingers to hold the tool. So, that’s my number one tip, is to break a crayon into half the size or even three parts of the crayon and have them color.

Or little pieces of chalk are wonderful, too, because they encourage small movement, too. And just for very short periods of time. Have you ever noticed, Ron, when children switch hands a lot when they’re little?

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yep.

FERRANDINO:

Yep, well, obviously, developmentally, that’s very normal for a two-year-old. But as they start to become three or four [years old], they should naturally develop a hand dominance. But a lot of children will still switch hands. And the reason they do that is because their dominant hand gets tired. And it’s just as easy to put it in a non-dominant hand because neither one is that good yet.

But the reason we don’t want children to do that is the dominant hand is not going to get efficient with not only grip, but also how they should move that hand to form the latter. So, it’s very important that once children have developed hand dominance that we want them to use their dominant hand.

And I have one tip for your listeners, as far as what I do to help establish hand dominance, is remember the big lines I was talking about?

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yep.

FERRANDINO:

Yep. So, what I do… now, this works in about 99% of children that I see that I know definitely have started to have hand dominance, is I do a tapping sound. So, they tap, tap, tap the wood pieces and we tap, tap, tap. And did you know that almost 100% of people when they tap something, they will tap with their dominant hand on top, including young children? So that’s that’s another tip I’m giving you for figuring out hand dominance.

But if you will just bear with me and your listeners, I’m going to apologize ahead of time to say that I cannot sing. But I think this may be helpful to just give you a little verse of what they can sing with their children to help them learn crayon grip. Is that okay?

SPREEUWENBERG: 

We would love to hear you sing, Tania!

FERRANDINO:

Okay, remember, I apologized ahead of time. So, listen up. And if you have a pen or pencil close by – and Ron, I’m sure you have a pen on your desk, just pick it up – and kind of follow along with me. You ready?

[Singing] Pick up a crayon, pick up a crayon, this is easy to do. Pick up a crayon, pick up a crayon and just tell my fingers what to do. My thumb is bent – so look down, is your thumb bent?

SPREEUWENBERG: 

It’s bent.

FERRANDINO:

It’s bent. [Singing] Pointer points to the tip, tall man uses his side. I took the last two fingers in in take them for a ride. Now, I’m holding it just right, not too tight. Every finger knows what to do. And now I have a big surprise, a big surprise for you. Let’s drop it and do it again. Did you like that?

SPREEUWENBERG: 

That was fun!

FERRANDINO:

So, this is what I’m going to recommend. So, this is one of our songs on one of our music CDs. But basically, I recommend that teachers do not play the CD for the song, that they sing it just like I did. Good news, children don’t care how you sing. But they sing this with them every time a child picks up a crayon. They sing it on Monday; they sing it on Tuesday; they sing it on Wednesday; they sing it on Friday; they sing it every single day they’re with them.

We teach it to mums and dads to do it, too, so that every time a child picks up a crayon that they are looking at their thumb, they’re looking at their pointer finger. And guess what? If we can give children in early childhood the gift of crayon grip, it’s going to translate into when they start using a pencil. It’s exactly the same. And whatever your grip is, by the time you’re in first or second grade, that is your grip for the rest of your life. Very, very important.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Interesting. And I also just learned that I learn better with music, too, and singing!

FERRANDINO:

Oh, perfect!

SPREEUWENBERG: 

So, maybe this is something that goes beyond childhood!

FERRANDINO:

I think you might be right. Exactly, we all learn better with music.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

This is wonderful. Before we wrap up, Tania, can you share with our audience a professional development resource you’re enjoying or that you really have enjoyed in the past, be it a book or a podcast or something to that effect?

FERRANDINO:

Yep, absolutely. So, I am definitely a visual person. And I want to share just a couple Ted talks that I looked at recently, that I watched recently. And one of them is called Every Kid Needs a Champion by Rita Pierson. And the reason I love this is because it really inspires all of us, not just educators, but I think anyone that interacts with young children, whether that’s our own children or children that we work with to really connect with them is real human on a personal level. So, I just… she was so inspiring. I was so inspired by her.

And one other TED talk that I also watch recently – and I’ll try to pronounce this name correctly – it’s Takaharu Tezuka. And it’s called The Best Kindergarten You’ve Ever Seen. And the reason I like this, it’s a kindergarten in Tokyo. And he incorporated trees and water and open spaces. These children spend most of their day outside.

And I think the reason I connected with this so much is that I am outside person. I think children as much, as we can, teach them and learn with them outside. I think they are better learners and that goes all the way up to older children, too. So, those are two.

But I can’t leave without telling your listeners, too, about a workshop that I think they will really enjoy that really expands from what I’ve talked about today. At Learning Without Tears, we have many different workshops that they’ll see. But one in particular that connects to what I’ve just talked about today is called Emergent Writing For Pre-K.

And so they’re going to learn more, they’re actually going to see a presenter use the Crayon Song and teach grip. They’re going to see the wood pieces. They’re going to see Roll-a-Dough and Stamp And See Screen. They’re going to meet Mat Man. They’re basically going to learn all the ways that we give children the foundational skills to be ready to transition into kindergarten.

And of course, all the strategies we use in our activity book to help children learn their uppercase capital letters, their lowercase letters and of course, their numbers, too. So, definitely recommend that workshop. And of course, they can also see me again. If they would like to see me in person, I’m going to be on with my very special colleague Christina Bretz doing a HiMama webinar October 7th at two o’clock. And that’s called Get A Grip. So, Ron, everything with the song and everything will come to life in that webinar, October 7th.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Oh great, we’ll take it from audio to audio-and-visual on October 7th. Love it!

FERRANDINO:

Exactly, yeah.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Maybe we can hear you singing a little bit more, as well?

FERRANDINO:

Oh, one of us will definitely bring that song to life again.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Wonderful. And if our audience wants to check out some of these resources on Learning Without Tears, where can they go to get those?

FERRANDINO:

Well, I believe there is a podcast resource landing page and we have put our web address there. So, they’re welcome to visit www.LWTears.com. Now, if they put the /HiMama, we actually have a special promo code. It’s actually 10% off that they can get on any of our products, including the workshop. So, if they want to check out the workshop, they can get 10% off of that. And we’re going to keep that up until the end of the year until 12/31, 2021.

So, of course, that promo code is there. Our web addresses is there, www.LWTears.com. And we’ve also put a couple other great links for you guys, too. So, we’ve put a download the Crayon Song that I sang – so, no excuses not to sing that with your children. And use broken crayons. We’ve also put a blog on there about writing your name, which is obviously the next step. And I think there’s also a video of a teacher teaching the Crayon Song to her children. So, a lot of resources I think we’ve put on there for you guys.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yeah, sounds like some great resources. Check it out, www.LWTears.com and add the /HiMama in there for a discount on some of these things, as well. Tania, thank you so much for joining us on the Preschool Podcast. Been great getting to know you a little bit better and hearing some of your tips and recommendations when it comes to focusing on play before pencils.

FERRANDINO

Well, thank you, Ron. And let me say I have really enjoyed my time with you. And let me just do one final apology for my singing voice.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

No apology necessary. We enjoyed it, Tania.

FERRANDINO:

Well, thank you for pretending.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Thanks, Tania!

FERRANDINO:

Thanks so much!

Kiah Price

Kiah Price is a Social Media Specialist at HiMama. Prior to HiMama she was an Early Childhood Educator in a preschool classroom in Toronto. She is the Jill of all trades at HiMama from dipping her toes in Sales, Customer Success, Operations, and Marketing! She enjoys sweating through spin classes, hot yoga, and biking along the waterfront trails in Toronto. She loves traveling and trying new foods and wines across the globe- 29 countries and counting!

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