Tracing techniques to teach young learners blog header

Tracing techniques to teach young learners

At a glance, a preschooler who is intensely scribbling and doodling on a piece of paper may seem like an innocuous activity – the kind that is suitable for the day’s end when the center is about to close and families are in the midst of picking up their little ones. It can be easy to label this experience as something simple, fun, and a little bit mindless. However, experienced educators know that a number of skills are presenting themselves as a child participates in this episode of play and learning. Scribbling is the start of early writing skills. More than that, it’s a chance for preschoolers to showcase their fine motor mastery, express their creativity, and practice some concentration and self-regulation. One way to scaffold this learning is to introduce tracing activities into your curriculum.

Tracing is a complex skill for a developing preschooler. It involves an understanding of spatial awareness, a deeper concentration, and of course, tool use. For a child, softer skills need to be developed in order for them to successfully trace shapes and eventually, letters and numbers. Keep reading for some tracing techniques and activities to help young learners. 

Developing a pincer grasp

As early as the toddler years, children begin to develop a pincer grasp which aids them in holding paintbrushes, pencils, and other writing materials. There are many activities that build the foundation of this skill and some of them don’t even involve holding a writing tool yet. One thing to remember is that your group of children will be at varying points in their development so it’s important to have differently sized objects available for their use. Here are some activities that can help strengthen a child’s pincer grasp.

Turning pages – Anyone who’s ever read a book with pages stuck together knows the fine motor skills needed to overcome this challenge. Books are, of course, a great way to develop literacy skills, and encouraging the little ones to turn the pages of a book will strengthen their fingers. It’s a great place to start!

Find the bugs – The use of tweezers as children hunt for (toy) bugs is sure to be a classroom favorite. For those who need developmentally appropriate options, tweezers can be replaced with clothespins. You can also add bugs of different sizes and the children can figure out which tool is best suited to pick them up.

Yarn threading – This one may be more suitable for those who have a stronger grasp (ba-dum-tsh!) on their fine motor skills. Apart from the pincer grasp, the children will also begin to develop another skill that’s useful for tracing: visual-spatial awareness.

Tracing and cognitive skills

Apart from the physical act of putting pen(cil) to paper, a large number of cognitive skills are present in tracing activities. Before they trace, children need to have developed some spatial exploration and problem-solving skills, observation, and identifying patterns, among others. Foundational and engaging play experiences will foster the connection between the children’s cognition to their ability to trace, pre-write, and eventually write. Try these!

Marshmallow name craft -It’s a tracing activity without writing tools, and a higher level of deliciousness than most learning experiences. The children will begin to understand that tracing involves identifying and following a pattern, and the patterns can be varied (letters, numbers, simple illustrations) depending on the learning outcomes.

Sand letter tracing – One of the benefits of this activity is an element of sensory play, which strengthens neurological functions. And as the preschoolers’ synapses begin to form and fire off, the connection between this sensory activity and more traditional tracing methods will be translated. 

Trace and decorate – This is a highly engaging activity with a huge novelty factor! Once the children’s cognitive skills have been strengthened, they can begin to use writing tools to trace outlines of their peers. This has a low level of difficulty when it comes to tracing because of the size of the traced objects. There’s a large margin for experimentation, trial and error, and most of all, play.

Tracing, pre-writing and writing

Looks like we made it! Once fine motor and cognitive skills have been strengthened, the children will be more set up to successfully trace with smaller writing tools, while following more complex patterns. Tracing is a foundation for writing and drawing, and the tiny people in our classrooms will only move up from here. Below are some activities to scaffold the preschoolers’ newly developed skills.

Shadow drawing – This grants the foundational skill of hand-eye coordination, as the preschoolers follow their gaze, and connect it to their hands and writing tools. It’s open-ended so be selective with the play materials. Which traceable items will align the most with the children’s interests? Which art or writing tool will keep them the most engaged?

Tracing cookie cutters – Cookie cutters already come in so many shapes and sizes. They are easy to manipulate and hold down onto a sheet of paper. Children can trace around them to understand structure, and eventually, they’ll have a better understanding of how to draw shapes without the help of the cookie cutters. 

Alphabet tracing and writing – For those at the appropriate developmental level, alphabet tracing can ignite a child’s writing skills. Alphabet worksheets can be used by the children who have an interest in them, and for a more play-based approach, alphabet stencils can be used. 

More tracing activities 

Tracing can be incorporated into so many more activities, with or without a writing tool. With the right setup, these activities can create a stronger foundation for art, writing, and numeracy. What tracing activities have you tried in your classroom? 

TJ Borile

TJ is a registered Early Childhood Educator with 5 years of experience, aspiring children's book author, and apple cider vinegar connoisseur. He loves hiking, meditation, watching animals in their natural habitat, and dancing to 90s hip hop and RNB. He currently lives in Toronto with his husband, where they have been bickering about whether they should get a dog or not for the past four years.


  • Candice says:

    My daughter attends a Montessori preschool and one of the teachers seems overly frustrated that my daughter can’t trace. This has led to my daughter crying to me and telling me she’s bad at writing. Today I got some of her work back and her teacher wrote “even can’t trace properly.” I’m upset about it and want to help my daughter but at the same time I’m not even sure this is a great learning environment for her.

  • Rachelle says:

    Hi Candice! I’ve been an early childhood professional for more than twenty years and my short answer to this is RUN! Take your child and find another school and teacher who is educated in the field and will SUPPORT your child in her academic and developmental journey. Good luck!

  • Stacey says:

    In my writing center I have empty DVD cases with a piece of white paper and the child’s name in block print on the inside cover. I provide dry erase markers handy. The DVD cases become little white boards with the children’s names for them to practice tracing.