By Stacy Turke, OTR/L
So how many of you like to color and cut?
My guess is that many of you reading have fond memories of coloring as a child, whether as illustrations for your writing assignments or as fun leisure activities at home. You probably had crayons and coloring books from the time you were pretty small, and I am also guessing that you may have returned to coloring as the world of “Adult Coloring” has blown up in recent months. Coloring is known to be a calming activity that helps soothe and refocus the brain in the way many mindfulness activities do.
I’m also guessing that you remember using scissors as a child, with snipping early on advancing to cutting on lines, around shapes, and probably to cutting snowflakes. (Caveat: I grew up in Michigan where snow is an automatic part of every winter. I’m curious, if you grow up or live in a place that never has snow, do you ALSO grow up cutting out snowflakes?) Cutting with scissors is a great means of working on improving fine motor and visual motor skills without using a pencil or other writing tool, so if you have a child whose writing skills are worrying you, consider mixing things up a bit and trying some cutting activities.
But wait, you are probably thinking, How can I help my child improve handwriting by using scissors?
Let’s explore some possible answers!
Let’s start by helping your child use scissors successfully.
If your child cannot use tongs or tweezers to pick up small objects, you will want to start there. Using tongs requires the thumb to work in opposition to the fingers, in an open and close pattern, and tongs are perfect for this. I like to use tongs to pick up pompoms, cotton balls, and small erasers at first, and when kids get really good then we graduate to picking up beads and the ever so motivating M&Ms! Pick up the items with the tongs in the dominant hand, and place them into a container being held by the non-dominant hand. This will help train the fingers that need to be operating the scissors, while training the body and brain to do two separate things with both hands simultaneously.
Another great preparatory activity involves playdoh. Roll playdoh into fat logs and use the non-dominant (or “helper”) hand to stabilize it on a table. Use the dominant (or “worker”) hand to pinch a bumpy ridge onto the log using the thumb in opposition to the fingers. This will help train the open and close pattern while helping to strengthen the muscles used.
And please make sure you have some kid-friendly scissors available that will actually cut. Maybe this will be controversial among my OT colleagues, but I always recommend giving your child scissors that will actually cut paper, which most of the “beginner” scissors won’t do. My favorites are the round-tipped Fiskars scissors. They are sharp enough to cut well, and the blunt tip helps keep everyone safe. (Not a paid endorsement, just a fan!)
I get that you may be worried your child may cut themselves, or their hair, or the dog’s fur, or the curtains. So that’s why you need to directly teach safety skills, such as how to carry scissors safely, sitting still while holding and using scissors, what’s okay to cut and what is NOT okay to cut. Keep the scissors in a safe location, out of the reach of your child, and always ALWAYS directly supervise them.
Improve hand strength and by extension work endurance
Hands need muscle strength to be able to hold the writing tool and form letters, numbers, and pictures. Using scissors to cut paper, card stock, or playdoh snakes will help to improve the little muscles of the hand and make grasping the writing tool easier. Eventually, your child’s improved strength will increase their ability to keep working for longer periods of time, which we sometimes refer to as work endurance. This will directly support their ability to finish whole writing assignments in class.
Improve bilateral hand skills
In order to write or draw successfully and legibly, a child must stabilize the paper with their “helper” hand while using the writing tool with their “worker” hand. Their hands are actually doing two different things at the same time, and both hands are working together to help complete the task successfully. This obviously is required when using scissors too. The child will hold the paper or playdoh with their non-dominant hand, while using the scissors with their dominant hand. Both hands doing different things and working together to complete a task…just like when they are writing!
Focus on visual motor skills
Cutting on lines requires good eye-hand coordination, which kids also need when they are writing and drawing, so working on cutting near or on lines is actually helping prepare them for tracing, copying, and writing. When kids first hold scissors and try to cut, they actually “snip” the edge of the paper, kind of like making fringe. Later, students learn how to cut on lines that are one inch long, and eventually how to advance the paper with their non-dominant hand while cutting repeatedly with their dominant hand. You can help your child by making the lines to be cut wide, or even highlight the line with a high contrast color. As kids learn to cut near or on lines, they are improving their ability to coordinate their eyes and hands together, but in a way that doesn’t feel like writing…because it obviously isn’t writing! If you are interested in exploring the development of cutting with scissors, Christie at Mama OT blog has a great post that addresses it in detail. Head over there to check it out.
Some other great scissor practice ideas
If you want to get your child paying attention to cutting instruction and giggling at the same time, break out the drinking straws and have your child cut “beads” that can be strung onto pipe cleaners or yarn. When the child snips through the straw, typically the straw piece will fly a distance away, and it’s really quite amazing. If your child wants to gather up each piece as it is snipped, make sure that they put the scissors down each time. Or just have them wait to gather all the pieces once the straw is fully cut up.
When my kids were little, I let them use the Sunday comics and coupon sections from the newspaper to cut. Both sections have very clear, bold lines and dividers on which to cut, making it easier for my girls to cut carefully. I took out the coupons I wanted first until I could trust they would cut them well enough for the UPC code to be read at the store. My kids felt like they were helping our family save money by cutting out the coupons carefully, and that really motivated them.
So if your little one needs a little extra work to improve their handwriting, branch out and try using scissors. Maybe you’ll enjoy it too…after all, remember those snowflakes from childhood? They are even more fun now that you possess stronger motor skills!
Stacy M. Turke, OTR/L: “On the Road with @stacyturke OTR blog.” Stacy has been a school OT for 31 years with the same intermediate school district in Michigan in what she describes as “my dream job.” Her career has ranged from working in a “center-based” school to working in public and private schools throughout the county, including those in the rural, suburban, and urban areas. She has experience working with students with a wide range of educational needs, to include cognitive impairments, Autism Spectrum Disorder, physical challenges, sensory processing needs, and many other learning challenges. She expresses her enthusiasm when she says “This career has been fulfilling, always presenting new and interesting challenges, and is NEVER boring!” You can connect with Stacy on Pinterest at https://www.pinterest.com/stacyturke/ and on Twitter at @StacyTurkeOT.
Disclaimer: The information shared on the Go-To-For-OT Blog or affiliated Twitter, Facebook, or Pinterest sites, and shared on social or public media or as links on other sites is for general informational purposes only and should not be relied upon as a substitute for sound professional medical advice or evaluation and care from your physician/medical team or any other qualified health care providers. Therefore, the authors and administrator of these posts take no responsibility for any liability, loss, or risk taken by individuals as a result of applying the ideas or resources