Pre Writing Shapes

Pre Writing Shapes and Teaching your Toddler to Draw

What are pre writing shapes and how and when should you be “teaching “ your toddler to do them?

How do you take your toddler from drawing scribbles or coloring in a coloring page to actually writing? Enter pre writing shapes

Pre writing shapes are a major component of pre writing skills and learning to draw.

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To get started with teaching your toddler to draw today you will need paper, short crayons, markers and a great kids table or toddler adjustable highchair.

What are pre-writing shapes? 

easy drawing pictures for toddlers using pre writing shapes

Prewriting shapes are the strokes that letters, numbers and early drawings are made up of. 

For example: the capital letter A has 2 diagonal lines and 1 horizontal line  

Writing is actually a very coordinated and complex motor activity. It requires a lot of foundational development to happen first.

Skills used and required in pre-writing 

When it comes to early childhood development always builds upon development. Meaning that for every new skill a toddler develops there are many underlying skills that needed to be there first. 

Learning to write definitely is a big developmental milestone. But it’s important to remember that there are SO many skills that need to be in place first. From fine motor skills, in-hand strength and coordination, understanding where their body is in space (spatial relations), sensory perception, bilateral coordination, visual skills, crossing the midline and so much more. 

An amazing way to set our toddlers up for successful writing (later on-when it’s actually age appropriate) is by playing around with pre-writing shapes.

Normal development of drawing

Even drawing has a normal progression of development.

By the end of the first year we expect a child to be able to grasp a crayon and draw scribbles and vertical lines when you do the same next to them. 

During the second year a toddler learns to draw a horizontal line as well as a circle when you show them how you are drawing it. 

By age 3 your toddler will be able to copy a circle, vertical and horizontal line from a picture. 

During the third year your toddler will also learn to imitate a cross or plus sign. 

By age 4 your toddler will be able to copy the cross shape from a picture. 

During the fourth year toddlers start drawing squares and left and right diagonal lines

It’s only in the 5th year that we expect kids to start drawing an X and a triangle. 

pre writing shapes that toddlers learn to draw according to their ages

Summary of pre writing shapes according to age 

  • 1 year old: imitates vertical line 
  • 2 year old: imitates horizontal line and circle, and copies vertical line 
  • 3 year old: imitates + and copies horizontal line and circle
  • 4 year old: imitates square, left and right diagonal lines (\ /) and copies plus sign. 
  • 5 year old: imitates triangle and copies square, left and right diagonal lines (\ /) 

Difference between  copying and imitating pre writing shapes 

You might have noticed the words imitate and copy above. This is what they mean in the context of pre writing shapes 

  1. Imitate: After watching someone else draw the pre writing shape, the toddler is able to draw it themselves
  2. Copy: the toddler can look at a picture of a pre writing shape and reproduce it. 

The difference is subtle but what it shows us is that toddlers first learn prewriting shapes through watching us draw. 

When your toddler watches you draw a circle they are learning how to start the drawing, how to hold the pencil and how to move the crayon. 

This also changes our understanding of how kids learn shapes. Not by following a dot-to-dot worksheet. 

Toddlers learn pre writing shapes first by watching you

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Why are pre-writing shapes important?

Development builds on development. It’s like a ladder. You HAVE to climb step by step. 

Look on the internet and you will find tons of videos telling you to teach your toddler to draw complex shapes at age 3, and learn to write his letters by age 4. Along with many very cute printables or worksheets to help you do that. 

And it feels (for us as the moms) so very good to give our child a worksheet and have them actually DO it. 

Wow, yes! For that small moment, we get to actually succeed at something as a mom. They finish the worksheet and we feel like we have finally managed to teach our child something. I mean that’s our job as mamas anyway, right? 

Doing a pre-writing worksheet is so much easier than teaching them to eat without messing, play by themselves or control their emotions. 

The danger of skipping pre-writing shapes 

The truth is that kids definitely can learn to write as toddlers. But by teaching writing before it’s developmentally appropriate we actually push their development a step back. 

You see when it comes to early childhood development we don’t actually have to TEACH our toddlers drawing. What we need to do is EXPOSE them to play opportunities so that they naturally develop these skills INDEPENDENTLY.

We don’t need to guide their hands in order to learn to draw. However we do need to open up opportunities to play that will guide their development

What do pre writing shapes teach toddlers

Each time our child (spontaneously- meaning using their own hands) draws a pre writing shape, they are creating or further developing: 

  1. Pathways in their brain 
  2. Strengthening their muscles inside of their hands 
  3. Developing the understanding of how hand or soft the press down (sensory development)
  4. Learning to coordinate micro-movements of the shoulder, elbow, wrist and fingers
  5. Testing out different grasps using different types of writing materials 
  6. Beginning to understand themselves as independent people who have to ability to create (ie: creativity and autonomy)

Honestly that’s just a few of the important developmental skills that toddlers learn through pre writing shapes. 

You see although you can teach a toddler to write, it’s not going to give them a foot up in early childhood development. 

Pre-writing shapes are good news for moms

For one, it does give us (and that A-type side of us) something to put on our goals list. 

It also means we can take some of the stress off ourselves and feel good about simple, process art activities with our toddlers. 

Toddlers learn through watching us draw pre writing shapes, which creates an opportunity to connect with our toddlers. No uncomfortable power struggles over finishing together. Rather a time to sit next to each other and draw. 

What pens or crayons should I be using for pre writing shapes

Simply put- lots of different shapes and sizes. 

Broken crayons or short crayons are great for developing a good tripod grasp, as are these triangle crayons

Longer and shorter pencil crayons and markers are great for developing the smaller muscles inside the hands. 

These markers are great for understanding the sensory components of writing (how hard they need to press down) and bigger movements of the shoulders, elbows and wrists. 

Vibration pens are also great options because they give extra sensory feedback.

You can try pastels and do smudging, you can try these round crayons and draw by rolling them. 

When it comes to art type activities for toddlers- variety is key. The shapes they are drawing are pretty simple and repetitive. Therefore, by giving different types of crayons and markers you keep them interested. As a bonus, this variety also boosts sensory development. 

Does my toddler need to sit at a table when drawing?

When your toddlers are younger (under 2) it’s good to have a place to sit so that they can learn where drawing happens. This is one step to preventing all your walls being splashed with pre writing shapes. Yes, I speak from experience. Very colorful experience. 

It can also be helpful with the under 2’s to do drawing in a high chair with a tray- so they can’t run off with an open marker. 

The high chair I always recommend is the tripp trapp by stokke. It’s a great one because it adjusts according to age. So it’s useful for babies and toddlers but also adjusts to work for school aged kids. An investment to lessen the homework battles we will be facing in a few years. 

Otherwise you can let your toddler draw at a toddler sized table-like this kids table

Once your toddler has a pretty good understanding of the rules of drawing you can mix it up. Some ideas to try out are: 

salt tray with circle drawn by toddler-showing the need to practice multisensory pre writing shapes

Mixing it up and making pre writing shapes multisensory

Pre writing shapes are not only for pen and paper. By making the activity multisensory you boost  your toddler’s motor and sensory understanding of drawing. 

Some ideas for multisensory pre writing shapes: 

  1. Drawing in a sand tray
  2. Pre writing shapes with finger paint 
  3. Drawing pre writing shapes into kinetic sand 
  4. Building shapes with play doh 
  5. Painting pre writing shapes with a paintbrush and paint 
  6. Drawing in slime or rainbow rice
  7. Making shapes with wikki stix
  8. Smudging plasteline over shapes 
  9. Drawing in shaving cream 

How often should my toddler be drawing?

There’s no prescription here. You may find that on monday your toddler asks to draw several times. But on tuesday they aren’t interested in drawing at all. 

Try offering your toddler some kind of drawing activity everyday but don’t worry if they aren’t into it. 

That doesn’t mean- sit in the high chair and draw everyday. It could be in different positions or using some of the above multisensory ideas. 

Toddlers are generally able to concentrate for about 3-5 minutes for every year of age. So a drawing activity might last for 3 minutes with your one year old or 15 minutes with your 3 year old. 

How do you teach pre writing shapes

Three key strategies for teaching pre writing shapes: 

  • You draw it first so that they can watch you and learn to imitate
  • Keep the shapes close to the developmental norm and avoid any pressurizing your toddler to do it “right”.  
  • Offer daily but with lots of variety. Variety in where they can sit, different crayons and markers and multisensory pre writing activities. 
toddler drawing of a ladybiird

Here are some ideas of simple pictures using pre writing shapes that you can draw with your toddler:


Apples and bananas











My toddler hates drawing how can I teach them pre writing shapes 

Naturally some of us are more artistically inclined than others. However I don’t think it’s ever a good idea to just skip offering drawing activities to toddlers. 

When a toddler really hates drawing it could be because of: 

  1. Being corrected previously in drawing. If your toddler has been asked to do non-developmentally appropriate drawing tasks they may have some underlying fear of drawing. It might sound silly but anxieties around not succeeding start very early in toddlers. 

TRY: Multisensory drawing with NO PRESSURE to get anything “right”. It’s best if you join in by drawing alongside your toddler. 

  1. Not understanding what to do. The imitation stage of learning pre writing shapes is critical. If they haven’t watched someone else drawing, your toddler may not really understand what to do. 

TRY: Go back to the most basic shapes (lines) and draw alongside your toddler so that they can see what to do. 

  1. Boredom. Pre-writing shapes can get a bit repetitive. If you are asking your toddler to draw lines every day while sitting in their highchair and using the same crayons- they are likely to become uninterested. 

TRY: Mixing it up. Multisensory drawing activities, using different crayons and markers and drawing in different positions. 

  1. Difficulty sitting still. Toddlers aren’t famous for long attention spans. 

TRY: lowering your expectations on the length of the drawing activities. Even if they only draw 2 lines and the activity lasts 2 minutes, they are still learning important skills. Aim to build on the sitting time. 

Try drawing on the sidewalk with chalk or at a painting easel. 

And make sure that they have a properly supported chair with foot rests

I can’t do drawing activities with my toddler because they put everything in their mouth

This is natural and common. Actually that mouthing stage is really important developmentally. It should lessen by age 2. 

When drawing with a 1 year old you can try taste safe drawing tools. Like these and this finger paint

Most drawing supplies are also marked with a not for 0-3 years choking hazard. 

This doesn’t mean that toddlers under 3’s aren’t supposed to paint and draw and color. It means we have to closely supervise them. We should be sitting with them drawing alongside them. 

You can prioritise toddler drawing activities as a time to connect with your toddler. Switch off your phone, leave the cooking and cleaning and be with them for this activity.

pin of teach your toddler to draw pre writing shapes