One of the questions I get asked frequently, is why do my tracing boards (and other tracing toys) not include a ‘pen’.
The ‘pen’ being referred too, is a blank wooden stick to grasp and ‘write over’ tracing board letters. In a similar view, I have been asked if I will make a fashionable ‘copy me’ writing board.  Copying boards involve the use of chalk or a whiteboard pen, where preschool children can repeatedly practice handwriting.
I often feel with these questions that there is a perception of tracing toys being ok, but children are in need of getting on with ‘writing properly’. So, I want to look at the notion of needing a pen or pencil (or imitation like pen toy) in order to facilitate handwriting development optimally.

Safety and Research

A child’s interest in and benefit from using tracing toys, starts much younger than often assumed. Children will typically engage with letters from age two onwards, especially their own names. This is why my tracing toys are CE certified from 12 months, so name boards and simple alphabet boards (with sign language) can be safely introduced to a play environment without concern.
Any small thin wooden pen tool is a potential play hazzard. Small parts shouldn’t be introduced to children under the age of 36m due to the risk of choking. So introducing a pen-like a tool, would result in a child having to wait until the age of three to safely access the toy.

However, safety is not the main reason for the ‘missing pen’ . I believe pen-like toys are actually a red herring.

Play Based Learning

Children prefer dough, fingerpaints, building blocks and threading activities for a long time before becoming really capable or interested in pen/ tool focused handwriting practice. This broader play-based learning, seen through the accumulation of refined fine motor skills, hand-eye coordination, core body strength and postural control, really is creating the foundations handwriting sits upon.
How a child holds a pen is a learning process in itself. In terms of grasp, we see children moving through phases of palmar supinate, digital pronate, static tripod and eventually to a dynamic tripod grasp (at 4-6yrs). Children move through these phases gaining overall dexterity at their own pace too.

Ruth Swailes, a School Improvement Advisor recently shared insightful x-rays of a child hands at approximately 7 years old in comparison to x-rays from a 5 year old child during the Early Years Foundation Stage. It is the main photograph feature of this blog post.
In a discussion on Twitter, Ruth commented: “An x-ray of a developed hand (around the age of 7) compared to an EYFS age child’s hand is pretty informative”.  As an image, she believes it prompts us to think about handwriting and handwriting development occurring ‘in an age-appropriate way, matched to children’s physical development.”
“It’s worth noting that it’s not just the size of the child’s hand which changes. The younger child has cartilage which will eventually become bone through the process of endocrinal ossification. This occurs around the ages of 6-8yrs.”
Ruth’s comments: “The physiology of young children’s hands needs to be taken into consideration”. Ruth points out hand maturation takes many years longer than assumed and that overall dexterity takes time. Handwriting practice starts AFTER the foundations have been thoroughly laid.
You can find the original thread here which is enlightening read: https://twitter.com/swailesruth/status/1149344734097264640?s=21.
I highly recommend a dig through and a resource shared by Ruth called ‘Children, Young People and Families Occupational Therapy Team – Handwriting Development’ by South Warwickshire NHS Foundation Trust.
It lists the play-based learning activities children will enjoy and the foundations of handwriting to start with. Many of which you will have seen illustrated on our feeds through tweezers, tongs, eyedroppers, craft activities involving lots of tracing and copying too:
Another resource mentioned is : The Ultimate Guide to Mark Making in the Early Years, a book by internationally renowned teacher trainer Sue Cowley.

So to summerise, nurturing the whole body and not focusing in on the tool, the pen or pencil, allows children to grow into their capabilities. Pen like toys, too early, just limit safe play in toddlers and distract us of where the real work is happening in preschoolers: in play!