Supporting Scissors Work for Young Children

This supplemental for families was first posted on my blog for my preschool, Plumtree Nursery School here in Portland. You can check out what we're doing there: just click on the link in See the Sites.

Every day at preschool, children are offered a variety of opportunities to hone their fine-motor skills. Using lacing cards, eyedroppers for dripping color, peeling small stickers off paper, constructing puzzles with small pieces--all of these activites help to increase their manual dexerity, which supports the development of their self-help skills, such as using zippers, buttons and snaps, and eventually tying their shoes. Add to this the creative expression of cutting paper into strips, zigzags, and other small pieces--when children cut up paper, they will often direct our attention to a small pile of scraps, instructing us to "look at what I made". It's easy to see why scissors work is a great way to help our children develop essential skills in a potentially creative way.

Here are some tips for making your child's scissors work time fun for them and comfortable for you:

Setting the Stage: Plan ahead to sit with your child while they work, and understand that a child who is very engaged in scissors work may sit for 20 minutes or more. Find an easy-to-clean place where dropped paper scraps won't be trouble to clean up, and know that as your child becomes more adept with the scissors, they will be able to focus more on keeping their work over the table. For now, however, their focus will be on manipulating the scissors and paper, which will take nearly all of their concentration, so leave the television off and keep distractions ot a minimum.

Considering Which Kind of Scissors to Use: Know, first of all, that even scissors labeled "safety scissors" can cut flesh. The only kinds that can't are suitable only for playdough; generally, the plastic-blade safety scissors can only cut construction paper, and not very efficiently; this product usually provides more ripping than cutting. That said, you do have two choices: providing coils of playdough for your child to practice cutting with the blunt scissors, or using safety scissors with appropriate materials.

Create Clear Guidelines and Expectations: Just as adults need to learn safety precautions for their tools, children need much guidance in scissors safety. Every time you sit down with your child, be clear which materials are for cutting and which aren't. Children using scissors must be sitting down in a chair, so make sure all your materials are at the table before starting. Children should be taught the safe ways of holding scissors for work (with the correct fingers in the holes) and for carrying/passing scissors to others (holding blades and presenting handles to the other person). Note: if you must remove scissors from a child's hand, don't grab the blades to do this. You can be badly cut. Trust me on this--I know this from personal experience!
Not All Paper Is Created Equal for this Task: Young children often need their paper selections tailored to their level of skill. The size and thickness of the paper do matter; generally, children can cut things between tissue/crepe paper and cardstock, and the thicker the paper is, the larger the paper can be. Avoid thicker papers like cardboard and tagboard, which can 'trap' scissors; instead, offer full or half sheets of cardstock, standard-weight printer paper, and similar sizes of gift wrap or construction paper. Lighter-weight materials like tissue or crepe paper should be presented in smaller pieces or strips for cutting, as they have a tendency to tear. Tearing paper, in and of itself, is a fun activity, however, it isn't necessarily supportive of this particular skill. Scraps can be offered in a box or paper bag, and don't forget that much of your recycled junk mail is suitable for this purpose. Children love cutting into catalogues and circulars, as well as ribbons on gifts and other packages. Fun!

Use their Work: Consider if some of their larger scraps can be used for little notes, and set these aside in a small basket. This not only teaches the importance of reusing materials before they hit the recycling bin, but also gives your child a sense of having been helpful by creating something useful and necessary. If we focus primarily on the process and less on the product, your child may feel pride in having "done the job" of creating scrap paper. They can be instructed later to get paper from this basket for lists and notes, which adds to the value of their work.

Inspire Your Child: Folding paper and cutting out 'snowflake' type patterns or doll chains for our children is fascinating to them. They may, of course, continue your work by cutting it apart, however, these sorts of activities intrigue children as they are curious about these sorts of things. Once they have some dexterity with scissors, show them how to press a fold into paper and cut on the fold. They'll be delighted with their work!

Playdough Activities: For some children, and some settings, offering safety scissors may not be your safest or best first choice. Nonetheless, all children need to have practice with this tool. Playdough allows us to present scissors practice in the safest way possible, with plastic scissors especially made for the purpose. I've regularly seen young children while away large chunks of time happily cutting up coils or strips of playdough into empty muffin tins, containers or palates and playing candy shop or bakery. If you are working with a group of children, be sure each has their own container/s for this activity. This is a great activity for children who may be prone to acting out physically when they are upset or frustrated, or in larger group settings where one-on-one supervision can be a challenge. Be sure to offer other play props, too, such as popsicle sticks or caps and corks for making impressions, so that if the child becomes upset or frustrated with the scissors, they have other options immediately available and can take a break from the scissors work if need be.

Lastly: Understand Your Child's Perspective on Scissors and Cutting. I can't stress this enough. While we adults have lots of understanding about which materials are for cutting and which aren't, your child may think that everything can be for cutting. This is for two reasons: first, our children just don't have our experiences and cannot critically judge which items are suitable for cutting and which should be left alone; second, we ourselves model some of the cutting we don't want our children to do. If your child sees you using scissors on food in the kitchen--say, preparing chicken or snipping herbs-- they may likely want to try cutting their food with scissors. Many of our children have had the experience of an adult cutting their hair with scissors and might want to try this themselves. Likewise, if you have occasion to cut fabric or clothes while you sew or modify clothes, your child may think this is interesting too. The point of all this is to sit with your child as they work and to store the scissors out of reach when they aren't in use. When I was four or five, I cut my own hair as well as my sister's, and hid the hair in a crayon box so that the adults "wouldn't find out". While these incidents (and their resulting hairdo's--or hair-don'ts!) result in stories and photos for the family, know that this sort of cutting is rarely an act of least, not until they are significantly older!


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