Cutting with scissors requires a surprising amount of skill for a toddler or preschooler. Several things must happen simultaneously. My son, William, for example, must coordinate his two hands doing two completely separate things to effectively use scissors. Take, for example, the basic task of cutting on a straight ling in the center of a paper. He must hold the scissors appropriately in his dominate hand, using only his thumb, index and middle fingers, leaving his ring and pinky fingers tucked under the scissors near the palm of his hand. In his non dominant hand he must hold the paper, and move that hand along the paper as he opens and closes the scissors, which is a task in and of itself, with his other hand, while moving the dominant hand with the scissors. All of this while trying to stay on the line. It takes a tremendous amount of accuracy. Clearly, cutting with scissors requires an incredible amount of coordination, specifically bilateral coordination, which is the ability to use both side of the body at the same time to do two different things.
It is important to understand why preschoolers benefit from scissor cutting practice. Obviously, it is an important life skill, but other life skills that require bilateral coordination also benefit, such as opening an envelope, buttoning a coat, twisting the lid off a carton of milk, etc.
Scissor cutting also improves handwriting skills. It requires fine motor strength in the palm of the hand as well as the thumb and first two fingers, known as the tripod fingers. These are the same muscle groups required to correctly hold a pencil, and like using scissors, the ring and pinky fingers are tucked underneath to act as support. It is because of these similarities that practiced scissor skills transfer to better handwriting.
While scissor practice may not begin for most children until they are of preschool age, even toddlers of two years are old enough to begin learning how to cut. The following are some tips to consider when teaching a child how to use scissors.
- Safety first! Children need reminders that scissors are a special tool with sharp edges that need to be handled very carefully. They are not toys and children should never treat them as such. Children should always be supervised by an adult while using and handling scissors.
- Select the right kinds of scissors. Scissors should be child sized and fit comfortably in the hand. The should have a blunt end, but sharp blades (otherwise the paper will fold instead of cut). Deborah at Teach Preschool has put together a great post comparing various types of children’s scissors and her assessment of each.
- Model the correct way to hold scissors, and correct your child when he is not doing so. Scissors should always be held below the shoulder, with the elbow tucked in close to the ribs and the thumb facing upward. If your child has trouble remembering to keep his thumb up, place a small sticker on his thumb to help remind him. Scissors should also be held at least eight inches from the face and never parallel to the stomach, but always facing away from the body. Attention to these details will not only ensure scissor safety, but will also ease the difficulty of learning to use them.
- Follow an appropriate progression of skills. Begin with the simplest skills first. While cutting straight lines in printer paper may seem basic enough, simply snipping at paper is generally the first step to learning to use scissors. This allows for practice opening and closing the scissors, during which I actually say to my children and students, “Open, close, open, close…” Once snipping has been mastered, children can practice cutting short, straight lines, and gradually progress to more difficult lines, such as curved and zig zags, as well as spirals.
- Use a variety of materials. Keep up interest and enthusiasm by using some less traditional materials, such as cutting play dough snakes, snipping straws, or cutting sting. When cutting paper, slightly thicker will be a little easier. Try long, thin strips of paper to cut across the width. Grocery ads, sandpaper, scrapbook paper, and photographs can also be fun.
- Be understanding and give encouragement. During scissor practice I often hear my students complain that cutting is difficult. And it is. Their little developing muscles tire easily and the basic skills required for cutting on lines or around objects can be frustrating for preschoolers when they are not immediately successful. During this time I frequently remind my students how important it is to be a hard worker, and how proud I am of them for sticking with something that is so challenging. (And for some students, this is also a time when I remind them that our best work is not always our fastest work).
- Allow for independent (but supervised) practice. Not all scissor practice needs to have a specific task to complete. I actually leave out kid scissors on the preschool table in my kitchen with a variety of materials to cut so that my children can practice scissor cutting independently, but with me in the room supervising their safety. They have available a variety of colored paper of various thickness, as well as index cards. They also have available small sheets of paper with cutting lines, as well as shapes. The purpose of such a center is to allow my children time to practice when they are inclined to on their own, not just during our preschool hours. They often use the pieces they’ve cut to make collages and cards to send to their grandparents.