As a pediatric Occupational Therapist, I feel scissor skills are an undervalued area of development for which many parents and educators are underprepared.
Proficient scissor use requires foundational components such as postural stability, hand strength and dexterity, hand-eye coordination, bilateral integration, sensory integration, sequencing, rhythm, and attention. These are skills that are also needed for success in play and learning.
Today, as part of our next installment in the Functional Skills for Kids Series, I’m going to spend some time discussing how scissor skills develop, plus share practical strategies you can use TODAY to help kids progress in their scissor cutting abilities!
Whether you are a parent, educator, or fellow therapist, I hope today’s post will give you some helpful information and tips to promote scissor skill development for the kid(s) in your life. And, as part of our series, my fellow therapy bloggers have put together additional posts to help you in your quest to support the development of scissor skills. So stick around at the end of the post to see what other handy tips they’ve put together for you! This post contains affiliate links for your convenience, which means I may receive a small commission if you click through and make a purchase (see full disclosure).
THE DEVELOPMENTAL PROGRESSION OF SCISSOR SKILLS
By 2 years of age:
Can make one snip at a time
By 3 years of age:
Can snip forward along a line (not continuous motions forward)
By 4 years of age:
Can cut 6 inches along a straight line (¼ inch wide) after demonstration and without assistance, staying within ¼ inch of the line
Can cut 6 inches along a curved line (¼ inch wide) after demonstration and without assistance, staying within ¼ inch of the line
Can cut out a circle of at least 6 inches in diameter without assistance, staying within ½ inch of the line
By 5 years of age:
Can cut out a square at least 3 inches wide without assistance, staying within ½ inch of the line
Can cut out a triangle at least 3 inches wide without assistance, staying within ½ inch of the line
Can cut out pictures after demonstration that are at least 6 inches in length and width and whose outlines are no more than ¼ inch wide, while following the general shape
By 6 years of age:
Can cut cloth for at least 6 inches using sharp scissors under close, careful supervision
By 6 ½ years of age:
Can cut out complex pictures by following the outlines without assistance
HOW TO SUPPORT THE DEVELOPMENT OF SCISSOR SKILLS
Were you surprised by any of the scissor skill milestones? Didn’t think a toddler was capable of using scissors?! Obviously we don’t want to simply hand a pair of scissors to a toddler or preschooler and let them go nuts. But with specific, intentional, supervised practice, even young kids can develop the skills they need to be scissor superstars!
⇒ Tips for helping kids learn to snip with scissors:
1. Provide opportunities to engage with items that require an open/close motion of the hand. Think about it — the “open/close” or “squeeze/release” movement pattern is the foundation of operating scissors. This could include playing with items such as salad/serving tongs (learn 50 fun ways to play with tongs!), turkey basters, chip clips or clothespins, squirt bottles, or squeezy condiment bottles (great for water play or making cotton balls zoom across the table). There are many games available that involve tongs (and, bonus points, they also help with developing kids’ pencil grasp!). Here is a great post that goes into more detail about mastering the grasp/release motion needed for scissor success.
2. Provide opportunities for tearing paper, either just for fun or as part of an art project. We love to tear up old paper grocery bags at our house. This may sound weird, but paper tearing is actually considered an important pre-scissor skill!
3. Place scissors in a “thumbs up” position from the very beginning. This means the thumb is in the little hole and is on top when cutting, rather than twisting the forearm inward and snipping with the thumb on the bottom.
4. Try using a visual cue to help the child understand proper hand positioning. If the child struggles with placing their thumb up when holding the scissors, you can place a sticker on their thumbnail or draw a little happy face on it. You can also place a little sticker on top of the thumb hole of the scissors, or even wrap the top thumb hole with some electrical tape, masking tape, washi tape, etc. PreK Pages has a helpful picture you might appreciate. Remind the child to make sure they can see the sticker, smiley face, or tape so they know their hand is in the correct position (bonus points if the sticker is of their favorite character and you can convince them that the character is watching them while they cut!).
5. Use hand-over-hand assistance if needed when getting started. Opening scissors may be more challenging for beginners than closing them, especially if the scissors are too big for their hands or they have weakness. They may need help opening them each time when starting out. if you help kids get their scissors into the open position over the play dough, they can then close the scissors independently and gain a sense of accomplishment by cutting the play dough “all by themselves”. How exciting for them!
6. Try spring-loaded scissors if opening regular scissors creates too great a challenge or too much frustration. It can be nice to have some springy assistance when starting out (you can sometimes find them at the dollar store if you’re lucky!). There are also other adapted versions of scissors for kids who are new to cutting or struggle with fine motor skills such as spring action scissors, loop scissors, and dual control training scissors for righties and for lefties.
8. Use play dough scissors or ouch-free scissors when snipping play dough (I really like these Crayola safety scissors for snipping play dough, but not paper…they don’t really work for paper).
9. Hold the cutting material (play dough, paper, etc.) for the child if needed when first starting out so they can solely focus on opening and closing the scissors. Lift the material up a bit (like to the child’s shoulder level) so they don’t try to nose dive with the scissors down into the table, as kids often do when first starting out.
10. Ensure the “thumbs up” position is being used for both hands once the child is ready to hold the scissors AND cutting material. This means both hand cutting hand and “helper” hand” are positioned with thumb on top.
11. Snip straws. Cherish the giggles as the straw bits fly, then collect them and lace ’em up to make a necklace.
12. Snip thin strips of paper (1-inch across). This will allow your kiddo the satisfaction of fully cutting off a piece with each snip.
13. Snip the edge of paper grocery bags, index cards, junk mail, or paint samples from the hardware store. We have a million old paper grocery bags in our house, so much of our cutting is done with brown paper bags! Firmer paper is easier to hold and handle when starting out. It doesn’t flop around as much as regular “thin” paper, thus reducing frustration for newbies.
14. Place a sticker on the edge of the paper and “chomp” the sticker in half with the scissors. Nothing like a little target practice. And it’s way more fun when you actually make the scissors say, “CHOMP!” As the child becomes more accurate, start drawing a straight line at the edge of the paper, about 1-2 inches long, and then place the sticker at the end of the line. This is the beginning of learning to cut on a line!
15. Use scissors to snip soft food into pieces. Examples might include bananas or thin pieces of squash, zucchini, melon, or even licorice. How awesome is it to be able to work AND eat at the same time?! Just make sure the scissors are clean if you plan to actually allow your kiddo eat their work.
Additional Resource: Free handout on developing the coordination needed for scissor skills, from Super Duper Inc.
⇒ Tips for helping kids learn learn to cut forward with scissors:
16. Encourage optimal finger positioning. You might notice that most kids place their thumb in the top hole and as many fingers as possible in the larger bottom hole. From an OT perspective, this is not considered “optimal” finger positioning. The ultimate gold-standard of finger positioning when cutting with scissors is when the thumb is placed in the top hole, the middle finger is placed in the bottom hole, and the index finger is actually placed on the outside of the bottom hole to provide increased stability and steering when cutting forward and around. The remaining two fingers (ring and pinky fingers) can be tucked into the palm, which also provides added stability to the arches of the hand. Additionally, scissors are more easily operated when the scissor handles rest on the middle knuckle of the finger (closer to the fingertip), rather than being shoved all the way down to the bottom knuckle. It’s really hard to open and close scissors when they are placed down at that last knuckle.
Now, is it the end of the world if your child places their index and middle fingers in the bottom hole of the scissors? No. And will they permanently damage their fingers or cutting skills if they hold the scissors at their bottom knuckle? No. And have I ever met a teacher who has taught either of these scissor finger positions to their class? No. And have my kids at home mastered optimal finger positioning yet? No. But try it out (with both yourself and your kiddo) and see if it helps!
17. Start with cutting on a wide line (around ½ inch thick) that’s just 2-3 inches long. “The Cutting Program” from Real OT Solutions, Inc. does a great job of providing cutting practice for kids by providing very thick lines for beginners and thinner lines for more advanced cutters, all within the same shapes/figures.
18. For kids who need or benefit from concrete directions, tell them exactly how many cuts or “chomps” they will make with their scissors. Count with them as they cut forward (“1…2…3…4…stop”).
19. Teach kids that they need to “push” their scissors forward after each snip. For kids who really struggle with the sequencing, rhythm, and motor planning involved with cutting forward across paper, I may provide very specific verbal cues such as “chomp, open, push; chomp, open, push”. I may even model it alongside them with my hand as they cut. This can help them slow down a little and execute the motion more accurately, rather than quickly or repetitively snipping at whatever edge of paper they can catch.
20. Place stickers along the path to provide additional visual guidance for where the scissors should go. Starting out, it may be helpful to completely cover the path with stickers. As they grasp the concept of following the path, you can then begin to space out the stickers until there is only one at the start and one at the finish. Bonus points if you have the child help you peel and place the stickers on the paper. It gives them even more fine motor and bilateral practice without even realizing it!
21. Cut in between a path made by Wikki Stix. They are a super versatile tool and can be found online here.
22. Cut in between a path made by play dough. You can read more about this in my post about using play dough as boundaries for cutting.
23. Cut in between a path made by puffy paint. This requires more prep in advance but can actually be more effective that then Wikki Stix or play dough option.
24. Cut in between a path on those bumpy cardboard borders teachers use to decorate their bulletin boards. I first learned about this tip from this post by The Inspired Treehouse, and it is so genius!
25. Pretend their scissors are a choo-choo train that needs to stay on the track. You can draw two parallel lines with horizontal lines all the way down the middle for them to “drive” on. Work toward being able to stay on the thinnest track possible!
26. Pretend their scissors are a car that needs to stay on the road. You can even draw a road with dotted lines in the middle to try and stay on
27. Pretend their scissors are a rocket ship zooming to outer space. You can do a countdown of “3-2-1-Blastoff!” and then have them follow a straight, pre-drawn path from the edge of the paper to a simple drawing or sticker of a moon, planet, or outer space creature just a few inches away! Up the challenge later on by adding curves or angles in order to reach outer space!
28. Pretend their scissors are a monkey climbing a banana tree. Draw a banana at the end of every path and see how many they can collect!
29. Pretend their scissors are a dog going into their dog house, or going to get their bone. Draw a basic dog house or bone so they can get what they need!
30. Pretend their scissors are a fish or other sea creature swimming in the ocean. Can you sense my theme of using a lot of pretending while working on cutting skills? It’s way more fun that way! Plus, it gives me the chance to pretend I’m an artist, even though I’m totally not…
Additional Resource: Basic cutting activities to work on straight lines and more, from OT Mom Learning Activities.
⇒ Tips for helping kids learn to cut curves and angles for shapes:
31. Make sure they are starting on the correct side of the shape. Righties need to start cutting on the right side of the shape (moving counterclockwise). Lefties need to start on the left side of the shape (moving clockwise). This gives them the best opportunity to see the line in relation to their scissor blade. it also prevents the paper from bending and tearing while they cut.
32. Cut spirals. This gives them the chance to really practice moving those scissors forward and around while working it with the helper hand. Here’s an example of a “spiral snake” so you can see what I mean.
33. Place stickers along the curving path, just like you did with the straight lines. These can be place continuously along the path, or spread apart a little farther. You can even take a marker and make little dots where the stickers need to go, then have the child peel and place the stickers on the targeted spots for added fine motor, bilateral, and hand-eye coordination practice.
34. Place stickers at the corners when cutting shapes with angles, and teach the child how to “STOP!” when their scissors chomp the sticker. Many kids I work with tend to turn the paper way too early when cutting angles. The sticker (or just a dot you drew at each corner) gives them a more concrete visual cue to tell them when to turn the paper. You can start with just right angles instead of full squares to practice turning at one corner at first.
35. Use my cool number trick for helping kids know when and where to move their helper hand so they can turn the paper while cutting. This tip has been shared all over Facebook, and it was one of those things that I came up with on the spot one day while working with a struggling student. It IMMEDIATELY helped that particular student as well as several others who were struggling to learn how to turn the paper while cutting…maybe it will help your kiddo, too!
Additional Resources: Scissor Skills Activities ebook, Fine Motor Activities ebook, or a Fine Motor ebook Bundle from OT Mom Learning Activities (discounted price on the Fine Motor Activities ebook and the Scissor Skills Activities ebook PLUS a free bonus cutting template).
MORE HELPFUL INFORMATION RELATED TO SCISSOR SKILL DEVELOPMENT
Here are more awesome posts to help you and your kiddos become scissor superstars!
Fine Motor Considerations for Learning to Use Scissors | Miss Jaime, O.T.
Gross Motor Skills and Scissor Use | Your Therapy Source
Sensory Processing and Scissor Skills – A Surprising Link | Kids Play Space
Teach Kids How to Slow Down to Cut on Lines | Sugar Aunts
5 Tips for Difficulties with Scissor Skills | Growing Hands-On Kids
Creative Cutting Practice for Kids | The Inspired Treehouse
Visual Motor Skills and Cutting With Scissors | Therapy Fun Zone
Animal Puppets! Cut. Create. Play. | Your Kids OT
Teaford, P., Wheat, J., Baker, J. (Eds). (2010). HELP 3-6 Assessment Strands [Curriculum Based Assessment, 2nd Edition]. Palo Alto, CA: VORT Corporation.
Warshaw, S. (2007). HELP strands 0-3 [Curriculum Based Assessment]. Palo Alto, CA: VORT Corporation.
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