I’m writing a short post here because so many people are searching for how little kids should learn to use scissors, or why they have to learn at all.
Using scissors is one of those landmark developmental things. I have no idea why, really, since most of your life you spend trying to keep sharp things OUT of your toddler’s path. Then all of a sudden, using scissors comes up as if they were magically ready for them. A doctor, teacher, or evaluator asks you if they can use scissors and you’re like, “What?” You realize “No way!” is probably a bad response so you say something like, “Well, I don’t think so. Maybe. I’m sure he could do it if we worked on it.” Somebody is slightly disappointed at this answer, as the negative check mark goes off in their brain, but you are secretly thinking, “Scissors in Johnny’s hands? Not if I have anything to do with it!”
At least, I confess this is what I was thinking =)
The thing is, using scissors is the token skill in our culture which shows that a child is able to coordinate their thumb, fingers, and wrist. Kind of like being able to button a small button, which is often on those questionnaires too. It is a new skill, quite different from the normal pincer grasp, which they looked for when your baby was six months old or so. Also, using scissors exercises a particular set of hand/wrist muscles that are important for overall hand strength. Writing and scissor troubles usually go together, so if your preschooler is exhibiting poor hand grip on a crayon, weakness during scribbling, or immature hand turning abilities (i.e. doorknobs), using scissors is actually one of the best exercises for the hand. Lastly, cutting entails a certain kind of eye-hand coordination where the child cuts appropriately where/what they are supposed to. Poor aiming while cutting can indicate a visual tracking problem, which is important to resolve before handwriting begins. For older preschoolers, evaluators might ask if they can cut out a large shape that is traced, for example. So for all these magical reasons—strength, coordination, and tracking—doctors and teachers overlook the safety aspect of scissors by around the age of three and assume your little one has stumbled across the newfound joy of trying them.
I think I posted advice for late scissor usage, and warning signs for when hand strength is something to be concerned about, somewhere else on this blog. But I’ll repeat them here for simplicity’s sake.
If you want to teach your child how to use scissors but they are still young or uncoordinated, start with Play-doh scissors which are small and virtually harmless—they only cut play-doh, not clothes, paper, or skin. (Walmart carries a play-doh set with scissors for really cheap.) Work on your child first being able to hold the scissors correctly. The thumb should go in one loop, and two fingers in the bottom loop. More importantly, the hand should be turned correctly with palm facing inwards and the thumb on top. One of the most common mistakes for early usage is for the child to flip their hand over with the palm out and the thumb on the bottom. This will make the wrist ache and reverse the scissor blades so they cut lazily.
Once the hand is correctly positioned and your child’s fingers are comfortable in the loops, practice them opening and closing (i.e. “Open your alligator mouth! Close it!”). Have them practice until they get the idea and then have them “bite” some playdoh to see the effect. Encourage them to “open the mouth wide” and take “big bites” because another common obstacle to good cutting is the child wanting to move the scissors forward without opening them large or often enough to cut. (They usually get frustrated and rip or force forward into a crunch.) Practice the right “bite” size by cutting up a small roll of playdoh (i.e. “cut up the hotdog!”). Then try cutting a flat piece of play-doh in half (“down the middle!”), and work up to cutting an easy, flat shape that has been traced with the rim of a cookie cutter. Once they can do this, they can probably graduate to kids scissors. But even once they are skilled with kid scissors, probably around a year after they start, they should still only use scissors when supervised, and for specific purposes. YOU don’t play with scissors, right? They need to learn to respect them too. Keep the play-doh ones around for more casual play.
As for ages, which I hate to put on anything, starting your child at 3 is probably good. A two-year old is eager but is probably too immature physically and morally. A four-year old is much wiser but could have used a year of cutting to strengthen his hands for pre-handwriting. Five years old, in my opinion, is a little too late. But, don’t expect your three year old to take off. Some do, but it is more likely that he’ll play around with cutting straight lines or snips at 3, and then be able to navigate more complicated dotted lines on crafts during the fourth year.
Incidentally, if you want to teach your child about cutting with a knife, starting with play-doh is also helpful. Get a little plastic knife from your picnic ware, and have them learn the same things with it as scissors: start with correct grip (pointer on top of the blade) and cut a hot dog, cut down the middle in a line, and then cut out a shape (i.e. try a triangle rather than a circle). This is probably all the exposure they’ll need to a knife for quite some time, but it can exercise fine motor skills and eye-hand coordination in a new way. Some wood or plastic food sets come with a “knife” that you can use to slice an apple or sandwich pieces (i.e. try Melissa and Doug), but I found that that activity is better for teaching a toddler the concept of cutting, not the proper procedure. A one or two-year old can learn to press the knife down hard through the food to split it, which is good for strength in the hand and some eye-hand coordination. But the fineries of real cutting, grip, and aim are not exercised. For this type of thing with a preschooler, I’d use the above play-doh methods.