Crayons for Toddlers

crayons for toddlers

One question therapists get all the time is about the best crayons for toddlers and specifically which crayons are best to support development. During the toddler years (preschool stage as well), there is a lot of motor and cognitive development happening, making it a great stage to introduce crayons. Let’s talk about the best types of crayons for the toddler years and beyond!

crayons for toddlers
Crayons for toddlers

Crayons for Toddlers

There are many benefits to coloring with crayons and for many toddlers, it is natural to want to color, making it a win-win in building sensory motor skills.

There is a plethora of  information floating around the web about correct crayons and writing utensils for young people. There are a lot of choices, some great, others not so good.

When thinking about crayons for toddlers, there is more to it than simply placing a crayon in the palm! Some things to consider include:

  • Coloring with a crayon both develops and requires a grip on the crayon. Forcing coloring too early can promote an immature grasp on the crayon when used in small hands.
  • Coloring offers resistive feedback through the hands by marking the paper. This is a great strengthening activity, but for babies and young toddlers, this can strengthen and add feedback to immature grasps.
  • Likewise, coloring at the toddler stage can be developmentally great when offering the “just right” strengthening and sensory motor feedback needed to move through grasp patterns.

If you’re thinking about shopping around for the best crayons for toddlers, you’re already in the right frame of mind, because coloring is a tool for creativity that kids need at such a young age.

Coloring with toddlers is all about the unique shape of the crayons out there on the market that are designed to fit small hands: Think rock crayons, egg crayons, and even something called honeysticks.  

Do these options surprise you? 

Then consider the other options out there to worry about:

  • Jumbo crayons vs. Triangular crayons
  • Thick crayons vs. regular sized crayons
  • 96 pack of crayons vs. 8 crayon pack
  • Brands like Crayola crayons vs. Melissa & Doug crayons
  • Washable crayons vs. paraffin wax crayons
  • Pure beeswax crayons vs. crayons with vibrant colors 
  • Non-toxic crayons vs. natural ingredients crayons
  • Large crayons vs. choking hazard sixed crayons
  • Food-grade pigments vs. non-toxic natural wax

With all of these considerations, how do you choose crayons that make THE very best crayons for toddlers??

crayons for kids
Crayons for kids based on development

Best Crayons for Toddlers

Before deciding which crayons are best for toddlers, understanding the “why and when” is most important. To do so, we need to run through the developmental stages leading up to toddlers coloring with crayons. This is important because you may see some of the earlier considerations in place when a child is not developmentally ready to color. In those situations, is a good idea to back up and build on skills from a developmental standpoint.

Birth to one year: This article from Parents magazine highlights the hand development of babies from birth to one year.  In the article it does not mention crayons at all.  

Why? Because babies’ hands are not ready for crayons of any kind. Crayons for babies exist out there on the market…but it’s just not developmentally appropriate. The hands of babies do not have the muscle control for handling objects like crayons until about 11 months. 

To prepare toddlers to use crayons to support development, the preparation is a must. Spend the time before the toddler years working on overall fine motor development through picking up objects, self feeding, exploring the environment, cause and effect toys, and dumping objects out of containers. This resource on baby play has a lot of great ideas.

If crayons are introduced too early, maladaptive grasping patterns will develop.  

From 12-18 months, the toddler stage, little ones begin to refine their hand development. You’ll see in our resource on fine motor milestones, that there is a lot happening during the toddler years. 

Around 12 months, children may find it challenging to manipulate small objects with dexterity. At this stage, they are picking up small objects like food pieces with their thumb and pointer finger in a pincer grasp. However, it is difficult for children this age to use dexterity in the fingers of the hand or by isolating fingers or hand separation.

In six months time, by around 18 months of age, manipulating objects such as toys, utensils, and household objects becomes more coordinated.

Is it time for crayons yet?  Yes and no. 

Making marks on paper, and starting to make strokes, but not with pencils or traditional crayons quite yet. 

Remember, those hand muscles are still very primitive at this point, thus the tools need to be also. Think about how large the knobs on toddler puzzles are, or how chunky beginner spoons are. Writing tools need to be designed the same for little hands.  

Here are some fine motor and coordination activities to support use of crayons for toddlers:

Amazon affiliate links are included below.

  • Writing and creating lines with fingers in shaving cream or pudding
  • Finger painting
  • Egg shaped chalk (Amazon affiliate link) like these Egg shaped pieces of chalk fit the whole hand without forcing the fingers to grasp the writing tool
  • Egg shaped crayons like these also offer resistance when coloring or marking using the whole hand to grasp rather than force a grasp using the fingers which are not ready for that stage yet.
  • Make your own crayons by melting crayons into muffin trays.
  • While there are several iPad apps for writing using finger pointing, research shows children under age 2 should have no exposure to electronics.  Stick with the basics.

Some coordination activities for 12-18 months can be used to promote eye-hand coordination, proprioceptive input, shoulder stability, and motor coordination. These activities include:

Children ages 2-3: At this stage of toddlerhood, hand development is starting to become more defined. 

This is the stage when the young child begins to develop more muscle control needed for precision and dexterity of motor skills in the hand.

You’ll begin to notice finger isolation, hand separation, and arch development. You’ll also see more refined movements with the thumb in finger opposition. This is where precision in fine motor skills is seen.

This is also a stage of visual motor growth. Children will begin to integrate the visual input with motor output needed to copy a straight line. A word of caution: at this stage, don’t be concerned with tracing letters or shapes, or copying shapes. Focus is on the simplest of lines: horizontal, vertical lines, circles, and a cross. Read here about pre-writing lines development.

Is it time for regular crayons yet? 

Again, yes and no.

Those tiny hands, while that can certainly hold a regular or chunky crayon, are not ready to do so correctly. The grasp starts out as a gross grasp, then to a pronated grasp, finally ending with a tripod grasp around age 4.

Children often get stuck in one of these primitive grasping patterns when given crayons too early. A gross grasp is an appropriate stage of hand development, as is a pronated grasp, however the grasping pattern is supposed to continue to develop to a mature tripod grasp over time.

It often fails when tiny weak hands are holding onto small pencils, crayons, or pens. 

Coloring can happen, but it’s at the child’s interest, and shouldn’t be forced.

 Here are some crayons for toddlers and preschoolers using this information:

  • Continue to use the large egg shaped crayons and chalk, as well as finger paints
  • These unusual looking rocket type crayons have a large bulb for palmer grasping that support development but also don’t force young children into holding utensils with an underdeveloped grasp.
  • I also love these crayon rocks for toddlers and preschoolers:
  • Dot markers, while fun and entertaining, also promote the gross and pronated grasps appropriate for this age.
  • Bath finger paints are a great alternative to using crayons.

Ages 4-5 the preschool age.  Is it time for crayons yet?  Yes!  However, not all children are ready for traditional crayons. 

One-two inch crayons are the best for children through elementary school.  It is almost physically impossible to get a fist around a one inch crayon. This promotes a tripod grasping pattern.

During each stage described in this blog post, but especially during the 4-5 age range, don’t feel rushed to put a pencil in the hands of a preschooler. It is common for preschool teachers to think tracing lines, doing simple “prewriting” mazes, tracing their name, and even letter writing activities (including sensory writing trays) is appropriate. Developmentally, it is not. More important at this stage and each stage before, is the PLAY. Play builds the motor, cognitive, sensory, and emotional skills needed for pre-writing.

If you have children do not like the idea of broken crayons, there are ready-made flip crayons.

What about the chunky crayons? 

You have probably seen the jumbo sized crayons out there. They are commonly offered to the kindergarten age range. You may have even seen these large, chunky sized option in a triangular shape. 

However, when it comes to oversized crayons, one size does not fit all. This goes for crayons too. The problem with handing out boxes of large, over-sized crayons to the entire kindergarten class is that, the children that are receiving these boxes of crayons have small fingers, hands, and wrists. 

In fact, some hands are much too small for chunky crayons, thus leading to more of a gross grasping pattern, or all fingers around the crayon. 

Other children are able to use a tripod grasp but need a larger size to form this grasp properly. 

The one benefit to using triangular crayons is that in the classroom setting, they don’t roll across the desk or table and fall on the floor. This is a huge benefit to using the triangular shape because at the kindergarten and first grade age, managing materials as well as body awareness can be a challenge for some kids.

What about traditional crayons? 

These can be used if your child has an appropriate grasping pattern such as a tripod, or alternate tripod with two fingers on top.

The thumb wrap grasp, underwrap, and too many fingers on the writing tool are signs your child is not ready for traditional crayons yet.

Understanding the why and when behind hand development and tool use, is critical to selecting the correct tools for each stage of development.

Important note about the ages and stages listed above: Do not rely strictly on the ages above, as children will develop at different ages. These are ballpark ranges for hand development. 

While it is going to be impossible to convince “the powers that be” to slow down preschool and kindergarten curriculum, being armed with tools and resources will help children be ready to face this onslaught of demands. 

The OT Toolbox is a great resource for articles, worksheets, printables, crafts, and thousands of ideas and products to work on development.

*The term, “child” is used throughout this post for readability, however this information is relevant for students, patients, clients, children of all ages, etc. The term “they” is used instead of he/she to be inclusive.

Victoria Wood

Victoria Wood, OTR/L has been providing Occupational Therapy treatment in pediatrics for more than 25 years. She has practiced in hospital settings (inpatient, outpatient, NICU, PICU), school systems, and outpatient clinics in several states. She has treated hundreds of children with various sensory processing dysfunction in the areas of behavior, gross/fine motor skills, social skills and self-care. Ms. Wood has also been a featured speaker at seminars, webinars, and school staff development training. She is the author of Seeing your Home and Community with Sensory Eyes.