Child-Led Scissors Play

Yesterday, my kids (age 5 and 4) found a stack of papers that my son had brought home from school. The speech therapist sent home a bunch of picture cards that he could use at home if he wanted to, on full sheets of multiple pictures per sheet.

At home, my son feels comfortable speaking with his mouth much more than he does at school, so we eventually put the picture cards away because he was uninterested. But now, during the summer, he found them and was interested, so we began playing with them.
He wanted some scissors to cut out the ones he was most interested in — the numbers, and transportation-related nouns. He started this activity with his dad, and then when I got home from work I joined and the activity continued on for another couple of hours!

First he asked me to cut them all out for him. I suggested that he try cutting them out instead.

It took about 45 minutes for him to cut out 8 pictures. I kept thinking in my mind about if he were doing this as some part of a craft in a kindergarten class. There’s no way on earth that they would let him work happily, and all-over-the-place, for 45 minutes on this. But what I got to watch as he worked in his preferred way was so much more full of delight.

He got stuck trying to cut out one of the squares and got very frustrated right away. He threw the scissors on the floor and screamed, “IT IS NOT WORKING. I AM ANGRY!!!!”

It would be easy to look at this sentence on its face and freak out. Throwing scissors sounds like an incredibly big deal and I get that. There are three key things in this moment that helped me: one, the scissors are very light, very VERY safety-guarded plastic scissors. Two, he threw them straight at the ground in his frustration. He has always been a “thrower” when frustrated but he has worked so hard on that his whole entire life, and throwing at the ground is a big step up from throwing into the air or at a person. Three, he used words—the *correct* words, no less—to talk about how he was feeling about it.

Also, bonus number 4, the reason why he couldn’t cut the paper the way he wanted to was specifically *because* of how safety-guarded the scissors were; sharper scissors would’ve been working more successfully. I knew we had some sharper kid scissors around somewhere and I tucked that info away in the back of my mind in case it would help when he calmed down a bit. As it was, I simply offered to see if I could help him.

He was trying to cut a square out of the middle of a piece of paper. I suggested to him that rather than try to cut inward, cut vertical, and then cut outward, that he cut across the page — basically making the big page into a smaller page first so he wasn’t having to manoeuvre the scissors so convolutedly. He was skeptical but he tried it. Instant success! He liberated the picture he wanted from the big piece of paper.

He realised the potential here. To cut out photos from a grid, he could cut lengthwise along the paper first, then crosswise across the smaller strips! As he began doing that, he realised that it separated the remaining pictures into smaller bits and he began spontaneously doing simple addition math. He had a strip with 3 pictures and a strip with 3 pictures, so he stopped cutting entirely and looked up at me and said “This is 3…and this is 3…and that equals…” (so incredibly long pause while he thought about it) “…6, Mom! That equals 6!!!”

I exulted with him. That DOES equal 6!!!

He immediately began grouping the pictures into smaller groups and adding them, both in his mind and out loud. (I’ll also note that he did this while little sister enthusiastically did her best to join in, but was incredibly—and age-appropriately—wrong. 😂 So he was trying so hard to do addition and she was basically like “oh we’re playing a game where I happily yell some numbers I know!” and he *still* kept a lid on his frustration *and* kept the attention in his mind to remember the addition he was doing!) “This is 2, and this is 3………………..5, Mom, that makes 5! This is 1, and this is 2…………….3, Mom!!! It’s 3!!!” I could practically SEE the dots connecting in his mind. I could also see him gesturing wildly with a pair of scissors the whole time he did this. He had my full attention — both to watch and observe and join in his delight, and to be ready to jump in if I needed to help him be careful!

Painstakingly, he counted how many pictures he had left to cut out. There were 7 left. He began slooowwwllyyyyyyy cutting out another one, when he realized something else: the pictures had words underneath them. He put the scissors down so he could use his finger to point at the letters and sound them out. He could sound out each of the transportation words, and the pictures meant that he could independently self-check if he got it right! Again: delight and glee and rejoicing. “TRAIN!! Mom, it says the train!!! HELICOPTER!!! Mom!!! It’s helicopter!!!”

He started stacking the pictures he cut out in the playroom, while putting all of the “wubbish” in a pile in the living room, so now this activity involved climbing over the couch and moving from one room to another, but he assured me several times that he was going to throw away all the wubbish so I just let him do it his way even if it seemed like a sorting method I wouldn’t have chosen.
45 minutes. It took 45 minutes for him to cut out 8 pictures, and then he very happily and proudly began carrying them around (he tucked them into a toy wallet he has and plays with) and talking about them. By now he had made the scissors look so cool that my daughter wanted to cut out some pictures too. She made the game her own: whereas my son wanted to cut perfectly on the lines of the squares to make picture cards, my daughter wanted to cut out the teeny picture on each card and collect a pile of tiny animals. A whole other set of skills—especially fine motor as she worked to navigate tiny pictures with scissors that were not built for incredibly high dexterity!

(I could write a whole other post on the next hour, in which my son took the cards with numbers on them — 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 — and combined them and explored two-digit and three-digit numbers and sorting and adding and reading the written numbers!)

All of it: wholly self-motivated. I let them do as much independently as possible and scaffolded for them. My son only needed my emotional co-regulation the one time, and for me to show him a different way to cut. I didn’t do any of the physical work for him. My daughter needed my help a few times to stabilize the paper so she could make tiny cuts but I let her use the scissors without jumping in to help her. I was always prepared to take 1 more step to help them, but always hanging back as much as i could to let them do whatever they could.

I was thoroughly enjoying how arts and crafts, fine motor skills, literacy, math, all of it blended together with absolutely no prompting from me. We moved freely from subject to subject completely led by my children.

[Image description: A picture of my daughter sitting cross-legged on the couch. The picture cuts off so that she is only visible from the shoulders down. She is holding a pair of red plastic safety scissors in her right hand and a piece of paper in her left, and carefully cutting out tiny animals from a square of paper. There are paper shreds all over the couch and one full sheet of picture cards as well. End description.]