Get a Grip

Reading Time: 4 minutesTo your child, the paper magazine you’re reading right now may be classified as an iPad that doesn’t work. As screens take over our children’s lives and we tell ourselves that this will help prepare them for a life that continues to be dominated by ubiquitous online connectivity, is this the right path or are we missing something?

An emerging result of too much touch-screen time is a deterioration of motor skill coordination, which many teachers and healthcare professionals attribute to more time spent swiping and tapping technological toys and gadgets and less time spent on traditional play and physical activity.

Seeing the signs

As parents, we all hear about the importance of helping our children develop fine motor skills so they can perform well academically and complete daily tasks by themselves, but the subtle signs of success or trouble are often difficult for parents to assess.

Claire, mother of eight-year-old Jess, says she noticed at an early stage that if her daughter was allowed too much time on the iPad, she would avoid activities that required her fine motor dexterity and would struggle with independent tasks such as getting dressed or packing her school bag.

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“Jess started to have difficulty opening doors and containers and would avoid creative projects to the extent that she needed intervention from an occupational therapist,” Claire says. “Now she can do practical things without having to ask for help and feels more confident and independent.”

Fine motor skills require the small muscles of the hand to work together to perform precise and refined movements. Using the hands proficiently requires a complex interaction of controlled mobility, strength and control of small intrinsic hand muscles and large supporting joints, body awareness and hand-eye coordination. Children start to activate fine motor development at birth as they explore their own bodies and the world around them, and continue to develop these skills until they master their ability to feed and dress themselves independently and control tools such as pencils, scissors and eating utensils.

When using electronic, hand-held devices, the palm of the hand assumes a “flat” position and minimises the use of a rounded arch, which is a precursor to good hand strength and control for all fine motor activities.

Sharon Haarsma is a registered occupational therapist and director of Integrate Hong Kong. She says the rate and quality of each child’s fine motor skill development depends on exposure to different activities and practice opportunities.

“If not addressed, an early lag in fine motor skill development for any child can cause problems in the teenage and adult years,” she says. “As children move into adolescence, there is evidence that those with fine motor difficulties are at a higher risk of anxiety, low self-esteem and even depression.”

Sharon says that fine motor challenges are usually identified when children begin their formal handwriting instruction. Symptoms are shaky or weak hands, hands not working together correctly, poor pencil grip, inability to copy simple shapes or lines or use scissors, as well as signs of frustration or defeat from the child.

What can you do?

“Visit the playground frequently, especially the monkey bars for grip strength and climbing frames that build shoulder strength,” Sharon advises. “Encourage your children to do things for themselves, and coach domestic helpers and other family members to resist the temptation to jump in and instead allow children to persevere with learning how to complete tasks without assistance.”

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Michael Dempsey is a kindergarten teacher at Hong Kong International School and says he notices that more boys in his class struggle with fine motor skill coordination than girls. Indeed, international research shows that approximately 70 per cent of boys struggle with fine motor development.

“A five-year-old child may be a fantastic storyteller, but without the ability to get it down on paper, he’s left feeling dumb and incapable,” Michael says. “Add that to the comments that peers make when they compare each other’s work among themselves, and you can see how a child’s self-esteem will take a hit.”

Annette Ainsworth is vice principal of Peak School and says it’s very important for pre-schools to emphasise play-based activities such as clay moulding and modelling, lacing, threading, buttoning, painting with brushes and playing with jigsaw puzzles and construction toys.

“Pre-schools that focus on the more formal skills in reading and writing at the expense of spending time on fine motor skill development are missing a vital stage of the child’s development, and this may affect their success in reading and writing at a later stage,” she says.

Research shows that art helps spark and develop fine motor skills, too. Lindy Moran, owner of Little Picasso Studio, says she has recently been getting more referrals from learning specialists at schools around Hong Kong to help children between the ages of three and six years who are struggling with fine motor skill development.

“Art is simply the best tool for small children to develop their fine motor skills,” says Lindy. “It provides a relaxed and fun setting for
children to create while they are using all of the techniques that help build and strengthen their small muscles and coordination. With electronic devices now offered to babies and toddlers, creative play is needed now more than ever.”

Another impact of technology is that the once essential life skill of cursive writing is quickly becoming a lost art in schools. When students start to struggle with printed handwriting, teachers are turning to keyboards instead and dropping cursive instruction altogether. Not only do children report that they find keyboarding easier than handwriting, but they are also more interested in it. With limited time to teach both handwriting and keyboarding,
cursive is becoming extinct in many parts of the world.

“Our world is changing quickly, and the use of technology in schools is now an essential part of our curriculum,” says Annette.
“However, there has to be a balance. Children still have to develop the skills they need to be able to write with a pen and pencil.”

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