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Developing Fine Motor Skills in a Digital Age

As technological evolves, our youngest children are drawn in to a world of smart phones and tablets from the point at which their finger can swipe the screen. In schools we fully appreciate that we need to provide children with the skills to enable them to enter hi-tech employment, in a workplace that will be, most probably, unrecognisable from that of today. However, there is a balance to be struck between ensuring children are computer literate and safeguarding a holistic education.

In 2014 the CHILDWISE Monitor Preschool report showed that a total of 42% of children aged 0-4 use hand held devices – up from 27% in the 2012 survey. Furthermore, there have been recent suggestions that nearly half of all 2- 4 years old and a fifth of 1 and 2 year olds own a tablet.  This surge in the number of young children with devices of their own, and the resultant increase in screen time, may be attributed to parents upgrading their own tablets and handing old ones down. The American Academy of Paediatrics recently issued a policy statement addressing media influence on the health and development of children from 0-5 years of age, a time of critical brain development. Accordingly the recommended screen time for children aged between 2-5 years old is limited to one hour per day.

In these formative years it is of utmost importance that the time spent on hand held devices is balanced with pursuits such as going for a walk, playing with toys and reading books. Over the past decade, within schools, we have begun to see the impact that too much time spent on tablets is having on children’s development. One such area is children’s fine motor skills as an overuse of touchscreen phones and tablets is preventing children’s finger muscles from developing sufficiently.

Sally Payne, the Head Paediatric Occupational Therapist at the Heart of England Foundation NHS Trust highlighted that:

“Children are not coming into school with the hand strength and dexterity they had 10 years ago. Children coming into school are being given a pencil but are increasingly not able to hold it because they don’t have the fundamental movement skills.”

In schools we often refer to Early Education’s Development Matters in the Early Years (2012), in which it recognises that children’s later literacy abilities are based on skills and understandings which they develop as babies and toddlers. As children move towards 22-36 months they begin to distinguish between the different marks they make, progressing on to ascribing meaning to marks between 30-50 months. As they progress in to Reception they are able to give meaning to these marks as they draw, write and paint and can use some clearly identifiable letters to communicate meaning. They learn to represent some sounds correctly and in sequence and write their own name, captions and short sentences in meaningful contexts.

Finally by the end of a child’s Reception year they are using phonic knowledge to write words in ways that match their spoken sound and writes some simple sentences, which can be read by themselves and others.

Learning to write is a complex process involving not only a child’s phonological understanding but also the ability to grip and maintain control of a pencil. As Alastair Bryce-Clegg stated:

“Strength in this area doesn’t happen by accident. We need to understand the small step stages of physical development and dexterity and how they link to mark making and then link this to what we can do on a daily basis to support and extend children in their progress’.

It is important that they develop competence in their shoulder, elbow and wrists.

In 2012, and to the delight of many early years practitioners, the Department of Education recognised the significance of Physical Development as a prime area of learning for Early Years, alongside Personal, Social and Emotional Development and Communication and Language; it is these prime areas of development which are most important as they lay the foundations for children’s successes in all areas of learning and of life.

So how can we help their physical development? There are many very simple activities that help to improve a child’s physical strength and providing these in an engaging physical environment, both indoor and out, are vital for our young children, such as:

  • Climbing trees and climbing frames
  • Throwing and catching balls/ beanbags
  • Bat and ball games
  • Swimming
  • Dancing
  • Bowling
  • Swinging

Each of these aid significantly the development of upper body strength, improve cardiovascular capacity and release endorphins, which equals happy children!

Alongside this we need to attend to young children’s fine motor skills, these simple activities are ideal to help increase hand strength and control:

  • Cutting and sticking
  • Threading beads/pasta
  • Making Hama bead pictures
  • Pegging clothes in the line
  • Play dough
  • Using Duplo/ Lego
  • Painting
  • Mark making with an array of writing implements
  • Popping bubble wrap
  • Peeling stickers
  • Cooking- mixing, cutting, rolling, kneading etc
  • Squeezing bottles and learning to open packets, which is wonderful for developing independence too!

In this digital age it is more important than ever that we provide children with a balance of activities to develop gross and fine motor skills on a day-to-day basis. Children need these opportunities from birth to be an integral part of their daily lives, at home as well as in Early Years Settings if we are to ensure that our little people have the pre-requisite skills required to eventually hold a pencil with ease.

Sam Selkirk


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