Losing our grip: More students entering school without fine motor skills
As art teacher Alisa Leidich sends four vertical
lines marching across an oversize drawing pad in paradelike formation, 20
kindergartners put their hands to paper and try their best to mimic her.
It’s not as easy as it might seem.
Local teachers and occupational therapists say
an increasing number of children are showing up for kindergarten without the
fine motor skills needed to grip a marker, hold their paper still while
coloring or cut and glue shapes.
“We’re basically reteaching a lot of things,”
says Denver Elementary School’s Denise Young, a teacher for 23 years. “It’s
hard to get a lesson accomplished.”
In a typical year, Young and colleague Trisha
Pohronezny estimate just two of 20 students arrive with enough hand strength
and coordination to use scissors. Only about half can hold a pencil correctly,
versus the fisted approach they should have grown out of by age 3.
Near-constant corrections take valuable time
from quick-paced academic programs, while individual sessions to build or
strengthen skills require students to miss class and cost districts big money.
Denver Elementary Principal Angela Marley says
occupational referrals to address such deficits doubled over a three- to
four-year period. Districtwide, Cocalico saw its elementary school therapy
spending jump from $85,440 in 2011-12 to $208,104 last school year.
“We’ve been questioning, ‘Why is this happening
more and more?’’’ says Linda Cunningham, an occupational therapist with
Lancaster-Lebanon IU13 who spends four days a week at Denver Elementary.
“It’s just our busy world. There’s real pressure
to get your kid involved (in organized activities) earlier and earlier, so
there’s less time to play in the backyard. … Kids need to manipulate their
environments to understand spatial concepts. They usually learn not by being
told, but by doing.”
Cocalico officials this year instituted an art
program that aims to improve coordination and concentration. In years past,
kindergartners had only sporadic exposure to art. Now they get one 25-minute
session each week, working on pre-writing concepts and skills like cutting,
coloring and spatial orientation.
Surrounded by Monet prints, the Mona Lisa and
bottles of bold tempera paint, Pohronezny’s students meet Mr. Line in
Leidich has students hop out of their chairs and
imitate the line: They stand tall for vertical, pretend to sleep on the floor
for horizontal, and skip for a broken line. The idea is to connect the writing
skills to physical activity.
Getting students in the earliest grades to move
while focusing on a task helps with sensory integration. It can also help build
muscle. In some cases, Cunningham says, young students are unable to stay
seated for sustained periods because they don’t have adequate trunk strength.
During the animated lesson, Leidich, Pohronezny
and an aide work the room, looking for errors in posture, grip and arm support.
Once they’ve made shapes with Mr. Line, they’re
invited to do “World’s Best Coloring,” a verbal cue to focus on the image and
use slow, controlled movements to stay within the lines.
Students get gentle reminders to keep their
“helper hands” on the paper, and when Leidich spots Laiklyn Lloyd closing her
fingers around her marker, she takes her hand and shows her how to “pinch the
tip and flip it.”
Concerns about physical readiness for school are
growing locally and nationally.
Warwick School District has also seen an
increase in occupational therapy needs, according to Melanie Calender, director
of elementary education and student services.
Calender says the years between birth and 3 are
“instrumental in core muscle development” and recommends parents incorporate a
mix of gross and fine motor skills into at-home play.
While Warwick kindergarten teachers continue to
focus on fine and gross motor skills through center-based and instructional
activities, parents shouldn’t stop providing hands-on opportunities once their
kids are school-age.
“They can continue to use the activities they’ve
worked on in the preschool years, mindful to keep a balance with screen time,”
In Ephrata Area School District, all early
childhood programs include fine motor skill development, according to
spokeswoman Sarah McBee. That includes Plant the Seed of Learning, a program
that started in partnership with Ephrata Community Hospital in 2002 and now
serves eight districts. During sessions, children and their parents work on
early literacy and science skills while manipulating play dough or catching
The New York Times reported in February that
public schools in New York City saw a 30 percent increase in the number of
students referred to occupational therapy, with the number jumping 20 percent
in three years in Chicago and 30 percent over five years in Los Angeles.
While some of those increases are due in part to
an increased diagnoses of sensory or autism spectrum disorders, Marley says the
additional need at her school is related to children without cognitive
Cunningham says many therapists believe the Back
to Sleep campaign, which promotes placing infants on their backs to sleep, has
delayed muscle development. The problem becomes more pronounced when parents
skip wakeful tummy time because their kids don’t like it: toddlers might not be
able to hold their bodies upright as well as their peers did years ago.
They might not be as adept at spreading their
hands and using their arms to push themselves up, a fundamental base for good
seated posture and proper shoulder support when writing. Their eyes also may
wander, making focusing on detailed tasks difficult.
Today’s children also spend less time outside,
where they might have more opportunities to explore how their bodies move
through space, learn to balance and figure how to handle toys and tools in
relation to one another.
Some parents, says Cunningham, are afraid to let
their children engage in physical play or cut with scissors. Others have traded
in the messiness of hands-on play dough for a sterile “educational” tablet.
“Rather than sit and color the way they used to
do, our kids are part of the burst of technology,” says Cunningham. “It’s
amazing to see a kid who can swipe an iPad, but you put a pair of scissors in
their hand and they don’t know what to do.”
Some skills critical for kindergarten
readiness are simple to build at home. Try incorporating these activities into
the daily routine:
on tummy time.This
should start in infancy, but older kids can be encouraged to read or work on
puzzles while lying on the floor, says occupational therapist Linda Cunningham.
Many children like the novelty of it.
experiments like flour-based dough or homemade putty strengthen muscles in the
hands and fingers, says Cunningham. Make a batch, then let your child work with
it at the counter while you make dinner.
String it together.Kindergarten teacher Denise Young
suggests making bracelets by threading open-ended pasta, cereal loops or beads
onto pipe cleaners.
teacher Trisha Pohronezny recommends practicing putting on coats and gloves,
zipping up, snapping, buttoning and tying shoes. All can help with dexterity.
with scissors (with supervision).An
array of safety scissors are available for preschoolers, including some
designed without metal edges that can cut only paper. Others offer an extra
piece that makes squeezing the handles together a cinch, Cunningham says.
in the lines.Encourage
creativity, but throw in projects that require slow, controlled movements.
Squeeze glitter glue over a line, fill in shapes with paint or use small,
circular strokes to color an image.
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