Why is fine motor strength deteriorating in young children?

I have been teaching in the early years for eight years now. Throughout this time I have worked in different states of Australia; in government schools and well known independent schools. I have worked in schools that have access to occupational therapists and an endless supply of wonderful resources. I have also worked within schools that lack funding and where I have had to purchase the vital supplies needed to support my students.

Although the settings in which I have taught have been vastly diverse, there is one fundamental similarity that has had me concerned for quite some time.

Throughout my years of teaching, I have seen a great decline in children’s fine motor strength and ‘readiness’ to be able to write, cut and complete simple day to day tasks which involve the use of the small hand muscles.

To put this concern into context, when I first started teaching in 2009, I referred approximately 2-3 students in my class to get some extra assessment for their fine motor development. This number has rapidly grown over the years, to the point where I am now referring on average 8 to 10 of my students to school support teachers or our visiting occupational therapists.

From this number, not all children are required to see an occupational therapist for intervention; however, it does highlight the vast increase in fine motor weakness many children face when starting their first year of school.

The biggest question that has been concerning me is the question of why. Why have I noticed this rapid increase in fine motor weakness? Why is this a problem for many foundation teachers across Australia? After doing some research around this notion, I believe there are two fundamental reasons for the increase in fine motor weakness in children starting school:

  1. A lack of natural play in children’s lives AND
  2. The overuse of screens and devices like iPads and tablets

Adding to this, parental over-supervision and over-scheduling of children has arisen quite recently in the last few decades. Parents, carers and teachers have become overly risk-averse and because of this they can over-protect and over-supervise their children (Whitebread, 2012). Therefore, there is a lack of play in natural environments, allowing children to be free to explore, experiment and discover.

As a young child, I think of the play that I participated in with my sister and neighbours. We were always making tents in the backyard with sheets and pegs, climbing trees, looking for worms and treasure by digging in the dirt, building ramps and billycarts and making box craft creations. All of these things allowed us to use our fine and gross motor skills in a natural way and inquisitive way.

So, the remaining question is what can parents do to improve their children’s fine motor strength? This is a question that is commonly asked to me by many parents each year.

My major belief is that children need to practice these skills on a daily basis, in a fun, natural and engaging way; not by using a pencil and a notebook! My suggestions are:

  • Go to the local playground and practice climbing, swinging and negotiating play equipment
  • Explore real world opportunities to use little hand muscles through cooking, building, craft, games, playing with toys and exploring nature
  • Sing songs that use finger and hand actions e.g. – Open Shut Them, Where is Thumpkin, Incy Wincy Spider
  • Use educational yet engaging products like Fit Fingers that incorporates play and fun to develop little hand muscles
  • Practice, practice and practice these skills!

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