Tuesday 26 September 2017

Sixth class pupils are losing their grip

A world of Playstation rather than play dough may be damaging the development of hand control skills, DCU researchers have found.

Getting stuck in: Hannah Wright during activities at Presentation Girls Primary School, Terenure, Dublin. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Getting stuck in: Hannah Wright during activities at Presentation Girls Primary School, Terenure, Dublin. Photo: Steve Humphreys
DCU's Johann Issartel
DCU's David Gaul
Katherine Donnelly

Katherine Donnelly

There is a lot of debate about the pluses and minuses of technology for children, in terms of both its impact on their daily lives and education.

Access to the internet has put a new world of learning at their fingertips, but among the criticisms are how children are spending too much time on digital devices, at the expense of activities such as reading a book or physical exercise.

A new Irish study has raised a fresh concern. Researchers at Dublin City University (DCU) say technology may be impairing the development of fine motor skills in children and warn of the potential negative consequences for their educational achievement, and life in general.

Fine motor skills are the use of small muscles in fingers, toes, eyes and hands that are essential for numerous daily living activities, such as manipulating a pencil, buttoning shirts, feeding and playing. Every cyclist needs them to control handlebar functions.

There is a link between well-developed fine motor skills and higher academic achievement, including being better at maths and earlier development of reading. Poor fine motor skills can also lead to increased anxiety and low self-esteem.

There are also gross motor skills, involving movement and coordination of large body parts (arms and legs, for example) for activities such as crawling, walking, running, jumping and catching a ball. Gross motor skills can also impact on the development of fine motor skills in a child.

The new study, of six- to 12-year-olds, was carried out by Dr Johann Issartel and David Gaul, of DCU's School of Health and Human Performance and has been published in the journal, Human Movement Science. Their research involved a sample of 253 pupils in second, fourth and sixth classes, in five Dublin primary schools.

What they found was that the ability of children to master tasks such as drawing shapes, picking up coins, fixing laces and putting pegs into a pegboard was not meeting the normal milestones.

According to Issartel, "this impacts academic achievement and quality of life both now and in the future. We need to think about how we can tackle this emerging problem before they have long term consequences."

The two researchers were motivated by previous studies pointing to a link between a decrease in gross motor skill proficiency and the more sedentary lives experienced by children today. In the technological age, were fine motor skills also suffering?

They wondered whether new leisure time activities that have taken the place of playing with blocks, Lego, board games or jigsaws are having a detrimental effect on the rate of development of these skills. "Now it is more Playstation than play dough," says Issartel.

It is not only in their leisure time, but with the greater use of new technologies in school, children may spend less time writing and drawing with pencils and crayons. Other research has shown how the development of pencil grip used for writing is a complex skill, which has been found to improve with age as a result of practice. While keyboard skills are a must-have, Issartel says they are no replacement for writing: "You may be able to type on a iPad, but you still need to be able to hold a pencil."

Against their concerns that certain skills are at risk of being "lost in the sea of instant messaging and other technologies", Issartel and Gaul were conscious that, as many screen-based activities such as playing video games or using tablets require such skills, technology could be beneficial.

For the purpose of their study, they asked children to engage in two different forms of exercise: one set was pencil and paper based, such as writing, cutting and folding, which require precise finger control and hand movements; the other was more about manual dexterity and hand-eye coordination, involving throwing and catching activities and the manipulation of objects, such as placing as many pegs as possible in a board in 15 seconds. While they found the fine motor skills of the six- to eight-year-olds were at an expected level of development, the same was not true of the 11-12 years-olds. The intervening years are the very time when technology takes on a central role in children's lives.

While Issartel and Gaul did record an improvement in fine motor skills between second and sixth class pupils, as would be expected as children grow older, the concern is that it was not at the normal rate of progression.

"Overall, second and fourth class children exhibited greater proficiency levels, when the performance is considered at their age level, in comparison to their sixth class counterparts for their age," their report states.

While 13pc of children in second class were below average, and 14pc of fourth class children also exhibited difficulties, among sixth classes pupils, some 36pc of pupils were not hitting the expected milestones.

The researchers argue that a potential reason for the upset in the well-established norms of motor development is the increasingly prominent role that technology plays in modern society.

On the other hand, they point to evidence that video gaming can lead to improvement in manual dexterity and hand-eye coordination in laparoscopic surgery training in surgeons, while touch screen devices require actions such as swiping, dragging and dropping, pushing or tapping that all require fine motor skills.

"It might be possible that children are now developing a new set of fine motor skills that meet the demands of the environment that they are now faced with. These new skills allow for the proficient use of touch screen technologies or games consoles."

Now they are calling for extended studies on the impact of technology on fine motor skills, in order to get a comprehensive picture.

Cutting and pasting with a scissors and brush

Drawing, writing, cutting and pasting (using scissors and brushes rather than a mouse!) and doing jigsaws are not just fun activities for young children. They are some of the ways in which fine motor skills are developed from the earliest years.

Primary teachers have been warning for some time that technology and modern living have been having a negative effect on some children. Increased screen time leading to a more sedentary lifestyle over years has seen less time for many traditional childhood activities.

As a result, infant teachers have reported spending more time on activities like finger painting, playing with play dough as well as drawing patterns and shapes with chubby crayons.

This not easy in over-crowded classes where very young children often need one-to-one help. It also makes the case for curriculum reform to allow more time for these activities. There is also a need to resource physical education throughout the primary school years. Running, jumping and ball skills are not just important in the battle against obesity but are vital to the development of fine motor skills.

Technology has brought huge benefits to education. Adults must be on guard to make sure its increased use by primary school children doesn’t have unintended consequences.

Peter Mullan, assistant general secretary of the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO)

Irish Independent

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