By Dexter Lane, Nature Explore program Writer and Consultant
Fine motor skill levels in children entering kindergarten are in decline, relative to what they were a decade ago. This issue has been reported worldwide. Concerns include infants not being able to play with blocks, and kindergartners not being able to hold writing tools or use scissors. No comprehensive research seems to have been conducted to explore the extent, degree, or wider implications of the problem, yet usage of electronic devices is the most often cited causal factor. Adding urgency to the issue are solid research findings tying fine motor skills in kindergarten to later achievement in reading and math.
Children’s failure to develop fine motor skills along timelines normative just a few years ago suggests an increasingly widespread, preventable developmental delay. A solution to this problem available to us in the Nature Explore family is our outdoor classrooms.
Children, including many infants and toddlers, enjoy using touch screen devices. Any response to the fine motor skills issue that suggests removing these devices from preschooler’s lives is unrealistic, and bound to fail. For one thing, kids love them. And for another thing, many parents and some teachers do, too. Children can and do learn from apps. The issue is not that touch screen apps are never beneficial for learning. The problem is that an overreliance on apps leaves out a specific kind of learning that was once commonplace, and that is always necessary. A realistic solution to the problem is balance, not total restriction. Nature, especially in the form presented to children by Nature Explore Classrooms, is just that balance.
Profoundly important elements of early childhood learning are integral to Nature Explore Classrooms, yet missing when the child uses touch screen devices. The first is the social aspect of play, and the second is playing with a variety of objects in the real, three-dimensional world.
Children using touch screen apps, educational or otherwise, might draw parental involvement. But rewards for correct responses, in the form of cartoon characters, sounds and vocal praise, are built into the app, rendering the adult unnecessary once the program is learned. The social element of this play is gone. And by definition, experience with touch screens is two-dimensional.
Play in your Nature Explore Classroom is not only social, but deeply social. Many of you have told us that play became different when your venue transitioned from a traditional playground to a Nature Explore Classroom. You’ve said that play becomes less competitive, that bullying goes way down or disappears, that children work on projects creatively in groups or that they simply explore nature together. Recognizing and nurturing the social play in your Nature Explore Classroom is a means of restoring balance to a child’s life that is lost during isolative play with apps.
And then there are the materials. Three-dimensional, rough, smooth, large, small, sticky, hard, soft, fragrant (or not), heavy, light, wet, dry, long, short, jagged, breakable, unbreakable, growing, decaying, too large to move, just large enough to move with the help of friends, high enough to jump from, strong enough to swing from, etc., etc., etc. When enough objects are collected during play in an app, magical powers or rewards might be given out. When a toddler handles small objects in her Nature Explore Classroom, she is rewarded by increased fine motor control.
Each time a child picks up a stone her fingers move uniquely to conform to its shape, and to exert enough gripping pressure to accommodate its weight. The complex feedback going to an infant/toddler’s brain is different for each piece of natural material she handles because no two are alike. The more she plays, the greater the variety of materials she handles, and the more she develops true fine motor skills. This can only happen in 3-D.
The social feedback she receives from teachers and peers also varies during play. A friend might want to explore materials in the way she does, or differently. A teacher might give her praise, encouragement, a pat or a hug, or play with her.
Lights and sounds that are considered to be reinforcing feedback in touch screen apps pale in comparison. The friend, who may be a playmate for years, may be remembered throughout life. The feedback from one of the many touch screen apps that pass through a child’s life will probably be forgotten. This element of companionship during learning in the Nature Explore Classroom, the social context of learning fine motor skills, is hugely important in balancing the isolative nature of play with computers.
Here are just a few of the countless ways that we can encourage eager development of fine motor skills in our Nature Explore Classrooms.
*Make available a wide variety of age appropriate natural materials for children to explore, depict or use in artwork, build with, handle, think and learn about.
*Stock your Nature Art Table with small natural materials such as shells, stones, twigs, pinecones, and materials found in your surrounding area, along with modeling clay, scissors, paper, coloring pens, pencils, paints, etc.
*Irregularly shaped blocks encourage experimentation with construction, and mini-bricks encourage fine muscle development in small hands. Your well-stocked Building area will support fine motor skill development.
*Be sure to play with all these materials yourself. Especially if you begin exploring materials alone in an area, curious minds will want to see what you are doing, and maybe help or imitate.
*A construction using mini-bricks, secretly made before the children enter the Nature Explore Classroom will also draw curiosity.
*When a toddler reaches a milestone in developing fine motor control, whether it’s the first mini-brick tower, a mark from a writing tool held in a fist, a worm held carefully in the fingertips—your “FANTASTIC!” expressed with a smile, and accompanied by a pat or hug, reinforces that success in ways a computer voice with unchanging words and inflection simply can’t.
We’ll never be able to remove touch screen apps from young children’s lives. Nor should we. Some can be very helpful—just not for developing fine motor skills. The easiest path to children’s development of motor skills lies in nature. Provide children with a rich natural environment and they will organically learn these skills through play.
Express your fascination with their achievements.
Play with them.
You’re likely already doing this.