Technology and Fine Motor Skills: Can we use Apps?

When it comes to the development of fine motor skills, the world of tablets, phones and Apps have certainly jumped on the band wagon.  One trip to Google Play or the App Store will lead you to believe that all fine motor skills development can take place on a tablet.  They tell us how using their devices will improve our children’s fine motor skills.  And if the device that your child seems to want more than life itself is going to help their fine motor skills development, it seems like a match made in heaven.  Or is it?  Where does technology and fine motor skills fit into fine motor development programmes?

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A study to establish the efficacy of Apps for improving small muscle development.

A study undertaken in Taiwan and published in 2017, compared two groups of children.  Both had intervention for 20 minutes per day for just less than six months.  The one group were exposed to Apps such as Dexteria Jr. Fine Motor Skill and Uncolor for iPad, which have previously been identified as having the potential to improve fine motor skills in children.  The other group were given traditional materials like threading and lacing, scissors, and play dough, amongst others.

On the post-test follow up, the group who had used traditional materials to enhance fine motor skill development achieved “significantly greater changes in fine motor precision, fine motor integration, manual dexterity and pinch strength than did those in the touch screen group.”  So when it comes to technology and fine motor skills, it has been shown the tablet and app store is not necessarily your best friend.

“Using a touch screen tablet extensively might be disadvantageous for the fine motor development of preschool children.”¹

Research has even suggested that the use of touch-screen devices might lead to changes in the physiological function of muscle, and have a significant effect on the acquisition of fine motor skills.¹  This is an alarming finding which emphasises the negative effects of technology on children.

Children and technology: is it valuable for fine motor skills development?

The repetitive fine motor movements used on the tablet are just that – movements.  They don’t require or promote the development of hand strength.  Studies have shown that both male and female millennials have weaker hand strength than their counterparts 30 years ago.  We need our hands to develop a wide variety of manipulatory skills, movement repertoires, and strength.  Your child is not in a good place if they can ace a game on a tablet, yet they can’t open their lunch box.  And herein the disclaimer – there are just some lunchboxes that were apparently made for the exclusive use of dads and teenage boys!  I sometimes wonder if they even test these things – they are manufactured in kid friendly colours, but even the men in my home sweat it to get the corners of some of these containers open!  But to get back on track: are children and technology best friends when it comes to fine motor skills development?

Teachers and therapists on the ground have seen the decline in functional fine motor skills such as pencil grip and pencil control.  Despite providing numerous fine motor opportunities within the school day, our teaches are finding that the children are entering with such a weak base that they are not seeming to benefit from the fine motor development opportunities in the same way as they did 20 years ago.  Despite their exposure to these techno Apps that promise to enhance fine motor development, the classroom entry level of fine motor skills is just somehow much lower.  This brings teachers to the conclusion that there certainly are negative effects of technology on children.  If you practise certain motor movements, you will develop them.  Swiping and pointing are very well developed in our children.  And the pinching and grasping movement that many “fine motor” Apps promote, can be developed through using them.  Researchers have described the movements required by the tablet as “tapping, double-tapping, pressing, sweeping, dragging and zooming."1  These are so very different to the movements offered by traditional fine motor manipulative activities such as cutting, threading and lacing.

"Devices such as computer keyboards and smart phones meant children were growing up without the strength and stamina to hold a pen for the required period of time to use their imagination to create a story, draw and to express their ideas on paper.

I have seen a marked increase in the number of children requiring occupational therapy and fine motor skills support due to a lack of strength and muscle coordination in their hands and lower arms as a direct result of the overuse of technology,"²

Kids First Children's Services director, Sonja Walker

Apps to improve fine motor skills – do they have a place?

If we consider the taping, sweeping, dragging, and zooming that are required to engage with a tablet or iPad, we need to ask if this covers the skills needed by our hands to perform the most basic of fine motor skills such as buttoning our jeans, through to the high level manipulation required to master handwriting?  Our hands are highly complex with an extensive range of manipulatory movements.  The flat plane of the tablet is not going to develop the aspects of fine motor hand function like the grasping, pulling, manipulating and rotating required from even the most basic of movements like opening and closing a lid, building a sand castle, or drawing a picture.  I am of the opinion we need to re-think apps to improve fine motor skills.  And when it comes to iPad use in occupational therapy, I am going to trust my colleagues to analyse the fine motor movements they are achieving, and be sure to build in the missing ones through the use of traditional fine motor manipulatives.

“You could argue that the iPad is beneficial for developing specific eye-hand and visual-motor skills, but its value is limited.  A parent needs to provide activities such as building blocks and puzzles to help with development.3"

Our children need to play outdoors. They need to climb and construct and manipulate.  Indoor play needs to include good construction toys, craft activities and chores around the home.  Sometimes participation in chores makes more mess than they help, but doing basic tasks like drying and wiping are developing their fine motor skills.  Bath toys are great and somehow seem to contain the mess, unless your exuberant child decides the water belongs outside the tub!  And cutting.  Do forgive me as I say it one more time!  Cutting is one of the most valuable fine motor skills we have when it comes to developing the muscles and movement patterns for handwriting!  Make use of it – it is there for you.  When it comes to fine motor skills opportunities in the classroom, Muscle Mania® is a tried and tested option.

Don’t ban tech completely.  Children and technology do just seem to go together like ice-cream and hot chocolate sauce.  There seems to be something inherently present in our children that if we ban something, they want it!  So use it wisely.  It does need to be the last thing on the list when it comes to quickly distracting them.

There is no doubt tech has its place.  But if your child is struggling with fine motor skills, you will probably find a trip to the App Store is not what your child needs.

©Bunty McDougall
Occupational Therapist

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