In today’s society, using technology is common for us all…including our children. Just go have dinner at a restaurant and you will see kids using “screen time” as a form of entertainment. Many children are introduced to entertainment and games on their parents’ phone or tablet at a young age. These apps are designed to get the attention of young children and promote cognitive development at a young age. There are a number of educational apps and developmental games created for toddlers, so it must be a good thing, right? Well, many parents don’t consider the physical impact these apps will have on their children as they grow. How is playing a game or completing an activity on a screen going to impact physical development? Let’s take a deeper look into the impact of technology on handwriting.
Start by thinking forward to when a child is entering school for the first time. Things like coloring and writing letters are a big part of the kindergarten curriculum. What parent doesn’t get excited when their child comes home for the first time with their name written on a piece of paper? Or that first picture that a child draws of their family? Maybe everyone doesn’t have all of their body parts or the baby is as big as the dad, but it is special regardless because it is your child’s artwork!
The first step in learning to draw and write letters is using the proper grip on the crayon or pencil. Think about how you pick up a pencil or pen to write your name. Most likely, you hold your pen between your thumb and the first two fingers of your hand. This is known as a tripod grasp and is used by a majority of people when writing. Some people will use their thumb and first three fingers which are known as a quadruped grasp. Both of these grasps are considered to be functional grasps for handwriting.
Now think back to your screen-free childhood. I bet you spent time playing with blocks, building with Legos, and playing with play-dough. All of those activities helped you to learn to use the appropriate grasp on your pen. How do those childhood play activities relate to the way you hold your pen? Doing those activities helped to strengthen the muscles of your hand to prepare you for handwriting. These days, play activities like this can be limited due to screen time resulting in little hands that aren’t ready to hold a pencil for handwriting.
My niece, at 2 years old knows how to swipe pages on a book on her mom’s phone but struggles to turn a single page at a time in a real book. Swiping and touching to maneuver on a screen does not require the use of the muscles needed during the play activities we participated in as a child. Place your finger on the fleshy part of your palm next to the base of your thumb. Now bring your thumb to touch your index finger as if you were picking up a Lego. Do you feel that muscle working? Now, keep your finger on that same place on your palm and pretend to swipe up or across on a screen. That muscle isn’t used as much as it is when you are picking something up. Playing with building activities and picking things up gives this muscle a workout and prepares it for the future work of handwriting. Expecting a child to write without having the hand strength needed to maintain a proper grip on the pencil can be just as hard for a child as trying to run a 5K without training beforehand.
If you see your child frequently switch hands during handwriting tasks, this is usually not an indication that they are ambidextrous. It is usually a sign of muscle fatigue. As a child is writing, if their hands get tired, they will switch hands and attempt to write with their other hand. You can generally see a difference in the quality of writing when they are switching because most people cannot write as well with their nondominant hand. Another common sign of muscle fatigue during handwriting is taking frequent breaks and rubbing hands together or stretching hands. If you see these signs, it is time to get your child involved in some hand strengthening exercises. This doesn’t have to look like a trip to the gym with a specific number of reps for different exercises, it simply needs to look like play with toys that require manipulation.
Let’s do a little experiment. Get out a piece of paper and something to write with. Now, close your eyes and write the alphabet without looking. I bet you did better than you thought you would. As we practice handwriting, we gain what is known as muscle memory. Eventually, you are able to form the letters without thinking because the movements have become so natural for your muscles. So, let’s take a look at those apps that teach letter formation. Learning how to properly form letters is an important skill which leads to fluency and legibility of writing. But let’s take a closer look at how those apps teach letter formation. Typically, you trace the letter with your finger to write the letter. Tracing letters in this fashion requires you to move your entire arm or hand instead of using your fingers the way you would when you are writing with a pencil. If these patterns are practiced over and over again, your brain will learn the muscle memory for that letter using those movements. As a result, some children struggle to transition writing with a pencil because they have created muscle memory writing with the tip of your finger rather than while using a pencil. Think of this in another way. Have you ever had to use your finger to sign your name on a touchscreen? Did your signature look anything like it does when you use a pen to sign your name? Probably not, because you don’t have muscle memory for writing with your fingertip.
So now that we know what kind of impact technology can have on handwriting, what can we do about it? I am not a proponent of saying stop using technology completely. It is a common tool and kids are expected to know how to use it for functional activities and there are some good educational apps out there. However, I am a believer that screen time should be limited and encouraging play that will help to work out those hand muscles in preparation for handwriting. If your child is older and you notice those signs of fatigue while they are working, it’s not too late! You can still have them engage in hand strengthening play to build up those muscles for endurance during writing tasks.