*Editor’s note: If you find this story on social media, it was originally published in October 2015.
As art teacher Alisa Leidich sends four vertical lines scrolling across an oversized drawing pad in parade formation, 20 kindergartners get their hands on paper and do their best to imitate her.
It’s not as easy as it may seem.
Local teachers and occupational therapists say a growing number of children are showing up to kindergarten without the fine motor skills needed to grasp a marker, hold their paper still while coloring or cutting and pasting shapes.
Body and brain: lack of exercise harms young students
Why 4 Year Old Is Too Young To Be Called A ‘Troublemaker’ By Teachers
“We basically re-teach a lot of things,” says Denver Elementary School’s Denise Young, a teacher for 23 years. “It’s hard to complete a lesson.”
In a typical year, Young and his colleague Trisha Pohronezny estimate that only two in 20 students arrive with enough strength and coordination to use scissors. Only about half can hold a pencil properly, compared to the fist approach they should have had at age 3.
Near-constant corrections take up valuable time in fast-paced academic programs, while one-on-one sessions to develop or reinforce skills force students to miss class and cost districts a lot of money.
Denver Elementary Principal Angela Marley says professional referrals to address these deficits have doubled over a three to four year period. District-wide, Cocalico saw its elementary school therapy spending drop from $85,440 in 2011-12 to $208,104 last year.
“We asked ourselves, ‘Why is this happening more and more?'” says Linda Cunningham, an occupational therapist from Lancaster-Lebanon IU13 who spends four days a week at Denver Elementary.
“It’s just our busy world. There’s a real push to get your child involved (in organized activities) earlier and earlier, so there’s less time to play in the backyard. … Children must manipulate their environment to understand spatial concepts. They generally learn not by being told, but by doing.
Cocalico officials instituted an arts program this year that aims to improve coordination and concentration. In years past, kindergarten children had only sporadic exposure to art. Now they get a 25-minute session each week, working on pre-writing concepts and skills like clipping, coloring, and spatial orientation.
Surrounded by Monet prints, the Mona Lisa and bottles of bold tempera paint, Pohronezny students meet Mr. Line in mid-October.
Leidich asks students to jump out of their chairs and imitate the line: they stand for the vertical, pretend to sleep on the floor for the horizontal, and hop for a jagged line. The idea is to link writing skills to physical activity.
Getting early graders to move while focusing on a task helps with sensory integration. It can also help build muscle. In some cases, says Cunningham, young students are unable to sit still for prolonged periods because they lack adequate core strength.
During the lively lesson, Leidich, Pohronezny and an assistant work around the room, looking for errors in posture, grip and arm support.
Once they have created shapes with Mr. Line, they are asked to do “World’s Best Coloring”, a verbal cue to focus on the image and use slow, controlled movements to stay within the lines.
Students get gentle reminders to keep their “helping hands” on the paper, and when Leidich sees Laiklyn Lloyd closing her fingers around her marker, she takes his hand and shows him how to “pinch the nib and flip it.” .
Concerns about school physical readiness are growing locally and nationally.
The Warwick School District has also seen an increase in occupational therapy needs, according to Melanie Calender, director of elementary education and student services.
Calender says the years between birth and 3 are “critical for core muscle development” and recommends parents incorporate a mix of gross and fine motor skills into play at home.
As Warwick Kindergarten teachers continue to focus on fine and gross motor skills through instructional and center-centered activities, parents shouldn’t stop providing hands-on opportunities once their children are of school age.
“They can continue to use the activities they worked on during the preschool years, making sure to maintain a balance with screen time,” says Calender.
In the Ephrata Area School District, all early childhood programs include fine motor skill development, according to spokeswoman Sarah McBee. This includes Plant the Seed of Learning, a program launched in partnership with Ephrata Community Hospital in 2002 that now serves eight districts. During sessions, children and their parents work on early literacy and science skills while manipulating modeling clay or catching bubbles.
The New York Times reported in February that public schools in New York had seen a 30% increase in the number of students referred to occupational therapy, with the number jumping 20% in three years in Chicago and 30% in five years in Los Angeles.
While some of those increases are due in part to an increase in sensory or autism spectrum diagnoses, Marley says the additional need at her school is related to children without cognitive impairments.
What changed ?
Cunningham says many therapists believe the Back to Sleep campaign, which encourages placing infants on their backs to sleep, has delayed muscle development. The problem becomes more pronounced when parents skip tummy time because their kids don’t like it: Toddlers might not be able to hold their bodies as upright as their peers years ago.
They may not be as adept at spreading their hands apart and using their arms to pull themselves up, a fundamental foundation for good sitting posture and good shoulder support when writing. Their eyes can also wander, making it difficult to concentrate on detailed tasks.
Kids today are also spending less time outdoors, where they may have more opportunities to explore how their bodies move through space, learn to balance themselves, and figure out how to handle toys and tools in relation to each other.
Some parents, Cunningham says, are afraid to let their children play physically or cut with scissors. Others traded the mess of handy modeling clay for a sterile “educational” tablet.
“Rather than sitting and coloring like they used to, our kids are part of the technology explosion,” Cunningham says. “It’s amazing to see a kid who can slip an iPad, but you put a pair of scissors in their hand and they don’t know what to do.”