When I hear “Occupational Therapist” my mind goes directly to assisting those with serious disabilities. And, as stated in an article I read from the New York Times, I’m not the only one who makes that connection. However, according to that article, 30% of OT’s in the American Occupational Therapy Association work at a school. Rather than only providing service to children with disabilities, the majority of their time is spent helping “normally” developing children with their handwriting. This increase in school employed OT’s is due to the fact that teachers are noticing a rapid decline in the legibility of their students handwriting as they enter school.
Teachers used to be able to note a significant improvement in handwriting shortly after entering school, yet these days teachers have reported no such improvement as students are struggling to even hold a pencil correctly. Not only that, but some student’s hands get tired before they finish a short assignment. As teachers become increasingly worried about their students ability to produce legible writing, there has been an increase in the need for OT’s inside schools. Furthermore, parents have been taking it upon themselves to find OT’s to treat their children early, in an attempt to close the gap. As expanded upon in the article, parents note how much times have changed in terms of the connotation behind OT’s. They used to only be associated with extreme treatment and disabilities, while today their services continue to diversify as energy is focused on preventing children from falling too far behind with their handwriting. Through a variety of tactile activities, OT’s are addressing first the child’s ability to hold a pencil and second their fine motor skills (which aids in the actual production of quality handwriting).
So where have we gone wrong? What sparked this increase in poor handwriting? Some argue, and I agree, that this phenomenon is caused my the increase in technology (for play and for school) and the lack of hands on play children engage in.We are all too familiar with this, children of this generation are glued to their devices. Instead of going outside to play, playing with legos or doing crafts, children are watching TV or playing on some sort of device. This dependence on technology to play, is a huge factor in the poor development of their fine motor skills. Even in the classroom the narrative around computers is changing. Teachers are advocating for more technology and even encouraging parents to allow children to become more familiar with typing and technology because of the direction the world is going. While I do acknowledge the many benefits of technology in the classroom, I also want to express how important it is for children to learn how to play with their hands/minds in order to develop these fine motor skills. Children should not be entering Kindergarten without knowing how to hold a pencil.
As I read this article, I began to reflect on my own experiences and I was surprised at how real this issue is in my own life. As you look back on my old school work my mom has saved through the years, there is marked improvement in my handwriting from elementary school into middle school. It gets significantly smaller and neater. You can also see this trend with my older brother as well. Even in elementary school, our handwriting was legible. It was big and messy, (which is developmentally normal for children of that age) but it was legible. However, as I began to compare the work of my older brother, the difference was so obvious. Enter elementary school is handwriting was hardly legible and I remember the notes my mom received from teachers about how she needed to work with my brother on his handwriting. Then, as he transitioned to middle school, his handwriting isn’t all that better. Granted you can read what he writes and it’s obviously not the exact same as his elementary work, but the letters are still large and the messiness is still very present. This observation was very interesting to me as I realized how much of an impact this issue has. It became more clear to me how young my brother started interacting with technology as compared to me and how this impacted something as simple as handwriting.
No matter how far this world comes in terms of technology, writing isn’t going to just disappear. We will always need to now how to write. Beyond that, as humans the development of fine motor skills is important in several domains of life outside of just writing. We need to start allocating more attention to the way we present play time to kids. While we can’t stop the advancement of technology and while technology is a really good thing, we can emphasize the importance of tactile play. Building, drawing, playing with dolls, all of these are activities that come naturally to children and that support healthy development. These are things technology cannot replace, and we shouldn’t let it.