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Sunday, December 2, 2012

Motor Skill Development through Children's Touch Screen Usage is Both Praised and Critiqued


Touch screens have changed cell phones, check-out line registers, and even the airport check-in process. Now, young children are commonly exposed to, and adroit at using, touch screen technologies. Rather than playing with tangible toys and board games, children are able to play games on a screen using just one finger. How is this new implementation of touch screens affecting children’s motor development?   


Deftness in touch screen skills among
toddlers has become more common
The Educational World Accepts Touch Screen Technologies

Touch screens are a wonderful way for children to learn. Technologies such as the Apple iPad and iPhone and Google Nexus products offer applications that are interactive and engaging while demanding action from the users.
Lisa Guernsey, education and technology journalist at Slate.com, explains that touch screens offer interactive screen time, as opposed to the passivity brought about by simply watching television. Applications on touch screen technologies stimulate children’s brains, while teaching reading, spelling, and matching. Children play interactive games that demand attention, skill sets, and reactions. 

Touch Screens Enhance the Motor Skill Learning Process

There is a sensitive learning period in early childhood, primarily between the ages of 0 and 3, during which children have a natural dexterity for accumulating skills. During this stage, it is essential to stimulate children’s senses and provide them with enriching learning environments.

A 2010 study focusing on the effects of environment on motor development emphasizes the importance of exposing children to motor tasks, motions that activate the small muscle groups of the fingers and wrists: “The more opportunities given to children for practice, the more they develop their movement repertoire and refine the fundamental motor skills.”


Starting at a young age children develop
a sharp sense of timing and coordination
Children’s brains have robust neuroplasticity; the brain easily creates neural connections in reaction to motor and sensory experiences. Sensory motions, like swiping a touch screen, are combined with coordination, the synthesis of timing and order, to form a skill.
Dean of the University of Maryland School of Public Health, Dr. Jane Clark, has an expertise in the area of motor skill development, and has focused much of her research on children. She explains the advantage for young children in using a screen: “From a motoric standpoint…it is a lot easier to do something just with the hand than to do it with a tool.”

Unlike the process of using a pen, when using touch screens, children perfect hand-eye coordination as they trace letters with their fingers and feel the pattern of the letters.

The Concern about Motor Skill Impairment Due to Lack of Sensory Stimulation is Legitimate 

The Montessori style of learning stresses the importance of engaging all of the senses when teaching children. Games on touch screens resemble activities taught in Montessori classrooms, such as writing letters using the fingertips. However, the game applications miss the importance of the full sensory experience since the screen is taking the place of textures such as soft, bumpy, and grainy.


Motions such as grabbing, tying, and clapping are not required for touch screen usage. Haptics, the combination of touch and movement, are important for developing such motor skills. Due to their dimensionless essence, touch screens do not facilitate haptic movements.




Touch screens should only be used as supplements to actual toys, balls, and games; they should not replace real toys for fear of depriving children of dimensions, textures, and weights. 

Gross Motor Activity is Ignored in this Technological Era

The main problem in the touch screen era, as Clark shares, is the amount of stationary behavior, which in turn, leads to a lack of full body utilization. Humans were not created to sit all of the time. When supplementing screens for physical play, children strictly develop sensorimotor coordination in the hands. The value of gross motor development, the movement of the larger body parts, is discounted.

Clark cautions that when touch screen applications, such as a sporting game, replace actively playing basketball, the child is missing out on utilizing his full body potential.
Physical play is critical even in this touch screen era

Gross body movement, the use of larger body muscles, in this generation is not as strong as in previous generations when physical play was the main activity in children’s lives, says Clark. “If your time is spent 90% on touch screens and 10% on gross motor…your brain’s going to be 90% touch screens and 10% gross motor—I don’t think that’s a very good balance,” she explains.

Clark highlights that since only about 50 of human’s 620 muscle pairs are found in the hands, people must not forget the importance of full  body activities in this sedentary age. 

Moderation is the Answer for Children’s Time Spent on Touch Screens

Without much hesitation, Clark shares, “I think you just celebrate the new technology, use it.”

As is common with many new technologies, concerns exist about how touch screen usage will affect children in the long run. If used in moderation, children’s motor skill development will not be stunted, and are even stimulated, by the touch screen technologies.


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