Increased use of digital tools has changed the process of learning. But, does the use of touchscreens affect your child’s ability to learn a basic skill, like how to hold a pencil? Read, to find out.
By Leena Ghosh
A child today, not only knows how to pose in front of the camera, but also how to take a selfie. He knows how to swipe the screen to operate his father’s phone and how to tap on an app to play his favourite game or watch a video.
The child of today is smart and tech-savvy.
But, as parents, are we harming our children by giving them unhindered access to our phones and tablets? Are we hampering the process of learning and slowing down the development of basic skills, like how to write or hold a pencil?
We talked to experts to find out exactly how using touchscreens affects your child’s pencil grip. Here's what they had to say.
Dr Arpan Kumar, an occupational therapist from Delhi, says that these days many children are unable to hold a pencil properly because of excessive use of smartphones. He explains how operating a touchscreen frequently weakens a child’s pencil grip. “When a child uses a touchscreen, he mostly uses his index finger. While the muscles of the index finger are used in a fixed way, other intrinsic hand muscles are underutilised. This may cause finger muscle weakness, which hinders a child from doing activities which require finger manipulation, like holding a pencil or a spoon, buttoning up a shirt or using a pair of scissors in the correct way. Because of this, the child does not develop age-appropriate fine motor skills,” he says.
Unfortunately, Dr Arpan is seeing a rise in the number of such cases in children today. “Now I see around 200 to 250 cases of children with weak pencil grip compared to 70 to 80 cases seven to eight years back,” he says.
Dr Arpan says that apart from a weak pencil grip, children also suffer from other problems involving fine motor skills. “Apart from not being able to hold a pencil properly, children also face difficulties in forming letters, colouring, drawing, opening lunch boxes, and holding and eating with a spoon because of weak finger muscles,” he adds.
Digital tools affect fine motor skills
Suchitra Seethapathy, psychologist, public speaker and a special needs consultant from Salem, Tamil Nadu, believes that the use of touchscreens can deter the development of fine motor skills in a child and hinder his learning process as well.
“As a child grows up, she needs to touch different textures. That is how a child develops her fine motor skills. It is not only through writing or drawing. When a child spends a lot of time on a smartphone or uses a touchscreen extensively, other fine motor skills like holding a pencil are not sufficiently developed,” she explains.
Suchitra adds, “Another aspect of using touchscreens is the development of the repetitive strain injury, a problem many software professionals face. Some apps and phones require certain repetitive movements to operate them. This causes the fingers to start cramping and a child’s pencil grip can be severely affected because of that.”
They affect learning
Suchitra believes that a child’s learning is also affected when he depends on smartphones and apps for gaining knowledge. “There are several neural pathways that are involved in learning. So, when a child learns through an app, he only uses his auditory and visual senses. Skills like tactile and visual spatial skills are completely underutilised. So, the child may be able to learn, but he might not recall what he has learnt. That’s why application-based learning is poor. So, experts prefer a multi-sensory learning approach. When a child learns through gadgets he loses interest in print. because it’s not as flashy or colourful as an app or a smartphone,” she says.
Use of touchscreens does not affect a child's writing skills or pencil grip
Aparna Rao, an educationist and the centre head of a preschool in Madurai, believes that a child’s digital skills do not affect his writing skills. She says, “I am not concerned about digital tools affecting a child’s writing skills. Digital tools may interest the student more, but the ability to write develops stage-by-stage. Many preschools, including ours, don’t introduce digital gadgets at the preschool stage.”
Aparna further points out, “Preschool is a crucial stage because children are screened for learning disabilities at this age. The use of tablets or smartphones, in itself, will not cause any delay in the development of a child’s motor skills. Using an iPad to colour or trace a letter is not going to cause a problem in how a child writes or holds a pencil. Our challenge, as educators, is not whether the child uses the mobile phone frequently, but how interesting we can make the activity of writing. If a child is engaged, he will sit down for the activity.”
Two different skills
Aparna believes that operating a digital device and writing with a pen or pencil are two different skills and one does not affect the other. “As far as I am concerned, I believe navigating content on smartphones and tablets, and writing with a pen or pencil are two different skills. The digital tracing helps the child understand the shape of a letter or object, whereas a child’s ability to write develops through stages. These are different skills and do not affect each other. It’s like saying, 'I know how to swim, because I saw a video on the Net.’ It’s not the same,” she says.
Digital tools will not replace writing
While Aparna agrees that the act of writing has become less frequent because of technological advancements, digital tools will not replace writing for many years, especially in India. “Using digital tools obviously augments a child’s learning; it’s more fun and interesting. However, writing is a motor skill and is more complex than knowing how to tap on a screen. Ever since computers came into our lives, people have rarely felt the need to write. But, as a skill, writing can never be replaced, because everyone needs to write at some point. In India, at least, writing will not be replaced by digital technology for many years. Students have to write till the 8th or 9th standard and after that they may be introduced to digital tools for learning. The act of writing may reduce with time, but it will never be replaced,” she explains.
Suchitra believes that these are some of the steps parents should take to develop their child's motor skills as well as aid her learning process.
Parents should focus on their child’s learning without gadgets. Because of this digital overload, several children have lost the ability to communicate because they are hooked to gadgets. Parents should keep gadgets outside their child’s reach until she reaches primary school. While growing up, a child needs to have unstructured play time as she can learn many skills through that.
Reading stories together or enacting stories are essential for a child’s development and it also generates interest in the print medium. It is good for a child’s development.
Instead of asking your child to hold the pencil properly, involve her in a lot of independent activities, like sorting her toys, washing plates, shelling peas or plucking leaves. Through these activities, her motor skills will develop. As a parent, you have to focus on the readiness of your child to hold a pencil rather than on her knowing how to hold a pencil. When she has developed adequate fine motor skills, she will automatically learn how to hold a pencil.
The cons of letting your preschooler use your smartphone or tablet far outweigh the positives. While handing over your phone may distract him easily, it will harm him more in the long run. Encourage free play and give him crayons and chalk to play with to strengthen his motor skills.
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