In my career spanning over 25 years working on hand skills with children, I have noticed a worrisome trend. Children cannot use their hands. I observe many children in restaurants and schools using a tablet computer or smart phone. A simple “swipe” permits the child to control these devices with all the fingers in extension (extended) and with barely any motor activity of the muscles of the hand. There is no enriching “pre shaping” that is needed to interface with a two dimensional device.

Furthermore, children often receive spectacular visual rewards from miniscule or virtually no motor effort. Lesson Learned: no hand use required!

Sadly, no corresponding enrichment in the primary motor cortex has occurred, either without activation or employing our unique ability to “fractionate “ hand motor patterns.

Weakness is especially prevalent in the intrinsic (small deep hand muscles) that for example allow picking up a Cheerio® using the tip of the pointer finger and the tip of the thumb. This ability appears early in development and is further enhanced by robust sensory and motor play activities. Such activities include touching a variety of textures; moving the hand around shapes; and using “tools,” such as a spoon, child’s shovel, scoops, or small manipulatives.

Moreover, “pre shaping” of the hand is unique to our species and incorporates vision. As a child approaches an object, the hand pre shapes prior to picking it up. Interaction between vision and motor control is vital to developing refined and robust hand use. It enhances development of the hand arches, which in turn support individual finger use.

 “Hands On” Development

Our hands are amazing sensing organs. Akin to the elephant’s trunk, children gather information that informs their brains about textures, shapes, and temperatures — laying the developmental framework for an individual’s “spatial sense,” the knowledge of where he or she ends and the world begins.

Through such information gathering, coupled with motor skills of the hand that are unique to our species, we are capable of individual control of the fingers. This capacity is the result of the preferential relationship between the small muscles of the hand and the brain via a direct pathway in the corticospinal tract. Recently, neuroscientists have discovered that working these hand muscles develops the corresponding area of the brain directly via this pathway and via the rich interconnections, or web of synapses, in a specific area of the cortex.

Connectivity between the hands and the brain is a two-way pathway.

Pretty amazing stuff! So by working the intrinsic area of the hand, children are developing their brains.

Tips for Making Technology Work for You and for Developing Children

I like my iPad®. I have a smart phone. I had twins and would have likely jumped at the chance to place a movie or game in front of my two children so that I could get through a nice meal somewhere.

Having other items in a “busy bag” got us through many nice meals. They do not have to be electronic, talking, or have lights. Simple, everyday household cups with lids to obtain a “prize” or blocks work well. Parents do not need a spectacular, expensive, or complex toy — just many different, and appropriate, items to get through a dinner or other activity.

It is also important to provide opportunities for shaping, pre shaping, exploration, and letting children get “messy”! For home, I love to recommend that parents put up a chalkboard on a wall. Using small chalk sticks on the chalkboard, for children who can safely do so, provides excellent input to the hand, and hence the brain.

When I use a tablet computer with a student, I insist that they use a “pointer finger,” or stylus. Also, having children hold something in the pinky side of their writing hand is often helpful (like a makeup wedge). If the child can safely use a stylus — do so! A stylus is at least a “tool” and encourages the hand muscles to work individually.

I also like to place a pencil grip on the stylus to encourage tripod grasp in a school age student. One last tip for this week: using a mini stylus with a tablet device, placed on an easel or slant board, is a great way to encourage tripod grasp and individual hand use — at the same time promoting pre shaping.

Kids need to use their hands to develop their brains!