Sunday, December 31, 2017

In Praise of Broken Crayons

I recently spent a couple of hours with two of my granddaughters in the children's section of a public library in downtown Scottsdale, Arizona. It is magnificent!  It occupies a huge, modern space, with high ceilings and well-organized areas.  There are tons of books and cozy seating throughout the entire department, as well as lots of open-ended toys and interactive computer games.  There are floor to ceiling" trees", and a large play area housed within the facade of a castle. While three year old Shifra played an interactive computer game, six year old Tehilla and I sat at a nearby coloring table.   We emptied the cup of crayons onto the table, and to my surprise, they were all broken.  In such a well thought out environment, I felt sure that this was intentional.  Brilliant! 

In my last years as early childhood director, the teachers and I noticed a growing trend among our young students.  More and more children were entering preschool with weak fine motor skills.  We suspected that this was caused by the growing popularity of electronic toys and devices, where a simple tap or swipe are all that's needed to play.  Children are spending less time coloring, lacing beads, manipulating small cars, animals, people, puzzles and peg boards.  Children with weak fine motor skills struggle to hold a pencil properly, have poor handwriting, and take longer to learn self-help skills.  Fine motor muscles help us in  day to day living; opening bottles and containers, buttoning, snapping, lacing, sewing, drawing, picking up small items,etc.  And some professions, such as dentistry, surgery, carpentry, require precise control of the muscles in our fingers and hands.

The teachers and I decided to battle this phenomena with intentional activities and materials that would strengthen our students' fine motor muscles.  We learned a lot along the way, such as the power of broken crayons!  A broken crayon forces the user to grip it low and tight. And in order to get bright color from a crayon, it needs to be pressed hard.  Markers are terrible for young fingers because they can be held any which way and still produce brilliant color.  There are so many fun ways to help children strengthen their fine motor muscles.  One teacher hid pennies in play dough, so the children had to pull it apart and dig with their fingers.  Boards with locks to open and close or screws to twist with a screwdriver are fun and feel grown-up, as are various sized juice or milk cartons with caps to twist on and off.  Children can use eye droppers to mix colored water, tongs to pick up cotton balls or other small objects, and clothes pins to clip along the rim of a can.  Spray bottles and empty dish detergent bottles make great bath toys.  Children enjoy dropping coins in a piggy bank or chips into slots, like Connect Four.  A vertical writing space helps strengthen hand muscles too, either at an easel or by simply taping large paper to a wall. 

Every area of our children's development is important and interconnected.  While electronic games and toys can play a part in children's lives, we can't allow them to replace active play.  Our children learn much more about the world by using their bodies.  When most of their time is spent exercising their muscles, large and small, they grow to be strong, healthy, and capable.   

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