Recently, a friend of mine sent me and article about the use of occupational therapy for children without severe disabilities to help them with very basic fine motor skills. Years ago, this friend heard me lamenting the loss of penmanship in the elementary curriculum. It no longer exists in most US school systems having been deemed antiquated and unnecessary. People are hiring occupational therapists (professionals whose focus was once on severely movement impaired children with real diseases or disabilities) to teach their children how to have legible handwriting and to improve their muscle function.
My profound concern is that it does not appear that there is a big push to address the source of the problem and reintegrate playing and exploring into a child's daily life at school and at home.
The importance of play
Anthony DiCarlo, a principal quoted in the above article, is a voice of reason as he states, "...very few [kindergarten students] have had unlimited opportunities to run, jump and skip, or make mud pies and break twigs. I’m all for academic rigor... but these days I tell parents that letting their child mold clay, play in the sand or build with Play-Doh builds important school-readiness skills, too.”
Moving, playing, getting down in the mud, arts and crafts, carpentry – all of these activities are crucial to one's brain development. And what does penmanship in particular teach you? Patience, diligence, control of your body in order to master a fine motor skill. It brings you back to your own sensory motor process and teaches mastery (at whatever level) and planning.
The importance of penmanship
In the book The Brain That Changes Itself, by Norman Doidge, MD, the author writes about Barbara Arrowsmith Young, awe-inspiring scientist and founder of the Arrowsmith School in Canada. She works with children with severe brain weaknesses and learning disabilities. Her expertise, which comes from decades of evolving discoveries regarding her own brain dysfunctions, has helped thousands of children through the use of what she calls "brain exercises."
She uses tracing of complex designs to stimulate weakened neurons in the pre-motor area. She has found that this improves reading, speaking and writing in children. Not only did this one particular child's reading ability improve through tracing (think learning cursive letters - it's all about tracing and repetition), but his speaking abilities improved so that he could express himself better.
If it were up to me, I would argue for keeping penmanship as a full fledged subject in elementary school because of its positive affects on the brain. Additionally, it is a valuable eye-hand coordination exercise and can be a beautiful art form. The argument that children will be using keyboards and therefore should ignore their penmanship is ridiculous at best. Step away from the keyboard; it will be here for the foreseeable future, but your fine motor skills may not be.