The Hidden Gem of Playground Equipment
Handwriting, and the decline thereof, is something which has been highlighted over the last couple of years. There are many contributing factors, some very obvious and some not so obvious. The one everyone is immediately jumping to is technology, and the increased access and use of handheld devices, especially touch screen devices. There has also been a notable drop in general fine motor skills with children having more and more difficulty with the manipulation of tools such as scissors and pencils. Children are also introduced to technology at a much younger age which is not ideal, even though many parents see this as being an achievement or the norm. Toddlers and even babies are given touch screen devices at a much younger age and one of the first skills they learn is to swipe with their index finger. The problem with this is that this action doesn’t strengthen the index finger, which is a vital component when it comes to gripping and controlling a pencil.
But, as previously mentioned, technology is not the only contributing factor to poor handwriting. In order to have good handwriting skills children need to have a strong core and upper body strength as well. One also has to look at what happens from birth and how that contributes to handwriting skills.
Babies are born with primitive, or so called neonatal reflexes, which are there to help the baby survive while still developing the necessary physical strength. One of these reflexes is the grasping or Palmar Grasp Reflex. The Palmar reflex is a primitive reflex that emerges around 11 weeks in utero or in the womb. It continues to develop when the baby is born and it remains active until the infant is around two to four months old. The Palmar reflex is activated whenever something causes pressure, touches, or strokes the infant’s palm. If traces of this reflex remains then it can cause a lot of problems especially when it comes to the development of fine motor and in particular handwriting skills. This reflex can be integrated through various exercises and incorporating activities such as hanging, swinging and climbing in everyday play.
This brings us to the hidden playground gem called the monkey bars and just how beneficial it is for, not only all around strength development, but in particular handwriting and fine motor skills.
The monkey bars are often underrated as not only a tool to develop strength but also self confidence and courage in young children. It can be a very daunting task for a child and persevering and eventually mastering it can do wonders for the self confidence of the child. It is a great way for children to develop visual hand-eye coordination and gross motor skills, while also developing core and upper body strength, which is all necessary to develop before effectively developing fine motor skills. Swinging around, flipping, turning and hanging upside down develops balance, vestibular sense and spatial awareness. It also requires full body engagement from the fingertips to the lower body. The pulling, hanging stretching and grasping develops hand and upper body strength, while activating and developing the proprioceptive system. The pulling motion also encourages lung inflation and bladder support.
Some of the most common benefits of the monkey bars:
- It helps develop muscles and strength
- Swinging on the monkey bars influences good posture and balance
- Frequent play on the monkey bars helps against obesity
- Can relieve stress
- Builds confidence
- Provides good socializing opportunities
- Promotes emotional well-being, physical activity and motor skill development
All of the above makes other physical activities easier, including sitting still for longer periods – needed for today’s classroom setting.
When we look at how monkey bars benefit the pencil grip we can conclude that it has numerous critical benefits to the foundation that sets the tone for a successful school career. The one to directly benefit the pencil grip is the hanging grip while swinging on the bars, as this mimics the pencil grip and forms a great foundation, while physical development, core strength and gross motor skills form the foundation from which writing takes place.
When we take everything into consideration it is clear that we need to start changing the focus in the classroom from starting on the fine motor skills to concentrating on developing core strength, gross motor skills and upper body strength. When we start doing this we will start seeing an improvement in pencil grip and handwriting, and the monkey bars is a great tool to help us swing in the right direction.