At-Risk Kids Have Fun Exercising Fine Motor Skills

Instructor Stephanie Maggio had not anticipated that the first graders in her group had never seen Legos® before. The few children who had seen Play-doh modeling compound had no idea that they could do anything other than squeeze it between their fingers.

“They had drawn pictures on construction paper before,” she says, “but they didn’t know you could cut it into strips and tape them together to make a paper chain or fold and cut it to make a snowflake.”

Zoob glassesMaggio works with a research project called Minds in Motion, led by David Grissmer in the University of Virginia’s Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning (CASTL). He and his research team are following up on a lead discovered in his prior research, suggesting a link between children’s early fine motor skills and later mathematics achievement in school.

To determine whether focused practice can improve fine motor skills and eventually improve academic achievement, the researchers developed a curriculum of craft activities in which children view a shape, pattern, or design and are challenged to recreate it.

“These kinds of design copy activities are designed to hone in on a particular aspect of fine motor ability that incorporates visual-spatial ability and the ability to strategize and coordinate the small muscle movements of the hands,” said Beth Cottone, a research scientist on Grissmer’s team.  They have evidence that the ability to persevere with tasks like these also promotes children’s attention skills, which are important for learning to manage their own behavior.

To keep the activities stimulating and engaging for afterschool settings, the team looked for a variety of colorful and fun materials that young children with varying abilities could work with successfully. In addition to construction paper, Play-doh, and Legos, they also developed activities with stencils, pattern blocks, fusible beads, Zoob building sets, Colorform vinyl shapes, Wikki Stix® wax-covered yarn strips, a Montessori activity called pin punching, and a yarn weaving craft called a God’s eye.

Because the researchers wanted to see if these skill-building activities were effective with children at risk of low academic achievement, they partnered with the WINGS for Kids afterschool program in North Charleston, South Carolina. The program serves children at four schools in impoverished neighborhoods, where more than 90 percent receive free or reduced lunch. Students attend for three hours a day and learn how to make good decisions and build healthy relationships.

Last year, 45 kindergarteners and first graders were randomly selected to spend 45 minutes, four days a week, on the Minds in Motion activities. Maggio, who holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology and was already a WINGS leader, agreed to work with the project, along with seven other Minds in Motion instructors.  She led a group of five six-year-olds.

For the first 5 minutes of each session, Maggio led children in Callirobics. This activity, developed by Liora Laufer from Charlottesville, involves handwriting activities set to music. Children simply trace over straight and curved lines in a workbook while listening to rhythmic songs intended to help improve the flow of writing.

Maggio then brought out a color photograph of a shape, pattern, or object made from the selected craft medium of the day, and asked children to use the provided materials to “make yours look exactly like mine.”

Craft designs recreated by children.Most of materials ended up being new to these children, which is something Maggio had not anticipated. “They couldn’t put together pieces, like with Legos. The pieces would fall apart, and the children got really frustrated.” Even when her students were familiar with a certain material, they had a narrow vision of what it was and what could be done with it, she says. “It was a struggle.”

With some skillful instruction from Maggio, the children picked up the skills quickly. “The next time the same material came up in the curriculum, the kids did great,” she says. By the second half of the program when children were being asked to create scenes or musical instruments, they had no problem. “It was really rewarding to see them develop over the course of the year,” Maggio says.

Cottone notes that Maggio’s experiences were common to most of the Minds in Motion instructors. “We found that we were not only focusing on translating to achievement with these children,” she says. “We were giving them access to really stimulating material they’ve never had before. Many of them don’t go to preschool. They come to kindergarten never having had these experiences. There’s value to this in and of itself.”

This year the researchers are following a second cohort of students in the WINGS for Kids program. They are analyzing the school achievement data they collected at the beginning and end of the 2010-11 school year to see if children engaging in these activities performed any differently than a control group of 45 other WINGS students.

They are also looking for opportunities in other programs for disadvantaged children across the country where they can test the curriculum, Cottone says.  “A lot of this stuff has been taken out of kindergarten and replaced with drills and flashcards. Maybe someday we will have the evidence to say, “You’re taking out the wrong thing. Substituting more-academic activities in preschool, kindergarten, and first grade in place of activities like arts, music, and PE that can build fine motor and behavioral management skills may actually slow progress in academic achievement.’”

by Lynn Bell