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Strains and Gains

Modern tablets don't offer the same tactile reinforcement of their ancestors.

Modern tablets don’t offer the same tactile reinforcement of their ancestors.

The handwriting is on the wall for the use of tablets and computers for younger children.

It’s on the wall, or paper, or anywhere other than a screen. That’s because research is catching up to rapid inclusion of technology in our learning and the results show we need to scale back the e-everything. At some point learning to create slideshow presentations is worthwhile, but earlier is not better.

Unlike their namesakes, modern tablets like the iPad and Kindle Fire come with kid-friendly cases to make them easier to hold, apps that boast of aiding children develop basic language and math skills earlier than their peers, and browser controls to prevent exposure to the dark minds of the Internet — or their own parents. However, the bulk of educational apps and programs are aimed at toddlers and most overpromise and underdeliver.

Last year, the American Academy of Pediatrics changed its screen time recommendations for infants under age 2 from zero hours to “one or two” and no more than one or two hours a day for older children and teens. Instead, kids ages 8-18 spend seven hours looking at a screen of some sort.  

Children of the ’80s and ’90s probably remember, and perhaps dismiss, fears that too much screen time can hinder learning. But studies continue to show that simply having a TV on in the background while a toddler plays in the same room actually distracts them. But new studies also show that young children learning to read can retain and notice story structure better with interactive programs.

When it comes to research, the variance in types of interaction and the ages of study participants proves little more than a need for more research. There’s no scientific yes-or-no answer and even ‘moderation’ isn’t the best advice. Yet a look at the screen-free days of handwriting reveals plenty about the way young brains develop. 

If you played music to your baby in the womb, if you noticed a difference between swaddling with your little one facing you or facing outward, then you’ll likely agree with researchers who find an educational benefit from face-to-face interaction between parent and child. There’s no substitute for human, or parental, interaction. And yet parents disconnect by tuning out a child for ‘quick’ checks of emails, texts or other distractions.

The ubiquitous use of electronics killed typing class. Hurray, except that it coincided with a decline in handwriting. Complaints over the loss of handwriting may sound like Chicken Little or come off as Luddite fear, but it’s about much more than penmanship.

As children progress through their education at Mountain Shadows Montessori School, they learn write their reports by hand, in cursive. That’s by design. Terri Allen, the head of school at Mountain Shadows explained that the importance of handwriting is tied to Montessori tradition, which uses century-old designed methods and materials to develop children’s early cognitive skills.

Behind the ‘if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it’ Montessori tradition is a lot of brain research from the ’80s and ’90s — when a TV programming boom elicited fears of screen time — that backed up the help of cursive with the developing brain. In short, the brain only grows if it has sensory input, and handwriting provides a tactile link to thought and communication. “We didn’t evolve to just use eyes and a finger to swipe,” Allen said.

When children first enter the classroom, they enter a laboratory where they are exposed to a wide vocabulary and develop a three-fingered grasp and a delicate touch. These bedrock skills form the bedrock of handwriting (and other skills like tying shoes). Then comes a rudimentary understanding of communication, Allen said. “During that second three years they become exposed to that idea that you can transfer a message to another human being through marks on paper.”

photo courtesy of Mountain Shadow Montessori

Photo courtesy of Mountain Shadow Montessori.

The flowing, rounded movements of cursive start on the chalkboard and gradually progress to the more tactile grip and precision of writing on paper. Beyond the educational tradition Allen said that for some children with difficulties, cursive will often remedy those problems because the letters cannot be flipped. “You write a word from start to finish and have a completed thought when you pull the pencil up.”


Elementary students continue writing in cursive for rough drafts of reports because the physical connection reinforces the information. “If you write it yourself, you are using more of your brain and processing the thought as you write it down,” Allen said, adding that once you’re a good typist, you transcribe and don’t engage the human brain – just the reptilian autopilot brain. Students are then encouraged to refine their work with an additional draft and even add decorate that with calligraphy and artistic design in the capital letters.

Photo courtesy of Mountain Shadow Montessori.

Photo courtesy of Mountain Shadow Montessori.

Allen has observed young children for most of her 40 years of education experience, which mostly concentrated on early-age and elementary school children. “When a baby sees something that they can’t touch, they covet,” said Allen. In her work with toddlers, she saw children play house and hold blocks up to their ears like a telephone. She suggested, in the age of texting, we may soon see toddlers thumbing on a block.

While apps can analyze and adapt to a child’s interaction, they don’t do well at encouraging outside-the-box behavior. Montessori guides often encounter creative phonetic writing that they honor, with spelling and grammar refinement coming later. That’s something that a yes-or-no computer program cannot do.

Textured letter tiles reinforce tactile communication. Photo courtesy of Mountain Shadow Montessori.

Textured letter tiles reinforce tactile communication. Photo courtesy of Mountain Shadow Montessori.

Electronic Suggestions:

Touching a screen is barely interactive and more an automated behavior these days. Check out Common Sense Media for reviews of apps, games and websites for age-appropriate content.  The American Association of School Librarians lists the best for teaching and learning.

Set limits on screen time and plan playtime (Look kids, a yard!).

Social media is a large, and important, aspect of teen lift. Yet it has enabled bullying to extend beyond the schoolyard, but it also shows the larger world beyond the microcosm of teenage life. Like the rest of life, a little guidance and oversight here goes a long way.

The Good News:

The Kindle offers a dyslexia font.

Sesame Street’s apps are well-reviewed.

Reading Rainbow went digital and offers a Skybrary filed with interactive reading options.

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