Cutting a Straight Line

It’s about more than motor skills

By Lori Ann Watson

For decades now, there’s been a huge push “down” with academic content. We know, as parents, that when our fifth-graders bring us their algebra homework, we go, “Whaaaaaat? I didn’t see that ‘til high school!” The same thing is happening across all core subjects, and all the way down to pre-k.

I’m sure the standardized test companies see this as a good thing — especially now that kindergartners in some states are expected to have the academic, fine-motor, emotional, and social skills necessary to sit for those companies’ standardized tests and complete them successfully so they, as six-year-olds, won’t get flagged as “low-performing.” But forcing too much advanced reading and math instruction down into the pre-kindergarten and kindergarten years can have intensely negative consequences. In order to make room and time for children to learn things they tend (in general, on the whole), not to be optimally developmentally ready for at ages three through six, we have to sacrifice the skills that they’re wired to soak up like sponges at that age. The result, for many students, has proven to be weakness in both areas, mastery of neither.

We’ve all heard fellow middle-school (and high-school, and college) teachers lamenting the lack of fine-motor and social skills, along with academic skills, in their students. I believe one of many reasons for this is because we’re not designing instruction around developmental readiness anymore.

This is what I love most about classical education: it starts with, and is rooted in, what’s good for the child. The main idea behind a typical classical education schedule is, “What do children tend (again, not everyone, but tend) to enjoy and do well at the age of, say, five? Let’s build their curriculum around that. What do they do well at eight? It’ll be different. Let’s change it up and make what we teach them at that age tie in with their natural drive to learn.”

The current public education model, which goes something like, “Teach them all their academics before third grade, and they’ll totally “get it,” and they’ll also figure all the motor skills and social stuff out on their own somehow,” takes the child-focused idea behind classical education and flips it on its head. Sacrificing fine-motor practice, such as time spent perfecting the art of cutting on a straight line, is one of the biggest problems here and affects much, much more than just a student’s ability to cut straight with a pair of scissors.

Many people already know that crawling as an infant lays important groundwork in the brain for learning to read later on. Research shows that as a baby moves his or her left hand and knee together, then his (or her) right, then the left, and so on, connections form in the brain that are essential to later development of reading skills. Motor skills and academic skills are inextricably linked.

Knowing this, would we take babies who were trying to learn to crawl, sit them in a high chair when they’re most driven to practice crawling, and use that “prime crawling time” to practice Spanish words instead? I could answer this in a few ways, but I think I’ll just stick to “No.”

But we do the equivalent of that every year, in our early childhood and kindergarten classes. We take students who are geared and driven to practice (and master) large and fine motor skills, which would develop the parts of their brains that would make mastery of great reading and math skill so much easier later on, and we sacrifice those skills they’re ready for to try to force academics skills they’re NOT ready for (again, as a tendency, on the whole).

Research backs up the fact that this is detrimental. In this article from Psychology Today, researchers outline the distinct connection between a great fine-motor skills foundation and solid academic abilities. They found, specifically, that development of fine-motor skills builds areas of the brain that contribute to academic development. Again, motor skills and academics are inextricably linked.

In a sort of experiment, some schools in Texas decided to bring home two Finnish elements of education by incorporating four (yes, FOUR) recess periods for their students into each school day. In essence, they took time away from academics and devoted it to motor skills, free play, and social development. The result? Better academic performance, among other remarkable improvements.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t teach academics in early childhood programs and in kindergarten. But we have to do it in ways that are best for children — in ways that are mindful of the fact that kids are not just short grownups; they’re wired differently from us. We have to educate them in ways that take into account their natures at each stage of learning. And, for five-year-olds, learning to keep a pair of scissors on a thick, black line while cutting a piece of paper can be one of the best academic assignments they’ll get.

Copyright 2018 George Martell/Bayard Inc. All rights reserved.

Copyright 2018 George Martell/Bayard Inc. All rights reserved.

Lori Ann Watson is a Teacher of the Year turned stay-at-home mom and blogger who writes from High Springs, FL. Her pro-life picture book, Beginnings, was the fruit of reading Pope John Paul II’s Evangelium Vitae.

Photo copyright 2018 George Martell/Bayard Inc. All rights reserved.