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I am about to enter my fifteenth year of teaching elementary art. That means I’ve logged almost a decade and a half of meaningful art interactions with hundreds of K-6 students.
Don’t get me wrong, the students I work with are still as kind-hearted, creative, and as ready to be inspired as the kids I met during my first year teaching. But, in my opinion, they are bringing an entirely different level of skills to the table than kids did fifteen years ago, and, most frequently, it looks like a fine motor deficit.
As I peruse social media or talk with art teaching colleagues, it seems like everyone has an anecdote about a technique or skill that used to be easy to teach but now produces massive art teacher anxiety.
To provide some insight, I turned to my friend and colleague, Wendy Tredennick. Wendy is our school’s Occupational Therapist or OT. Improvement of gross and fine motor skills is part of her daily interaction with students.
Wendy confirms what art teachers anecdotally know. Kids are coming to school with a different level of fine motor skills than they were ten years ago. But, Wendy cites some surprising culprits; a lack of outdoor play and fast-paced family life.
Interestingly, Wendy is less critical of the TVs, tablets, and phones our students devour and is more concerned about the time it takes away from outdoor play. “Outdoor play builds core strength, involves visual scanning and laterality, and improves their spacial understandings of the world. Children should be playing outside every day.”
The frantic pace of modern family life is also a culprit. Wendy suspects our students are missing out on fine motor experiences at home because many families are over scheduled. She gives the example of shoe tying, “Parents used to spend quality time teaching their children how to tie their shoes. But now, people are so busy it is just easier to buy their kindergartener a Velcro pair.”
Combine these two factors, and some of our youngest students are now arriving in our art rooms underprepared for the fine motor demands of school in general.
These four fundamental art skills (folding, tying, manipulating a ruler, and cutting) just aren’t being explicitly taught anymore. Without open-ended outdoor play or structured fine motor experiences with a parent, our students may never have been directly taught these essential pre-art skills. It’s no wonder they struggle when these tasks are integrated into a larger project!
Wendy advises art teachers to plan to explicitly teach these embedded skills to their young students. She also emphasized it will take repetition and reinforcement before kids achieve mastery. So, front load direct instruction of these skills into your lesson plans…meet the challenge head-on.
If you’re looking for even more ideas, be sure to check out the Building Foundational Skills PRO Learning Pack. You’ll learn how to best plan for, organize, and deliver foundational skills experiences and master best practices for scaffolding skills and techniques in lesson planning.
Parents everywhere seem to be concerned about academic readiness for kindergarten. Why not extend the definition of academic readiness to include pre-art skills? Talk to your administration about the possibility of providing information during the kindergarten registration process. Many families are seeking advice to prepare their students. Consider giving a brief speech or adding a blurb to an existing district handout.
Our young artists might be entering our classrooms with different skills, but they are still deserving of the best that art education has to offer. As art teachers, we want to get to the big concepts that make our content so powerfully important. But, sometimes we have to slow down along the way to teach those missing foundational skills that allow our students to demonstrate the big concepts in the first place. For more great strategies to improve “art readiness skills,” open a dialog with your district’s occupational therapist!
What “art readiness” skills do you find your youngest students are lacking?
What strategies do you use to improve these skills?