Why early years children are hitting the dough gym

7th July 2016 at 17:00
To help its early years pupils develop the core muscles needed to write, one primary has embraced playdough as a training aid

Tim Barber is assistant head at St Thomas More’s Catholic Primary School and leading foundation stage practitioner for Hampshire County Council

“Push, chop, pinch, roll, yeehaw...!”

If you walk into our early years unit at the beginning of the morning, you shouldn’t be at all surprised if you hear the teachers and children saying these words while partaking in some unusual actions. We have good reason for such behaviour.

Each year, more and more children come into Reception not being able to hold a pencil because they have not yet developed the appropriate upper body strength. It is impossible for children to learn to hold a pencil without first strengthening muscles in the back, shoulders, arms, elbows, wrists and hands. On the journey to become confident mark makers, children also need to develop shoulder, elbow and wrist pivots.

Despite these difficulties, and the fact that learning to hold a pencil and use it to form recognisable letters is an incredibly difficult skill that all children will develop at their own rates, and in their own ways, teachers are under increased pressure to raise outcomes in writing at the end of early years.

To find a solution, we embarked on an action research project trialling a new intervention called Dough Gym, designed by early years consultant Alistair Bryce-Clegg. Its aim is to strengthen and develop children’s fine and gross motor dexterity, balance and hand-eye co-ordination. We were so impressed, we have now adopted it full-time.

We assess children’s fine and gross motor dexterity together with pencil grip on entry to Reception. Children who require further development are encouraged to join our Dough Gym, a physical daily intervention that is fun, engaging and highly kinaesthetic.

In our setting, children take part in Dough Gym in groups of approximately six. They stand around the table and are led by a teacher. Each child is given a large piece of playdough: the heavier the dough, the greater the resistance.

The teacher first reminds the children that Dough Gym helps them to build up muscles so that they are able to hold a pencil correctly and with ease. Then, as an upbeat track begins to play on the iPod, the teacher starts to model and call out instructions for the children to follow. The children are reminded to keep their backs straight and their feet shoulder width apart. They then copy a series of different moves. Each move supports a different area of development, from shoulder pivot to pincer grip.

The children enjoy all the moves, but they are particularly engaged in three of them, which are all designed for children to work their upper body:

  • In the around the world move, children are told to hold the dough with both hands high above their heads. They are reminded not to bend their elbows as they move their dough around in a circle.
  • They also enjoy pretending to be cowboys and cowgirls when they do a move that is fondly known as the lasso. The playdough is put to one side for this move. The children begin with one arm out straight, as they bend their elbow and make a fist with their hand, they pretend they are holding a lasso. To complete the move, they rotate their wrist and shout “Yeehaw”.
  • Milk the cow is another highly engaging move that the children love. The dough is placed to one side, and the children are encouraged to make fists with their hands and stretch both arms out in front of them. The children move their arms out in front of them as they milk the cow.

Parents often find it difficult to see the link between muscle development and early mark making. To address this, we invited parents to come along to a family learning workshop so that we could share our pedagogy and provide them with ideas for how to support their child at home on their journey to becoming a confident mark maker.

Whether those parents now “Yeehaw” at home alongside their children, we couldn’t possibly comment.

This is an article from the 8 July edition of TES. This week's TES magazine is available in all good newsagents. To subscribe, click here. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here.

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