Why? In our first years of life are we encouraged, and we ourselves desire, to learn of things beyond our skin barrier using touch, especially through our hands, attached as they are to the extremities of two highly mobile limbs, each hand with four fingers and an opposing thumb, 27 bones, 17 intrinsic muscles, 18 extrinsic muscles originating in the forearm, specialised nerve endings (including Merkel’s discs, Pacinian, Meissner’s and Ruffini’s corpuscles and hair follicle receptor lanceolate endings) which detect light or deep pressure, position, vibration, shapes, edges—hands that are trained to grasp, squeeze, pinch, pat, poke, point, that can stroke a polished surface of marble or plaster or a young baby’s skin and on that smoothness feel the merest rough patch of, say, a tiny grain of salt. Yet by the time a child in our culture is about seven years of age, her hands are already semi-retired. Why?
By age seven, our hands are being used much less for exploration and understanding of surrounding. Fingertips are instead focused on keyboard, touch pad and screen. Online learning is encouraged by Government and schools, and in leisure time there is a breadth of play apps to download and use digitally. Great technology, brilliant stuff.
The compromise with screen learning, however, is less use of the hands to sensorily manipulate, understand, know and remember the world within which we move and live. Without this training the concrete, literal and 3D-ness of shape and texture, hardness or softness cannot be so easily conveyed to our minds. The conceptualisation of dimensions, as well as weight (mass) and density (weight relative to volume), is a sophisticated and difficult process. It must be learned and practised. I think it is best done by moving and touching our bodies with, against, to, and from objects in the external environment: by ‘play’. Last week (Corpus, September 5th) I wrote of the ‘wild play’ that I believe the great anatomist John Hunter engaged in as a child, and how this trained his hands, and subsequently his mind, to sharply observe differences (comparative anatomy) and abstractly conceive form, thus nurturing his future vocation as a surgeon with exceptional dissection skills.
If children don’t have access to such wild play, then we should at least ensure their hands train their mind through activities such as preparing food, model-making, tying knots, card games, sewing and drawing. But the only food prep a child might do is the ripping open of a pre-prepared food packet and/or the pouring over of water from a jug. The only model a child might construct is a virtual one, using primarily fingertip manipulation. The only cards a child might shuffle are those on a screen game. The only knot a child might practise tying is a shoelace, but even that has largely been supplanted by Velcro. Maybe a child can practise the pincer grip by pegging washing on the line, but many families use dryers instead of lines. Early drawing skills are usually abandoned in primary school, when the child realises that the drawings do not look ‘real’ and doesn’t know how to remedy this.
Perhaps practising those skills doesn’t matter because muscle strength and fine motor control development can be supported using the tri-finger grip when hand writing. But teacher directives no longer include helping a child learn to hold a pencil/pen that way. Children may choose to fist or otherwise grasp the pen, and anyway soon move to keyboard writing. Can a child, growing up with a predominance of keyboard and screen-focused learning, develop sufficient fine motor skills and abstract conceptualisation of form by graduation from secondary school? If that young adult intends to study medicine, dentistry, physiotherapy (or any other discipline that is about the body or space), how can we support the development of these skills, to ensure that a student graduates as an effective observer and practitioner, and we as patients benefit by their use of such skills?
How? Through the act (not art) of drawing. The art of drawing is what makes a work extraordinary for its composition and expressive qualities like emotions and musicality. But the art of drawing can be developed later, after a person has first become skilled at the act of drawing. The act of drawing is the deliberate learning of foundation drawing steps, steps that have been neglected or forgotten by many teachers. These foundation steps train the eye, mind and hand to work together to describe form. The eye is taught to observe key landmarks on a body and calculate linear distance (height, width and depth) between those landmarks. The mind is taught to see complex masses first as simple shapes such as the cube, cylinder and sphere. The hand is taught to work as a scribe of what the eye sees and the mind abstracts, drawing outwards onto a surface beyond the body. Drawing this way is hard at first; it is frustrating to observe with a hand that makes clumsy marks, harshly revealing that the eye, mind and hand are poorly trained at judging distance and proportions of familiar objects. Improvement can seem daunting to students used to seeing objects impressively detailed on digital screens, objects that can be revolved, enlarged, diminished, sliced, cut, or added to simply by the click of a finger on a keyboard mouse.
I teach the act of drawing by a method where the eyes and hands learn to observe well. They then teach the mind what they are seeing, feeling and measuring. The mind learns to actively remember and conceptualise form, and then instructs the hand(s) to be the scribe. This three-way dialogue between the hands, eyes and mind is a powerful tool to hone and use. I am frequently astounded at the students’ progress and results.
Louisa Baillie: Dr Louisa Baillie’s primary interest is anatomy of the human form, from both scientific and artistic perspectives. Her study and teaching in Fine Arts, Humanities and Medical faculties, along with her observations and involvement (both governance and personal) with her own children’s learning and development, are compelling her to ask more ‘why’ questions, particularly concerning educational practice and outcomes. Louisa holds a PhD(Otago), DFA(Hons)(Otago), and BHSc(Otago)