Experts have seen six-year-olds with the handwriting ability of typical two-year-olds as kids spend less time using pencils and more time on computers.
An increasing number of Kiwi kids are struggling to hold and use pencils properly, and experts say touchscreen technology is partly to blame.
Children are arriving at school with under-developed hand muscles because they have not practiced their finger grip at home as much as previous generations.
"Children are definitely finding it harder to hold a pencil because they're using electronic devices more and more," occupational therapist Fiona Lilley says.
Lilley, who has worked in the field for 25 years, has noticed an increasing number of children presenting with more pronounced handwriting problems in the past five years. She says the issue will only escalate as young children get more access to technology.
"In five years it will come back and bite us, and all of a sudden teachers will realise kids can't write."
Pediatric therapist Jenny Andrew has also seen a marked increase in children with poor fine motor skills. "They are having more and more difficulty understanding how to hold tools – that includes pencils – but other tools like scissors too.
"One of the first movements toddlers seem to learn is how to swipe their thumbs across a screen, and of course this doesn't strengthen the index finger, which is incredibly important when it comes to controlling a pencil."
Andrew says she has worked with six-year-olds who hold their pencil with a fist and their thumb pointed towards the page, "how a typical two-year-old first holds a crayon," because they haven't developed the skill to hold a pencil in a tripod grip, using the thumb, index and middle finger.
Teachers told Stuff that kids' handwriting had definitely worsened in the past decade. With some schools adopting iPads for almost every aspect of learning, they worried that important pathways in the brain would remain underdeveloped.
Meanwhile, parents said they had noticed their own handwriting had deteriorated in recent years as they used pens less often.
"Parents should be teaching their kids how to hold a pencil before they go to school, and kids should be able to write their name and form most letters when they start school," says primary school teacher Antony Paine.
The Auckland-based year 5/6 teacher says that while parents used to put a focus on getting their children familiar with pencils before starting school, technology in the home has changed that.
Andrew says she commonly sees children who have illegible writing, an inability to write on the line, are oblivious to what the line is for and aching, sore hands because their grip is too tight.
A lack of core strength is also impacting their handwriting, she says.
"Children are having much more difficulty holding a pencil because they don't even have the core strength to sit on a chair," she says. "They need to lean on both arms to hold themselves up and some children even fall off their classroom chairs.
"We're not encouraging kids to be physical human beings. They spend too much time indoors watching TV and sitting on computers and don't get enough physical exploration play."
Last year 80 per cent of the children Andrew treated lacked the strength to sit on a chair properly.