Young children with better eye-to-hand coordination are more likely to achieve higher scores for reading, writing and maths, according to new research.
Academics say the findings suggest that "clumsy" children should be identified and given extra support by schools.
Just over 300 children aged 4 to 11 at one primary school took part in computer tasks to measure their coordination and interceptive timing – their ability to interact with a moving object.
The research, carried out by Leeds University academics at Lilycroft Primary School, in Bradford, found a link between motor skills and academic achievement.
Prof Mark Mon-Williams, who supervised the research, said: “The results show that eye-to-hand coordination and interceptive timing are robust predictors of how well young children will perform at school.”
Lilycroft Primary is now encouraging children to continue playing with construction equipment toys up to the age of 9 to help them continue to develop their motor skills.
Pupils’ eye-to-hand coordination was measured with tasks involving steering, taking aim and tracking objects on a computer screen.
In an “interceptive timing” task, the children had to hit a moving object with an on-screen bat.
Researchers say this taps into a fundamental cognitive ability – how the brain predicts the movement of objects through time and space.
Higher academic attainment
After controlling for age, the results revealed that the children who did better at the eye-to-hand coordination tasks tended to have higher academic attainment in reading, writing and maths.
Those with the best performance at the "steering task", in particular, were on average nine months ahead of classmates who struggled.
However, the researchers found that while the children’s interceptive timing skills tended to predict their attainment in mathematics, they did not influence reading and writing development.
The researchers highlight a theory first proposed by Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget in the 1960s that the way the brain predicts the movement of objects may have provided the foundations for the emergence of the cognitive abilities needed to do maths.
Prof Mon-Williams said: “The current thinking among psychologists is that the neural circuitry used to build up a child’s understanding of their external environment, the way they orientate themselves spatially and understand their world, is also used to process numbers and more abstract thinking.
“It also raises the question: should schools be identifying those children who are seen as clumsy or not so well coordinated and giving them extra support?
“The study identifies the important relationship between a child’s ability to physically interact with their environment and their cognitive development, those skills needed by the child to think about and understand the world around them.”
Lilycroft Primary has now remodelled its Reception, indoor and outdoor areas to include a space where children can develop their motor skills and use their large muscle groups to coordinate movement.
Headteacher Nicola Roth said: “As a school, we decided to harness the research findings. We have decided that our pupils should be encouraged to develop motor skill and eye-to-hand coordination throughout their time at the school.
“Playing with construction equipment toys used to stop when children reached the ages of 5 or 6 but we have decided to continue with that until they are 9. This is one of the ways we have implemented the findings: it is a simple step that can have significant benefits for the children’s wider education.”
The study is published in the peer-review journal Psychological Science. The research was funded by the Medical Research Council and the Economic and Social Research Council.
It was conducted as part of the Born in Bradford project, a large study examining the health and wellbeing of 13,500 children born in the city.
Bradford has high levels of deprivation and higher than average rates of childhood illness.