By Timothy W. Curby, PhD (George Mason University) and Abby G. Carlson, PhD (AppleTree Institute for Education Innovation)
When it comes to achievement, many people are surprised to learn that a robust predictor is fine motor skills. This is an association that was first popularized by Grissmer, Grimm, Ayer, Murrah, and Steele (2010), who found early fine motor skills in kindergarten were a predictor for reading and math achievement during elementary school. Other fields (e.g., optometry, special education) have noted a motor-achievement association as well. This association has been found with samples that extend beyond elementary school, to eighth grade (Carlson, 2013) and beyond (Carlson, Row, & Curby, 2013) and for students with developmental disabilities (Kim, Carlson, Curby, & Winsler, 2014). The benefit of fine motor skills has also been seen as early as preschool (Kim et al., 2014).
Why might this be?
There are several explanations for why fine motor skills might predict achievement: common neuronal wiring, experience-dependent learning, and the direct classroom benefit. In terms of neuronal wiring, there are some areas in the brain (e.g., pre-frontal cortex) that are involved in both the processing of motor information and cognitive tasks. In this way, children who have greater motor abilities also tend to have better achievement, the hypothesis being that stronger motor skills early in life strengthen the neural connections that also assist children in many academic tasks. This link seems to be particularly strong when it comes to math.
Experientially, there is research that supports the link between cognition and motor abilities (Adolph, 2005; Campos et al., 2000). Children who have more and more well-developed motor abilities at a young age—albeit not necessarily fine motor abilities—are able to navigate and manipulate their environments, as well as gaining a greater range of experiences earlier in life, all of which set the stage for greater academics. Early movement is largely involuntarily, but as children learn to master and control these movements, they are strengthening the neural networks that also support cognitive performance. The more motor skills children develop, the more motor experiences they are able to have, and the better-prepared they will be cognitively for their later academic careers.
An additional academic benefit of strong, early fine motor skills is the direct benefit in the classroom. Children use fine motor skills in schools when they write and draw (and a lot of early learning involves writing and drawing). Children who are more comfortable doing these things will have more resources free to focus on classroom lessons. It is much easier to learn your letters and numbers if you don’t have to devote effort to the process of writing those letters and numbers down.
So, is it actual motor skills themselves that predict?
This is where things get very interesting. There are two closely related tasks that allow fine motor skills to be parsed into the actual small muscle movements and the visual-spatial skills that are integrated with those muscle movements. In one task, the person is asked to trace a design. This gets at the person’s actual small motor movements. In the other task, a person is asked to look at a design and copy it onto a different sheet of paper. This requires something more complicated than simply tracing the figure. The person must take in the visual and spatial information of that design—how it appears and how it is oriented on the page—and then integrate that information with small muscle movements to recreate the design. Some research has been conducted that uses both tasks and thus can help determine which task is more strongly related (Carlson et al., 2013). Consistent with the authors’ hypotheses, it was the copying task, not the tracing task, that drove the relations to achievement suggesting it is the visual-spatial integration element of fine motor skills that matters for achievement.
How could these findings be used?
Intervention work has been conducted that focuses on improving fine motor skills as a way to boost children’s achievement (Murrah, 2013). In this work, the researchers incorporated a number of tasks that required fine motor movements (e.g., beads, Legos) into an after-school program for disadvantaged children four days per week. Their results were encouraging in that these activities use everyday materials. This is exciting work because it could allow educators to deliver targeted interventions to children focusing on their fine motor skills. Evidence suggests that these types of interventions should focus on developing and improving children’s visual-spatial integration skills to have the greatest impact.
Additionally, with more research into which areas of academics see the most benefits from enhanced fine motor skills, such interventions could become even more specific. If fine motor skills have the greatest impact on math achievement, then children struggling with early math skills may benefit from a fine motor intervention. These findings also suggest that early childhood programs that incorporate fine motor skill development may be setting their children up for longer-term academic success.
Adolph, K. E. (2005). Learning to learn in the development of action. In J. J. Rieser, J. J. Lockman, & C. A. Nelson (Eds.), Action as an organizer of learning and development (pp. 91-122). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Campos, J. J., Anderson, D. I., Barbu-Roth, M. A., Hubbard, E. M., Hertenstein, M. J., & Witherington, D. (2000). Travel broadens the mind. Infancy, 1, 149-219. doi:10.1207/S15327078IN0102_1
Carlson, A. G. (2013). Kindergarten fine motor skills and executive function: Two non-academic predictors of academic achievement. Dissertation, George Mason University. http://gradworks.umi.com/35/65/3565310.html
Carlson, A. G., Rowe, E., & Curby, T. W. (2013). Disentangling fine motor skills’ relation to academic achievement: The relative contributions of visual-spatial integration and visual-motor coordination. Journal of Genetic Psychology, 174, 514-533.
Kim, H., Carlson, A. G., Curby, T. W., & Winsler, A. (2014). Relations between motor, social, and cognitive skills in young children with developmental disabilities. Manuscript in preparation.
Grissmer, D. W., Grimm, K. J., Aiyer, S. M., Murrah, W. M., & Steele, J. S. (2010). Fine motor skills and early comprehension of the world: Two new school readiness indicators. Developmental Psychology, 46, 1008-17. doi: 10.1037/a0020104
Murrah, W. (chair) (2013). The evolution and evaluation of a play-based, after-school curriculum that improves executive function, visuo-spatial and math skills for disadvantaged children. Paper symposium at the Fall Meeting of the Society for Research on Educational Effectiveness.