From an infant discovering her hands to a toddler feeding herself with a fork, children’s hand-eye coordination steadily develops during the first years of life.
How does hand-eye coordination work, why is it so important, and what other areas of development support it?
How does hand-eye coordination work, and why is it important?
Hand-eye coordination encompasses the lightning-fast communication between the eyes, brain and body that allows us to effectively and efficiently use our hands based on what we see. The process involves three steps:
- The eyes identify details that are relevant to a task: At snack time a teacher opens a drawer and asks a toddler to get a spoon. The toddler scans the drawer’s compartments to find the spoons.
- The brain processes what the eyes see, and sends instructions to the body to pick up a spoon.
- The hands follow the brain’s instructions: The toddler reaches into the drawer, grasps a spoon, and pulls it out.
For little ones, hand-eye coordination develops as they learn to grasp, build, complete puzzles, feed themselves, throw, catch and kick balls, draw…and the list goes on. Eventually they’ll rely on it for handwriting — and even reading, because hand-eye coordination strengthens the visual tracking skills they’ll need to scan and follow lines of text.
Effective hand-eye coordination may also be related to success in other areas. This research, for example, drew a strong link between hand-eye coordination, learning abilities, and communication. Another study, focusing on children from pre-school to elementary school, discovered a correlation between better hand-eye coordination and superior reading, writing and math skills. So when you’re playing games with your child that involve hand-eye coordination, you may also be setting her up for effective learning and communication, as well as eventually succeeding in basic academic tasks.
What are the building blocks of hand-eye coordination?
Hand-eye coordination involves several other areas of development. Let’s take a look by going back to the toddler who’s teacher asked her to get a spoon from the utensils drawer:
- The vestibular system helps her maintain balance and coordinate her head and eye movements so she can focus on the contents of the drawer.
- Visual tracking allows her to scan the contents of the drawer.
- Visual discrimination allows her to pay attention to detail so she can identify the spoons based on how they are different from other objects in the drawer.
- Proprioception provides an awareness of how to move her body parts, and the correct amount of force she’ll need to grasp and hold onto the spoon.
- Gross motor skills allow her to use the large muscles of her arm and shoulder to reach into the drawer.
- Fine motor skills allow her to use the small muscles of her wrists and fingers to grasp a spoon.
- Motor planning has taught her (starting in infancy when she grabbed a dangling toy for the first time) how to reach and grasp things automatically without having to remember the steps involved.
Whew, so hand-eye coordination is no small feat!
Because hand-eye coordination is tied to countless tasks (as well as learning, communicating, and mastering basic academic skills), it’s a good idea to check in with your pediatrician or a pediatric occupational therapist if: Your child is lagging behind on milestones related to hand-eye coordination, or she is consistently clumsy (beyond the normal fumbles of toddlerhood).