How Visual Motor Ability Develops

by | May 1, 2018

How Visual Motor Ability Develops

Visual motor ability is a developmentally acquired skill. One of, perhaps, hundreds of triggers for visual motor control occurs at the time that the infant begins to support their own head upright and against gravity.

The joint and muscle sensory receptors in the neck help trigger individuation of eye muscle control. As systems mature, the child learns to maintain their eyes securely fixed on an object while their body is in motion. The child also develops the skill of tracking a moving object when their own body is at rest.

Coordination Develops Early

Eye-hand coordination comes from the ability of the brain and body to work together at a very young age. Newborns begin to interact with their hands by bringing them to the mouth. Watch as they relax their arms in a splayed-out posture while lying on their backs. Then, with great effort, they lift their arms and overcome gravity to bring their hands to their mouth. Moving the arm and hand toward the midline, rather than splayed-out to the side, is a preliminary stage prior to the infant finding their own mouth.

When these stages fall into place during the first few weeks and months of life, eye-hand coordination begins.

From then on, refinement of judging the space between the hands and objects and judging space between their own body and objects motivates the infant to begin pre-crawling maneuvers. Learning about the arrangement of objects in space, crawling distances within that space, and the speed of mobility all enhance the child’s brain function.

Eventually, this information is committed to the automatic memory and is easily recalled to help visually search without having to move the body. You can, then, visually search the classroom to find your friend. You can judge the rhythm of a bounced ball. You can judge the distance of words on a page for reading.

Posture: Why Does It Matter?

Visual-motor control is profoundly impacted by the relationship between the body and the neck and the neck and the head.

That means that unique learners who have trouble with their vestibular (sense of balance) and proprioceptive (sense of their body’s movement) systems, are more likely to have difficulty with these relationships.

These unique learners may have a weak core and tend to hunch their shoulders forward. Try sitting this way for a moment. Stare down at your desk and round your shoulders and back so they are collapsing inward.

Look at a spot on your desk. Now, without moving your body, move your head up so you are looking at the upper section of a wall. Then look down again. This movement up and down increases the strain on the visual motor system as you must focus and refocus. Notice how extreme this feels as you must move your head way up to see the wall.

This is how many unique learners experience copying something off the board. It is exhausting.

Another way the visual motor system may operate poorly is when the eyes don’t track without moving the head. A student who struggles with copying work from a book to printing may have this problem. It also may be the underlying problem in some math challenges.

Visual-Motor Coordination – The School Connection

In addition to math challenges, a problem with visual motor coordination can cause issues with reading. Both reading and math require the ability to judge the space between letters or numbers, as well as the space that separates a set of letters or numbers. Because reading is used in every subject, what looks like academic problems with every subject may come down to issues with visual-motor coordination.

If your child or student is struggling with printing or writing, don’t assume that they aren’t trying hard enough. The problem may well lie in their visual-motor coordination.

Remember, having sight is not the same as having visual-motor coordination. Though there are multiple body systems that must function together to achieve legible printing, visual motor coordination is a fundamental building block. The ability to control hand movement through vision is what visual-motor coordination is all about.

Spatial Awareness

Spatial awareness is an important by-product of visual-motor coordination. Spatial awareness allows us to move our bodies through space. It allows us to form a mental map prior to executing our movement. Whether the movement is driving our car or moving our limbs in space, spatial awareness is required to perform these actions in an efficient manner.

Because spatial relationships are so important to learn how to read, write and do mathematics, working to improve your child’s understanding of spatial concepts is time well spent. The following strategies not only teach spatial awareness through the actual experience of the concepts but also improve posture and visual-motor coordination.

Strategies to Try

Postural Exercises – Airplanes and Cocoons

Cocoons and Airplanes are excellent trunk strengthening exercises and will improve posture.

Cocoons are performed by having the child lie on their back and asking them to bring their knees up to the chest and hug the knees with their arms tightly. Have them raise their head so their nose is going toward their knees. Try to hold this position for a count of 10. Repeat 10 times.

An airplane is performed by lying on the tummy and raising the legs, arms, and head up off the floor. This airplane position, with head lifted above the floor, involves neck muscles that are necessary for good head control and for good visual control. Hold for a count of 10. Repeat 10 times.

Visual Motor Exercises

Visual-motor tracking is the method in which the small eye muscles coordinate together in order to view a target. The target can be either still or moving. Effortless reading requires that the eyes move together but independent from the head and neck.

Ball Catch

Repeatedly bouncing and catching a ball can assist visual-motor coordination. Timing the exact moment you catch the ball with another action adds a level of complexity that promotes enough effort to really engage the whole brain.

Unique learners who struggle with visual motor coordination may also be quite clumsy. Starting with a ball that is larger will help the child be successful in the beginning. Then as they improve, you can use a smaller ball to continue challenging them.


Try saying each letter of the alphabet at either the exact moment you catch the ball or the exact moment it bounces on the ground.

  • Repeat the alphabet backward. Start over if you make a mistake.
  • Bounce and clap
  • Bounce while balancing on one foot
  • Bounce and stomp your feet

Visual Games

Visual pencil and paper games are important to develop visual tracking. Examples of visual tracking activities include, find the hidden picture, connect-the-dots and word scrambles.

Spaghetti Vision is a visual exercise that is simple to use but helps develop visual tracking. You can download the exercise HERE.

Have your child put their pencil at the beginning of a squiggly line. They should then follow the line without picking up their pencil.

Spatial Awareness Exercises

  • Spatial awareness is created through correct sensory processing. Here are three fun activities that you can do with your child or student to improve their sensory processing abilities.
  • Building 3-D structures – 3-D structures can be built from Legos, blocks, or any other object that can be stacked or connected together. Try varying the size of the building materials as well as the building project. In other words, Legos could be used to create a small house while large blocks could be used to build a tall tower.
  • Airplane models – Building models requires the development of two spatial reasoning abilities. The first is a crossover skill with building the 3-D structures. In this skill, the child is referencing pictures to build the structure. This is as true for model kits as it is for building blocks. The second is related but extends the need for spatial awareness one step further. Not only must the child look with their eyes to see and copy the picture, they also must use their hands to maneuver the model into the right position. If you have ever assembled a piece of furniture out of the box, you know that finding B to insert into C can involve turning and rotating the item until it matches the picture in the directions.
  • Board games – Games such as Chutes and Ladders for young children, Risk, and Puerto Rico for 10-12 years old and up can help build spatial awareness.


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