This is the second in a series of articles about the kinds of problems addressed by pediatric occupational therapists. The ability to use the eyes and hands together in a coordinated way is the foundation for many skills children need to be successful. It is an integral part of learning to play with toys, gaining independence with self-care skills such as eating and dressing, and using tools such as pencils, zippers, rulers, and computers. If these important skills do not develop as they should, a child may have difficulty learning and being independent with self-care.
From an early age, babies use their eyes together with their hands to learn about and interact with the world. First, they become aware of faces and familiar objects in their field of vision. They spend time looking at their hands and then bringing them together at their midline, which in turn helps their eyes learn to work together. At the same time, motor skills are developing, initially in a random manner, such as batting at a mobile, and gradually becoming more controlled. At the same time, their vision improves, and they have the skill and the motivation to successfully reach for and grasp objects and explore them with their hands. Through trial and error and lots of practice, babies learn to accurately reach for toys and objects and then to shape the hand appropriately to accurately grasp a desired item. Their vision is the primary sensory system (along with their hearing) which impels them to explore with their hands and thus develop eye-hand coordination skills.
During the preschool years, in addition to playing with more complex toys, children learn tasks such as putting things into containers and taking them out, working with shape sorters, and stacking blocks. They also learn self-care skills such as dressing, brushing hair and teeth, and eating with a fork and spoon. These all require eye-hand coordination for success. The eyes must give precise information to the hands about how far to reach to a container, how to match the shape in the shape sorter, and how to place the next block precisely on top of a stack of blocks. Children also use eye-hand coordination for learning ball skills such as throwing and catching, and eye-foot coordination for learning to kick a ball. They must use precise timing to reach out and catch a moving ball or kick a ball as it rolls toward them.
The need for developing eye-hand coordination skills increases during the school years. Eye-hand coordination is an important part of learning to read and write. For reading, the eyes need to be able to work together to move across the page smoothly in all directions. They need to be able to focus clearly, as well as efficiently shift focus from close to far away. For writing, the eyes need to be able to coordinate with the hands to produce written output that matches what the child is seeing.
If children are having trouble with eye-hand coordination skills from an early age, then even simple tasks such as playing with toys will be less enjoyable. They may avoid playing or stay with the play activities that are easiest for them and thus miss out on the practice that would help them refine their skills. They may also avoid learning self-care skills, which makes them overly dependent on adults and less confident about their ability to function independently. Sports and games involving ball skills will be more difficult. Struggling with the mechanics of writing can dampen a child’s enthusiasm for self-expression and hinder the ability to fully demonstrate capabilities.
If your child is having trouble with eye-hand coordination, there is help available. Sometimes a child needs to learn how to develop specific skills; other times a child needs to find strategies to compensate. A pediatric occupational therapist can help you figure out the source of the problem and give you suggestions that will help. Therapy will provide the child with a super-charged path to building skills and increasing independence and confidence.