Motor skills gap hampers young children's learning

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A growing body of evidence suggests that there is a rise in the number of children starting school with immature motor skills, which is hindering their ability to learn, a leading neuroscientist has claimed.


Sally Goddard Blythe, director of the Institute for Neuro-Physiological Psychology, told Nursery World, 'There are children who are five-year-olds on the outside but three-year-olds in terms of their motor skills.'

Recent research in Germany found that more than half of seven- and eight-year-olds in a group of 164 primary school children showed traces of residual primitive reflexes. This was in line with the findings of other small-scale studies, in Northumberland in 2006 and Northern Ireland in 2004, she said.

'There are some children who have developmental delay for underlying neural reasons and they should be treated and supported, but there are another group of children who for no reason do not seem to be developing as they should.'

She added, 'Although numbers involved in individual studies are fairly small, all reveal a consistent pattern of increased signs of neuro-motor immaturity, generally with higher incidence in children who are under-achieving or receiving support for language, learning or behavioural problems.'

Ms Goddard Blythe is calling for a screening test and a movement programme, which she said 'could save millions in the long-term' and would be relatively inexpensive to introduce.

'We don't actually know now the number of children who start school with immature motor skills,' she said.

She pointed to the success of a pilot for reception children in North Tyneside on a movement programme, which had helped those with immature motor skills to develop better balance, control and co-ordination and led to an improvement in their concentration, self-esteem and confidence.

Dame Clare Tickell's recommendation in the EYFS review for an early years development check was a step forward, said Ms Goddard Blythe, but it would need to be 'vigorous' and include checks on children's gross and fine motor skills, speech, hearing and vision.

Children who still have baby reflexes at the age of five and older would have underdeveloped balance and co-ordination, which was likely to affect their ability to sit still, their hand-eye co-ordination for writing and their postural control for reading.

Ms Goddard Blythe suggested that this could be for reasons such as babies not getting 'enough tummy time to help them develop their upper body strength'.

'In children who have problems with reading and writing and general co-ordination, there is a higher incidence of not crawling and creeping.'

She added that children who spent too much time in baby seats, rather than being carried, were not able to change their position and move their bodies enough to develop their reflexes and motor skills.

'Every parent needs to know the importance of movement to children's development,' she said. 'We're in danger of turning our babies into couch potatoes.'


  • (2010) Germany : 164 children in primary schools, 50-60 per cent of sevento eight-year-olds. In a class of children with speech and language problems, 100 per cent.
  • (2006) Northumberland: 64 children in three primary schools: 40 per cent of fourto six-year-olds and 88.5 per cent of seven-to eight-year-olds
  • (2004) Northern Ireland: 672 in six primary schools: 48 per cent of four to five-year-olds and 35 per cent of eightto nine-year-olds
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