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Early drawing and building skills linked to enhanced education and behaviour in children

The study involved over 9,000 pre-school children who were assessed at ages 2, 3 and 4, and also had their behaviour across childhood and adolescence and GCSE results recorded.

photo of a child colouring

Fine motor skills in young children, which involve small muscles working with the brain and nervous system to control movements, are linked to better GCSE scores and fewer behavioural problems in childhood and adolescence, according to a new study from Birkbeck, University of London and the University of Surrey 

The authors suggest that pre-school fine motor skills, including drawing, folding paper and block building, may play an important role in the pathway between infancy and later educational and behavioural outcomes in primary and secondary school.  

The study showed that fine motor skills were associated with higher GCSE grades at age 16. Lower fine motor skills during the pre-school years were associated with more behavioural problems and more attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) symptoms during the primary and secondary school years. These links still held when socioeconomic factors, including parent qualifications and employment, were taken into account.   

Aislinn Bowler, PhD student in the School of Psychological Sciences at Birkbeck and first author of the study, commented: "I was surprised by the extent of the results we found. When I set out to do this study, I suspected that early fine motor skills might be important. I was startled to find that fine motor skills have such wide-ranging connections to later outcomes, extending not only into primary school age but into adolescence as well." 

Professor Angelica Ronald of the University of Surrey, the senior author of the study, said: "Activities that fall under fine motor skill development, such as block building and drawing, may often be perceived as simply 'play' by parents, caregivers and education providers. But, our study suggests that the development of fine motor skills is part of the pathway that leads to educational outcomes and behaviour later on. Parents are sometimes provided with free books for their young children; policymakers should consider supplementing books with blocks or drawing materials."  

The study involved over 9,000 pre-school children who were asked to draw, fold paper, and pile up blocks. These skills all require careful manipulation of objects with hands and are referred to as 'fine motor skills'. The children were assessed at ages 2, 3 and 4 to get a sense of their overall fine motor skills during the pre-school period.  

The children were then followed up through their childhood and adolescence as part of a longitudinal study, called the Twins Early Development Study. The children's GCSE results at age 16 were recorded, as well as their behaviour across childhood and adolescence, including traits relating to ADHD.   

In a further step, the authors worked with measures of genetic propensity for educational attainment and behaviour. These measures of genetic propensity are referred to as polygenic scores. These measures give an indication of a sum of the inherited predisposition for particular traits. Their study reported evidence that the genetic propensity for staying longer in education was associated with better early fine motor skills, and the inherited propensity for ADHD was associated with more challenges with pre-school fine motor skills. 

The authors are keen to note that further research is needed to ascertain the exact role that fine motor skills play in influencing children's later outcomes. If a causal role was discovered between fine motor skills and later outcomes, it would be important for this to influence public policy and the Government's Early Years Framework to ensure these were evidence-based.   

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