Ocular motor skills refer to a person's ability to control the movement of the eyes so that visual information can be transmitted to the brain and translated into commands for the rest of the body. Children develop ocular motor skills as soon as they are able to open their eyes, but most ocular motor skills are exercised during reading and writing activities later in life. Problems with ocular motor skills can lead to impaired vision, chronic headaches and difficulty reading.
Ocular motor skills require the coordination of several parts of the eye to focus on visual targets and transmit the image to the brain for interpretation. Each sclera, the white outer surface of the eye, is attached to a set of three nerves and a system of six small muscles. The muscles control the movement of the eyes, usually in response to a message from the brain to focus in on a particular object.
The muscles and nerves of the eye work to establish gaze stabilization or hold the eye still during head movement, and gaze shifting or following a moving objects with the eyes. Because eye movement is control by muscles, infants and children my practice using the muscles before gaining complete control of them, much like other musculoskeletal systems in the body.
Accurate, controlled eye movement contributes to a child's ability to see and follow objects. Early in development, ocular motor skills contribute to the development of key eye-hand coordination; a child's ability to visually select and grasp objects is a key motor skill that is essential for developing more complicated movements like holding a cup or a writing with a pencil.
Ocular motor skills facilitate key functional skills developed in childhood, especially reading. A child's ability to efficiently scan a page of text in the correct direction while focusing on each word individually in order requires a complex coordination between the eyes and central nervous system in order for the child to interpret and retain the information.
After birth, an infant's vision is limited to objects close to the face; infants are not able to distinguish between two like objects that are near to one another, like two hands or a pair of matching balls. Within the first two to four months of infancy, a child should be able to coordinate the movement of both eyes together so that each eye follows objects at the same time. Depth perception or the ability to judge an object's distance from the body is usually developing after six months of age; during this phase of ocular development, infants begin to experience the world as a three-dimensional space.
Grasping motions as the result of eye-hand coordination are developed by nine months, and babies at this age should be able to follow an object with their eyes when it is held in front of them. By two years old, most ocular motor skills should be well developed.
Poor development of ocular motor skills usually manifests as an inability to follow moving objects or uncoordinated eyes movements that result in a wandering or crossed eye. In additional to increased likelihood of impaired or blurry vision, poor development of ocular motor skills is a major contributing factor to reading and writing difficulties in school aged children. Students diagnosed with learning disabilities often exhibit symptoms of decreased ocular motor skill function which contribute to delayed reading speed and difficulty moving from word to word.
Activities to stimulate ocular motor skill development in children promote development of eye movement control and help children develop control of their gaze. Practice gaze control with an infant by slowly moving objects in front of her face; younger children may have shifting or switching gazing but older children will focus on the object as it moves into and out of view. Support the development of visual memory through games of hide and seek with objects of images.
For older children, present them with a visual pattern of shapes or numbers and then remove the visual image; ask children to repeat or draw the image they saw. Games that involve visual cues and focused attention develop ocular motor skills for children at all stages of development.