Clumsiness is a sign of a vision problem

Girl climbing over barrelsMany clumsy children don’t have awkward bodies at all. Their problem is in their vision or perception.Vision is not the same thing as eyesight. Vision is really perception, and it is quite possible to have perfect eyesight but distorted perception.

Think of it this way: if children’s eyes don’t work well as team, they may bump into things. The child can see they object but doesn’t know she is in relation to the object. Difficulties in catching or kicking a ball may be caused by not knowing where the ball is in relation to her hands or feet.

The good news is that the underlying visual problems can often be easily identified and treated.

What does vision have to do with coordination?
In one word, EVERYTHING! Eyesight and vision are not the same thing. Eyesight is in the eyes, which determine how clearly we can see something.

Vision is in the brain, which tells us where something is positioned. Vision helps us figure out how to move our bodies in space. Hand-eye coordination is not an inborn talent; it is a skill. Vision, too, is a skill, and skills are trainable. Children develop their visual skills naturally when they play and explore the real world.

Unfortunately, many modern conveniences prevent children from exploring the world around them, so they don’t develop skill at moving in and perceiving the real, three-dimensional world. Babies today often live in buckets, such as car seats, strollers, and swings. Newborn humans have eyes, but their immature visual systems aren’t really able to focus well or direct their gazes voluntarily.

When babies begin to see and notice things, they get excited and begin to move their arms and legs because they have not yet developed motor control. Often, their excitement turns to frustration and fussiness because they want to see and explore, but they don’t yet have the physical maturity to hold their heads steady and upright.

Our response is to prop up the baby, which decreases their frustration, as well as their inner drive to master their bodies and the environment. When a baby learns to direct a spoonful of food to his mouth, visual learning is taking place. While he may seem clumsy or messy, in reality he just hasn’t yet mastered those brain-based, visual skills.

Think about what is involved in learning to feed one’s self without starving or creating a mess. Visual knowing requires babies to:

  • Know where the mouth is;
  • Know where the spoon or food is; and
  • Learn how to negotiate the space between those two things.

A baby’s visual brain directs these movements. As he develops skill, he becomes more accurate and precise in his movements.

Before the baby knows exactly where his mouth is, we get a lot of oatmeal seemingly everywhere but the mouth. That’s because the baby knows APPROXIMATELY where the mouth and spoon are. But it takes trial and error before he knows EXACTLY. After that, spoon to mouth becomes automatic.

Children with perceptual problems often just have a calibration error — things aren’t where they seem to be. That’s why they can’t quite catch the ball, or they bump into things or trip. For them, negotiating the terrain and objects around them is a little hazardous and unpredictable. They must always exercise caution, which is stressful and inefficient. They lose confidence when they compare themselves with other kids who seem to do things more easily. Practice doesn’t help much because they must PERCEIVE correctly before they can practice correctly.

Why aren’t common vision problems recognized and treated more often?
We are born with a mouth but cannot talk, with feet but cannot walk, and with eyes but cannot see. It takes a year or two to master these skills. If a child doesn’t learn to walk or talk at the expected age, parents will notice and intervene. Bu if the child has normal eyesight but poor vision, parents must learn to spot clues, such as clumsiness.

About one in four school age children has undiagnosed vision problems that affect their performance in school and in life. A recent study concluded that clumsy children (even those of normal weight) are up to four times more likely to suffer from adult obesity. Clumsiness is a clue. Please don’t ignore it.

More information
For more information about detecting and dealing with visual problems in children, you can visit the Parents Active for Vision Education (PAVE) website It’s never too late or too early to help children help themselves., Theresa Nesbitt and her publications provide general information on health and wellness. This general information is not a substitute for health advice and medical care from physicians who know you. Please talk to them before making significant changes in your lifestyle. Complete Terms of Use and Disclaimers