Manual Control Age and Sex Differences in 4 to 11 Year Old Children

Publication authors

Ian Flatters, Liam J. B. Hill, Justin H. G. Williams, Sally E. Barber, Mark Mon-Williams


To what degree does being male or female influence the development of manual skills in pre-pubescent children? This question is important because of the emphasis placed on developing important new manual skills during this period of a child’s education (e.g. writing, drawing, using computers). We investigated age and sex-differences in the ability of 422 children to control a handheld stylus. A task battery deployed using tablet PC technology presented interactive visual targets on a computer screen whilst simultaneously recording participant’s objective kinematic responses, via their interactions with the on-screen stimuli using the handheld stylus. The battery required children use the stylus to: (i) make a series of aiming movements, (ii) trace a series of abstract shapes and (iii) track a moving object. The tasks were not familiar to the children, allowing measurement of a general ability that might be meaningfully labelled ‘manual control’, whilst minimising culturally determined differences in experience (as much as possible). A reliable interaction between sex and age was found on the aiming task, with girls’ movement times being faster than boys in younger age groups (e.g. 4–5 years) but with this pattern reversing in older children (10–11 years). The improved performance in older boys on the aiming task is consistent with prior evidence of a male advantage for gross-motor aiming tasks, which begins to emerge during adolescence. A small but reliable sex difference was found in tracing skill, with girls showing a slightly higher level of performance than boys irrespective of age. There were no reliable sex differences between boys and girls on the tracking task. Overall, the findings suggest that prepubescent girls are more likely to have superior manual control abilities for performing novel tasks. However, these small population differences do not suggest that the sexes require different educational support whilst developing their manual skills.