The development of perceptual motor skills allows children to obtain and understand sensory information and then respond appropriately using movement. These skills are critical for students’ learning outcomes — because all academics require the support of the body to do it, from reading to writing to math.
When discussing education, you cannot exclude participating in sports, engaging in socialization, and getting around school grounds. Skills such as writing were traditionally thought of as solely academic in nature, but in the last few decades more weight has been given to the motor skills also required to complete academic tasks, including gripping a pencil, turning pages, managing manipulatives, fastening paper clips, or just sitting in a chair over long periods of time.
Chaya Greenspan, Occupational Therapist and founder and CEO of Work n’ Play Inc., based in Teaneck, New Jersey, examines the benefits and shortfalls of virtual reality when used in perceptual motor interventions.
Perceptual Motor Skills and Academic Achievement
Educators and occupational therapists are collaborating more and more on increasing perceptual-motor skills for academic success. Studies have shown that students with better perceptual-motor skills are more coordinated, have better body awareness and enhanced self-image, and demonstrate increased participation in intellectual tasks.
Some studies use motor skills to predict academic success and obviously academic vulnerabilities. Motor skills are truly the beginning of learning, starting as a newborn learning to orient to objects of importance and learning basic cause and effect.
This is why gross motor skills enhance learning ability and academic success, and early intervention is critical. Gross motor skills and physical activity increase the physiological state of your body so your brain is in an optimal state for supporting learning. Studies have shown that pairing learning tasks with physical activity results in the growth of the neural pathways, which are essential for learning.
VR and Motor Learning
Occupational therapists such as Chaya Greenspan are using VR or virtual reality training to promote and enhance motor skills in youth. As long as the virtual reality training is grounded in the just-right perceptual-motor challenge, virtual reality training can promote the development of motor skills more naturally in a simulated environment than a real-world environment.
Some VR combine the use of technology for a controlled practice environment and the use of real-world objects for the most realistic simulations. Researchers argue that VR can actually be more effective in fostering motor skills than real-world simulations.
Virtual reality training for the development of perceptual motor skills can be highly effective due to its immersive and fully controlled scenarios which help children build confidence and practice skills in an environment guaranteeing success.
Virtual reality technology is effective when the subject feels that the goal is attainable and is using the natural movement patterns they use in day to day scenarios. This can be difficult to accomplish in traditional occupational therapy environments when trying to recreate complex tasks that require frequent practice without becoming overly tedious.
Virtual reality can immerse a patient in an alternate reality, which can help them develop and demonstrate proper perceptual motor skills in response to these virtual environments. It also helps with creating a stronger learning environment compared to traditional therapies, says Chaya Greenspan.
One of the most valuable aspects of virtual reality is that it can help users repeatedly practice the same set of skills and occupational therapists can then measure performance over time. Virtual reality allows users to speed up the task, complete more difficult or complex tasks, or isolate the perceptual-motion that is particularly challenging. Children generally react positively to virtual reality therapies because they are fun and — most importantly — an opportunity for success.
Occupational Therapy and Virtual Reality
VR can be used in a two dimensional or three-dimensional environment. Some gaming platforms, for example, have been specifically designed for rehabilitation treatments and can offer client-specific programs to enhance function in certain areas. These programs are costly and difficult to access for some. Other interactive VR devices have not been studied, and the outcomes of these treatment approaches vary widely.
One therapeutic gaming company, Timocco, is seeking to reach clients in need using affordable materials. It utilizes the webcam to track solid colored rounded objects essentially transforming objects into a virtual mouse. The participants can play many games using the movement pattern and body part that is in their target therapeutic challenge. Students can use this for movement homework without feeling burdened.
Occupational therapists must be cautious not to use virtual reality therapies in place of traditional therapies. Instead, it works to reach outcomes faster and more effectively through controlled practice opportunities. Automaticity and skill acquisition are achieved with high repetition in frequent short durations. That means, the more often you practice a skill in a variety of ways for brief practice sessions, the faster that skill becomes a natural part of your toolbox.
Virtual reality (VR) therapy is a great complement to traditional therapies but should not be used solely as a replacement for traditional occupational therapy. Why? Because assessing the needs of a patient and the true roadblocks to their function still requires a complex analysis factoring in real life that computers have not yet been able to keep up with.
The effectiveness of virtual reality training has been widely studied, however, the type of virtual reality therapy used can vary vastly, which makes it difficult to ascertain its effectiveness for each unique person.
Despite these issues, it is becoming more and more accepted over time that VR is a useful therapeutic modality for children. More research is to be done to determine what treatment outcomes should be, and randomized clinical trials are required to determine its efficacy against traditional techniques. It is clear that when motor skills are not developing according to the milestones, technology can help.
Helping with Motor Impairments
Virtual reality has been said to be effective in treating motor impairments. It provides patients with feedback about the position of their bodies and allows them real-time interaction with components in the VR space. It facilitates movement opportunities that would be otherwise unavailable outside of the virtual environment and without the assistance of the materials used.
The learning environment can be adapted and customized as needs change, which makes VR an excellent rehabilitative tool — it can accomplish outcomes which would normally be considered unfeasible in traditional therapies. VR has also been used for children who do not have adequate physical activity — which is becoming more and more common today, and which has been said to be a reason for the large decrease in perceptual motor skills among today’s youth.
Virtual Reality and Rehabilitation
Virtual reality can also be used effectively at home with relative ease. Therefore, rehabilitative therapies to be used at any time and anywhere. This benefits some participants — particularly children — who feel more comfortable in their own homes as opposed to an unfamiliar clinical setting, which can affect the accuracy of the therapies they receive in these unfamiliar locations.
There are low-cost virtual reality systems which can be used in the home which are interactive and can be run on a home computer. A 3D camera may be used to capture the user’s movements, such as Microsoft’s Kinect camera. The programs can be adjusted over time to ensure the therapy continues to be effective.
A review of VR in rehabilitation suggests that VR’s success is its ability to combine motivation, cognitive challenge, control of movement, and sensory feedback. These virtual reality systems are reported to be generally enjoyable from a patient’s points of view and are easy to implement and set up, according to Chaya Greenspan. Most importantly, the technology is well tolerated by children who reported feeling as though they were simply playing a computer game.
The future of Therapeutic VR
The use of virtual reality in perceptual motor interventions by occupational therapists is certainly promising: it is easy to use (in many cases) and well-tolerated by patients. Initial studies have reported promising results as well, leading to an increase in the use of virtual reality in perceptual motor interventions.
While additional data is required, it appears to be more and more common to use virtual reality as a complement to traditional therapies in the field of occupational therapy; however, it should not replace the use of traditional therapy. Virtual reality is yet another way that technology has contributed to the field of occupational therapy to make it more user-friendly and effective over time.