Minds in Motion

by Lynn Bell

Academic drills and desk work have frequently squeezed out free play, art, music, and physical education in many preschool and kindergarten classrooms in recent decades.

Yet, new research in progress at the Curry School’s Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning indicates that hands-on activities can build fine motor and behavior management skills in young children—skills that may increase their rate of progress in academic achievement.

The Project

Evidence is growing that certain early developmental skills are foundational for learning early and later math.

David Grissmer and his research team developed a curriculum called Minds in Motion, in which children view a pattern or design and are challenged to recreate it. They had evidence from prior research that the ability to persevere with tasks like these also promotes attention and self-control, both important for children learning to manage their own behavior. They then piloted the curriculum in a voluntary afterschool program attended by low-income kindergarten and first graders in Charleston, South Carolina.

“Evidence is growing that certain early developmental skills are foundational for learning early and later math,” Grissmer said. “These skills are learned by more-advantaged students at home and in preschool settings during play activities that seem to have little to do with math.”

Student showing off glasses made with Zoob pieces

To keep the activities stimulating and engaging for afterschool settings, the team looked for a variety of colorful and fun materials that young children with varying abilities could work with successfully. In addition to construction paper, modeling dough, and Legos, they developed activities with stencils, pattern blocks, fusible beads, building sets, and vinyl shapes.

The researchers partnered with the WINGS for Kids afterschool program to see if these skill-building activities were effective with children at risk of low academic achievement. The WINGS program serves elementary school children in the Charleston and Atlanta, Georgia, metropolitan areas. The study is being conducted in Charleston-area WINGS schools where more than 90 percent receive free or reduced lunch. Students attend for three hours a day and learn how to make good decisions and build healthy relationships.

Last year, 45 kindergartners and first graders were randomly selected to spend 45 minutes, four days a week, on the Minds in Motion activities. They were tested on various skills both at the beginning and end of the school year. The researchers also tested selected students participating in the WINGS program but not in Minds in Motion, which served as a control group.

Three projects created by Minds in Motion Students


The study used a definition of fine motor ability that incorporates visual-spatial ability and the ability to maintain attention and self-control and coordinate the small muscle movements of the hands. “Children with achievement gaps have significant deficits in these early developmental skills,” Grissmer said.

Their initial results suggest that low income students often do not have play-based opportunities for hands-on activities using arts and crafts and commercial games that can build foundational cognitive skills. The research shows that out-of-school time using play-based activities can be used to build these skills.

David Grissmer

David Grissmer, Research Scientist. Photo by Dan Addison.

“We are happy to see some immediate increase in some areas of math achievement,” Grissmer said. “However, the large increases in children’s executive function and visual-spatial skills were most encouraging. “Even though these skills are not primarily developed by school and are not fully measured by achievement scores,” he added, “they are strong predictors of educational outcomes.” Recent longitudinal studies have shown that these skills in young children correlate to mathematics achievement in later elementary and secondary grades, Grissmer said.

Grissmer is also positive about the fact that these skills can be developed in afterschool and summer programs and do not require changes in school curriculum.

Their initial research was funded by grants from the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. To gather additional evidence about the effectiveness of the curriculum, however, the researchers wanted to follow a second cohort of students in the WINGS for Kids program, while also continuing to follow the progress of the students in the prior year’s cohort. That’s where private philanthropy came to the rescue.

The Donors

Suzan and Stephen Zoukis

Suzan and Stephen Zoukis. Submitted photo.

Stephen (Engr ‘71) and Suzan Zoukis moved to Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina, in late 2006 after living more than 30 years in Atlanta.

Stephen is slowing down his pace a bit after 23 years as a nationally recognized real estate investor with Jamestown Properties. Over that time, he says, the company went from having a $50 million portfolio of small town Walmart stores to a $6 billion portfolio of big city office buildings, mostly in New York City.

The couple, who have two children and two grandchildren, has been together for 40 years. “We met at Towson high school over a shared dislike of The Canterbury Tales in twelfth grade,” Stephen says.

They both are concerned about improving children’s education in their community, and Suzan serves on the board of directors of WINGS for Kids. Last year, they made a $1 million donation to help the program expand to other cities.

Stephen never really used his engineering training from Virginia, but he still felt loyal to the university and had been talking with U.Va. development officers about a gift to support education. When he was approached with the opportunity to help extend the Minds in Motion research, the confluence of the couple’s interests made the decision to support this research project a no-brainer.

Their gift of $178,500 allows Grissmer and his team to try out some new features in the curriculum and gather further evidence that the children’s growth is directly linked to their engagement with Minds in Motion activities.

“This may sound trite,” Suzan says, “but chil­dren really are the future of the world. The least we owe them is a chance to get a good education.”

“We went to a good suburban school in Baltimore,” Stephen adds. “You assume everyone got to go to good schools. But something happened and that’s not the case anymore. It’s clearly something that needs to change.  Any way we can help educators do a better job, we want to do it.”