CLUMSINESS in children is not always the result of an awkward or careless nature; often it is a symptom of a condition affecting about one in 20 pupils at primary school.
Developmental Co-ordination Disorder seriously impedes a child's progress in acquiring skills such as running, jumping, catching and handwriting.
Studies have shown that "clumsy" children with DCD do not grow out of the problem, continuing to be poorly co-ordinated, having low self esteem and falling behind their peers academically.
Until recently scientists have been frustrated in their efforts to discover whether the condition is caused by perceptual or physical disorders.
Now researchers at the University of Reading are hoping to make more rapid progress through the use of virtual reality displays to test the responses of DCD children to a variety of environments.
John Wann, who has been working on the project with fellow psychologist Mark Mon-Williams at the University's Action Research Laboratory, gave an example of the central question puzzling DCD researchers.
"If a child stumbles and collides with a doorway, was the problem that the child mis-perceived their speed and the impending collision, or was it an error in activating muscles at the right time and in the right order?" he asked.
Previous investigations have used optical devices such as prisms, or wooden rooms where the walls could be moved, to determine to what extent DCD children rely on visual or non-visual information in performing simple tasks.
But real environments limit the subtle changes that can be introduced. Psychologists can control more precisely what a child sees with virtual reality displays, and measure the movements the child makes in response.
"A number of advanced skills such as riding a bicycle don't hinge purely on the sequence of movements, but also on the judgement of how you are moving through the visual world. We have tested children's sensitivity to visual motion and have found differences in the way DCD children use visual information to control their posture," Dr Wann said.
The Action Research Laboratory, which has funding from the charity Action Research and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, is also planning to set up a local remedial programme for DCD children.