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How To Teach the Basics of Motor Planning

Have you ever tried to bring in all of your groceries at once, just to save another trip to the car?  This requires significant motor planning.  Motor planning, also known as praxis, is the ability to perform a new or skilled motor task, and is dependent upon adequate body awareness, tactile processing, ideation, initiation, timing, sequencing, feedback and feedforward. It is how quickly we learn a motor skill and the ability to generalize it to other situations. A weakness with motor planning impacts the ability to think of what to do.  For example, a child who has difficulty with motor planning may have difficulty carrying out multi step tasks such as getting themselves ready for school.


Motor planning is a learned skill.  Babies are not born knowing how to move from place to place; however, given the opportunity to independently move, they learn how to lift their heads against gravity, roll over, sit, pull to stand, and walk.  As a baby’s sensory system develops, they become more aware of their body and how it interacts with the world around them, allowing them to move effectively.


Here are some suggestions for how to improve each of the parts of motor planning.


Body Awareness– body awareness is the knowledge of body parts, and the awareness of how the body moves in relation to the muscles and joints.  It is essential in learning how your body moves in space.  Body awareness requires proprioceptive processing.  Proprioception is the sense that determines a limb’s position in space through receptors in the muscles and joints.  Some ways to improve body awareness are to:


  1. Play games and with toys that require an understanding of body parts.  Build Mr. Potato head, play “head shoulders knees and toes” and practice drawing a person with body parts.
  2. Improve proprioception through “heavy work” or activities that require pushing and pulling such as pulling toys in a wagon, helping with household chores such as sweeping, and doing simple animal walk exercises.


Tactile Processing- Tactile processing is the way the body responds to feedback from the outermost system of our body, our skin.  It is the way we process touch and respond to it. A healthy tactile system helps us respond to the environment safely.  For example, it helps us determine if an object is too hot or too cold to touch.  Children who have difficulty with tactile processing may be hypersensitive to tactile input, and become bothered by “safe” textures such as different types of clothing.  They may also be hyposensitive to tactile input and touch everything in an attempt to process information they may be missing.  Some ways to improve tactile processing are:


  1. Play with sensory bins (beans, rice, sand, pasta, etc).
  2. Do arts and crafts with “messy” substances such as paints, glue or even whipped cream.
  3. Play with play doh, putty, or slime.


Ideation- Ideation is the ability to form ideas or concepts.  In motor planning, the ability to visualize the steps that should be taken to complete a task and how to move the body to do so.   Children who have difficulty with ideation may imitate other children rather than initiating tasks on their own, have difficulty carrying out multi step tasks, don’t make suggestions for what  to play, or have difficulty with free play.  Some ways to promote ideation are:


  1. Engage in constructive play activities such as building with legos, making something with play doh, building with squigz, etc.
  2. Practice visualization with familiar places, for example, have a child describe their bedroom.
  3. Make an obstacle course, you can grade this activity by creating the first few steps, then have the child add the last step and increase the number of steps until they are independent.  Using leading language such as “after you step off of the pillow, where will your feet be” can be helpful in ideation.


Initiation- Initiation is the skill required to begin an activity.  It requires executive functioning skills and the ability to plan and organize tasks.  In motor planning, the child may be able to visualize a task, but has difficulty understanding how to move their body in the specific way required.  Some ways to promote initiation are:


  1. Play games with clear starting points such as Simon Says, Red Light Green Light, Follow the Leader.
  2. Go on a scavenger hunt with a list of items to find.  This can be done in the house or on a nature walk.
  3. Picture schedules, or simple drawings of steps can also be helpful for those who have trouble initiating.


Timing- Timing is the speed with which we perform actions.  It is how we process where we are in response the environment.  For example, when the timing of the brain does not match the tempo of the environment, we can become out of sync.  Think about jumping rope, timing is everything to jump at the right time so that we can get over the rope.  When we don’t have an idea of timing, this is extremely difficult. Ways to improve timing are:


  1. Use verbal and visual cues during motor tasks such as clapping to the beat of a song.
  2. Dribbling a ball on beat.
  3. Hop, skip or jump following a verbal cue (jump when I say “go).


Feedback and Feedforward- Feedback occurs during a motor action and is used to execute a motor sequence using ongoing monitoring of movement.  It allows us to make necessary adjustments to movement.  Feedforward uses information from the environment prior to the movement.  Feedforward occurs prior to completing a motor action and uses previously learned motor actions to allow us to execute new actions.  When there are difficulties with feedback and feedforward, a child may be able to complete one single motor task such as a jumping jack but will have difficulty completing a cycle of 10 jumping jacks as they have difficulty adjusting during the movement.  Some ways to improve feedback and feedforward are:


  1. Completing motor sequences in a mirror so that the child can see what the motor action looks like
  2. Repeat, repeat, repeat!  Use motor learning theory to continue tasks to improve our brain’s response to the task.
  3. Use increased cueing (visual verbal and manual cues) to improve a motor sequence.


Motor planning affects everything we do from brushing our teeth to completing an exercise routine.  Breaking motor planning down to its parts may be beneficial in helping those with motor planning deficits achieve improved performance.