Remember playing Twister? Contorting your body to keep your hands and feet on specific colors without falling. This classic game utilizes a skill called motor planning – the ability to ideate, sequence, and execute movements to complete a task. Sounds easy, but this skill develops over time with body awareness, observation, and trial-and-error.
Every action we do requires motor planning. Once we master a skill, we can then build and apply it to more ambitious tasks. For example, when your child learns how to climb up on the couch, they may then feel comfortable climbing up the stairs. Later, they’ll apply this new climbing ability to the playground. This adaptive behavior allows us to complete so many functional activities, from brushing teeth to putting together IKEA furniture.
Prior Proper Planning
It’s called motor planning for a reason. Before we perform any purposeful action, a highly orchestrated game plan occurs in the brain. We create an order of doing. Take our game of Twister. Someone spins the spinner and it lands on Right hand on red.
- Our sensory systems report the current status of the situation (the auditory command, our head and body position, how close someone is to us, and if any red dots are available for the taking). While this is happening, our brain is also sifting through a library of previous learned movements that may be useful in completing the task.
- Once our brain collects the data needed, it creates a choreographed sequence to complete the movement, directing which muscles are needed and when they will contract: trunk muscles tighten to stabilize, right leg bend, left leg stretches while right hand reaches down to touch red circle, left arm on standby if we get wobbly and need assistance to stay upright upon contact, etc.
- Before we actually do the movement, these steps get fine-tuned with rhythm and timing as well as any last-minute muscle recruitment to ensure fluidity and coordination. Once the final draft gets approval, the brain sends these blueprints to the spinal cord for action.
- We then execute the action, beating Suzy to the red circle, and we’re one step closer to Twister victory.
One way of learning a new skill is through observation. Enter mirror neurons. These brain cells not only fire when we do an action, but also when we watch someone else do it. They play a role in imitating movement and understanding intention when first acquiring a motor skill. When observing someone completing a task, our brain analyzes their movements and put meaning to it, storing what we saw for future reference if/when we ever need to complete the same or similar action. Think of when you witness your kid attempting to load the dishwasher one day because they’ve watched you do it daily. Another example of you being the best model for your child.
Motor planning is a product of many factors coming together to appropriately execute a movement. However, if the data given from the sensory systems is incorrect, then how we engage in an activity will be inaccurate. If we can’t recall the verbal or visual instructions we were given, then we can’t complete the task correctly. Our kids may not know where or how to start an activity because their body doesn’t know how to move in a certain way or they can’t figure out how to engage with a necessary object. Children with poor motor planning may:
- Have difficulties planning and organizing steps involved in a sequence of body movements, like riding a bike
- Have trouble with positioning their body or orienting an object to complete a task, such as putting on or taking off a shirt
- Have problems knowing where they are in relation to objects and people around them, resulting in frequent falls
- Show fear when moving in space
- Be unable to apply previous mastered skills to a new task
- Have difficulties completing tasks independently
- Have poor gross motor control, like running or jumping
- Have poor fine motor control, affecting speech or eating
- Have poor hand-eye coordination, affecting participation in sports
- Have low self-esteem and confidence, resulting in avoidant behaviors, frustration, and/or tantrums when asked to complete tasks
If your kid has motor planning difficulties, try these strategies:
- Put yourself in their shoes. It’s stressful to be tasked with something that you have no idea what or how to do. Consider your child’s feelings, anticipate potential obstacles, and provide solutions to help them out. This can be anything from more specific instructions, less pressure, more time, or more compassion towards this tricky situation.
- One step at a time. If you’re asking your kid to complete an activity that has many mini-steps, like getting their socks and shoes on, show them what the whole process looks like first so they understand what the goal is and then break down the steps. If your child still gets stuck, you may have to break those steps down even further. For example, putting on shoes can be broken down like this:
- Find and retrieve shoes
- Orient shoes, ensuring that the right shoe will go on the right foot and left
- Hold the opening of the shoe while slipping the correct foot in
- Tie shoes (break down these steps for them if need be)
- Planning makes perfect. Instead of just telling your child to do something, walk through the steps that it will take to complete it. If they have trouble understanding multiple steps at one time, you may have to follow along and prompt each step. This is used a lot during potty training. Once kids understand how to go to the bathroom, they will still need you to give them the order and help out, before actually being big enough to go to the restroom on their own.
- Like a scene from Memento. Another way to help your kiddo is backward chaining, a method where you complete an activity up to the last step and then have your child do the last step. Once they master the last step, let them complete the last two steps and so on. Eventually, they will have the confidence to complete the activity without help. So, if you’re teaching them how to bathe themselves, start by having them rinse off and dry themselves with a towel independently first.
- Sensory systems a-go–go. A picture board of what to do may serve as a good reminder of the steps needed to complete a task, like toothbrushing. Not only does it provide a visual cue, but even the process of indicating if the step is complete by placing a sticker or removing the picture adds a tactile element. You could also sing a song about tooth brushing, or show them a video. The more sensory systems are involved, the better they may recall the information.
- Free–range all day. Providing opportunities for your child to move freely and safely in their environment will allow them to try new movements with their body as well as experiment and pretend with objects. For example, a stick they found could be a baton, a walking cane, or a fishing rod. By gaining more awareness of different body movements or how to view objects with a different perspective, your child will have more options to problem solve and figure out how to complete a novel task.
- Adapt and try again. If one strategy isn’t working, try different methods and modifications to help them figure it out. You may have to use different techniques for different activities. For instance, you use a backward chaining attempt to teach how to make their bed, but may use a visual chart to help with their bedtime routine. With each try, additional guidance, and extra motivation and patience, your child should be less hesitant and more willing to participate with minimal resistance and frustration.
Don’t try to rush motor planning. A lot of parents will get frustrated if their child is taking too long to complete a task, like tying shoes or getting ready in the morning. This can sometimes be a big trial-and-error process. They will eventually be completely capable of mastering everyday tasks, but they may need different types of assistance before getting things down pat in a timely manner.
If your do see a motor planning issue and it’s impacting their daily participation in school and at home, talk to your pediatrician.
Mauro, T. (2006). The Everything Parent’s Guide to Sensory Integration Disorder. Avon, MA: Adams Media.
Kranowitz, C. (2003). The Out-of-Sync Child Has Fun: Activities for Kids with Sensory Processing Disorder. New York, NY: A Perigee Book.
How the Brain Works: The Facts Visually Explained. (2020). New York, NY: DK Publishing.