Motor planning 101

Motor planning or praxis refers to the ability to perform the steps of a new or unfamiliar task, in correct sequence from start to finish. Successful skill development involves a child learning through motor planning so that a task becomes automatic. Motor planning allows children to adapt to an unfamiliar task or activity.

Motor planning is a three step process where a child will able to:

1. Conceive or imagine a task (Ideation)

2. Plan the steps in the task (Organisation)

3. Carry out the task in sequence (Execution)

Why do children have motor planning difficulties? Motor planning is a complex process during which a child’s sensory and motor systems need to communicate effectively. It is a ‘hidden’ process that we cannot see, because it involves nerve pathways between the brain and the body.

Motor planning relies on a child having an organised sensory system, as well as an adequate body perception, and these two things are closely linked. A child needs to be able to interpret and organise information from their senses of vision, hearing, touch, movement and balance in order to develop body awareness. The vestibular or balance system in particular receives information about movement from our muscles. Therefore, if a child has difficulty with one or more of the senses this can lead to poor body awareness and motor planning difficulties.

Children with motor planning difficulties may show:

  • Poor body scheme and body awareness

  • Difficulties with processing of sensory systems (touch, vision, hearing, and movement)

  • Difficulty following instructions (particularly multi-step instructions)

  • Difficulty imitating actions or demonstrations

  • Difficulty starting tasks

  • Difficulty completing tasks efficiently or in a timely fashion

  • Use of trial and error to learn tasks and repeating mistakes

  • Taking a long time to learn new tasks

  • Reduced motor coordination or clumsiness

  • Poor organisational skills or messiness

  • A preference for familiar play routines, that they can predict and know what to expect

  • Repetition of tasks that they feel a sense of mastery over

  • Frustration or avoidance of new tasks and fear of failure

  • A desire to be in control and a tendency to be ‘bossy’ or ‘manipulative’

What can be done to help? The treatment of motor planning difficulites is multi-faceted. Your occupational therapist will offer your child a range of sensory and motor experiences, in order to work on their organisation of sensory and movement information. Children build on the sensory and motor experiences that they have learned in the past, to develop new skills. It can be a good idea to revisit skills and movements that a child should have learned at an earlier age. For children with motor planning difficulties, giving them lots of opportunity to repeat and practice tasks and experiences will be helpful.

Activities that can help develop motor planning skills:

  • Take your child to different play grounds, with a variety of equipment and motor challenges to try

  • Think of different ways you can use your body parts to pop bubbles

  • Set up obstacle courses using materials at home (such as cushions, blankets, boxes, hula hoops, skate boards and so) to navigate

  • Encourage your child to plan and set up their own obstacle course

  • Play “Musical statues” and think of different postures to ‘freeze’ in

  • Have your child practice every day routines that have a sequence of steps such as making a basic breakfast, getting dressed, bedtime, packing school bag and so on.

  • Use a visual schedule for everyday routines, showing the steps required in each task.

  • Practice, demonstrate and use physical guidance to help your child to lay down motor pathways.

  • Play imitation games such as “Follow the leader” and encourage your child to have a turn at being the leader and thinking up different actions.

  • Play “Simon Says” and have your child take turns at being “Simon” as well as following instructions.

  • Break new tasks into achievable steps. You could help your child with most steps but encourage them to try the first or the last step on their own. As they master a step, encourage them to do the next or previous one (this is known as forward or backward chaining). Your OT can help you further with this process.

  • Avoid ‘giving’ your child answers. Encourage them to think things through themselves by asking questions such as “What else could you try?” or “Is there another way to do it?”

  • Provide vestibular sensory opportunties. These develop your child’s sense of balance. Repetitive, linear movement is calming and organising to the sensory system. Examples can include swings, a hammock, see-saws, jumping on a trampoline, bouncing on or rocking over a gym ball. See our Talking Matters handout on the Vestibular Sense for more ideas.

  • Provide proprioceptive sensory opportunities. These develop awareness of body in space. “Heavy work” muscle tasks are also calming and organsing to the sensory system. Examples might include wheelbarrow walks, tunnel crawling, scooter board play, animal walks, ‘hotdog’ rolling, and household tasks such as sweeping, vacuuming and mopping. See our Talking Matters handout on the Proprioceptive Sense for more ideas.

Further information is aviable at:

Listen and Learn Centre:

Valerie Dejean:

North Shore Paediatric Therapy:

The Importance of being 0-5 Years:

If you are concerned about your child's sensory processing, fine or gross motor skills, visual perception, eye hand co-ordination or handwriting an occupational therapist is the person to see for advice. An occupational therapist can assess your child's skills and advise you on what to do to help your child's development. For more information about occupational therapy check Our website. There are also lots of great activity ideas on the Talking Matters Pinterest page.

Our website now has lots of occupational therapy information sheets to download on motor skills, sensory integration and daily living skills. Check it out here!

Kate Ringvall

Occupational therapy manager

Talking Matters

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