Understanding the Basics of Motor Planning

Understanding the Basics of Motor Planning

By Amy Raines, Occupational Therapist at Bellavista School

We use our bodies to interact with our environment and use different movements to meet the demands that are placed on us. Motor planning is one of the abilities that allow us to do so. It is what allows us to know the small steps that are required to perform a different task, by conceiving of and sequencing different movements. When performing everyday tasks such as getting dressed motor planning is required e.g., to put your legs into your pants before pulling them up.  Motor planning is especially important in unfamiliar activities such as when learning to drive. As babies, we don’t yet have the ability to motor plan, however, as we interact with our world, we learn how to plan our movements and our skill develops. Sometimes something goes wrong in how motor planning develops which makes daily activities very challenging.

Every child with motor planning difficulties will be different. But signs that a child might struggle in this area include:

  • Appearing clumsy and poorly coordinated. They might struggle to plan the movements required to successfully participate in sport e.g., not being able to catch or throw a ball successfully or learning the movements required to perfect a swimming stroke. 
  • Struggling with age-appropriate daily tasks such as putting their jacket on backwards, struggling to use a knife and fork together or not being able to do up buttons.
  • Delays in achieving their developmental milestones e.g., walking late
  • Handwriting can be very challenging for a child with motor planning difficulties and their writing may be illegible and the process laborious.
  • Their speech may be affected as sequencing the movements to form different sounds requires motor planning.
  • Difficulty working systematically and organising their belongings.
  • When being taught a new skill, these children need far more practice than other children their age would.

These challenges often result in a child being very reluctant to try new activities. They might try to control their environment by only wanting to play their own games or refusing to go somewhere new. 

Approximately, 6% of children in South Africa are recognised to have difficulties with motor planning1 and boys are more likely to be affected than girls2. Children with motor planning difficulties may receive a specific diagnosis of Dyspraxia or Developmental Coordination Disorder (DCD) by their healthcare practitioner. Motor planning difficulties are frequently seen in conjunction with other diagnoses such as ADHD and Autism Spectrum Disorder. Motor planning difficulties can improve through therapy; however, severe difficulties can affect someone throughout their life.

Occupational therapists, physiotherapists and speech and language therapists are all trained to assist in different domains of motor planning and assess and treat difficulties. However, some things can be done at home to assist children with these challenges. 

These include:

  • Breaking down tasks and instructions into small steps.
  • Model the correct way to do a task and speak through the steps while you are doing it
  • Allow lots and lots of time and opportunity to practice in a pressure-free environment
  • Use pictures to help remember the steps of an activity
  • Give specific feedback e.g., “you threw the ball hard enough, well done” rather than just “well done”
  • Have designated and labelled spaces for belongings
  • Use backwards chaining to teach new tasks. This works well for skills such as tying shoelaces. The adult does all the steps. Then the adult does all the steps, and the child does the last one. Then the adult does all the steps, and the child does the last two. This continues until the child can complete all the steps.

While motor planning challenges can have a significant effect on a child’s ability to interact with their environment and meet the demands placed on them, there are a variety of strategies and therapies that can be used to assist them to function to their full potential. For more information, visit www.bellavista.org.za

Sign up for the Bellavista SHARE 2022 Online Conference. Teaching our children to be critical, independent thinkers is an essential component of educating for the future. Cognitive education is key to securing a better future for our youth. Join the Bellavista SHARE team as they explore the power of cognitive education with international and local experts from May to June 2022. The conference will run for five consecutive weeks, beginning on Wednesday 11 May 2022, and ending on Wednesday 8 June 2022. Each week a 1-hour live webinar will be held with a specific expert exploring their topic of interest.

Attendees can book for the full line-up, or individual webinars. Visit: https://bellavista.org.za/product-category/conference/ 

  1. de Milander M,  Coetzee FF, Venter A. Prevalence and effect of developmental coordination disorder on learning-related skills of South African grade one children. South African Journal for Research in Sport, Physical Education and Recreation, 2016; 38, (2): 49 – 6 
  2. Harris SR, Mickelson ECR, Zwicker JG. Diagnosis and management of developmental coordination disorder. CMAJ. 2015;187(9):659–665. doi:10.1503/cmaj.140994
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