Motor Planning: Definition & Skills

Instructor: Karin Gonzalez

Karin has taught middle and high school Health and has a master's degree in social work.

Without motor planning, we might have difficulty with motor skills like riding a bike or writing our name. Learn the definitions of motor skill and motor planning, as well as deficits and skills in motor planning in this lesson.

What Is Motor Planning?

Mary gives her one-year-old daughter, Amelia, a baby fork to use for the first time. Over the next three years, Amelia is given a fork at every meal that requires one. Yet, even at the age of four, Amelia is still holding her fork awkwardly and often drops food on the floor. She hasn't yet grasped this fine motor skill.

A motor skill is a competence in coordinating and organizing bodily muscular movements. Gross motor skills involve the larger muscles such as those in the legs and arms needed for running, jumping, and kicking a ball. Fine motor skills involve smaller muscles such as those in the hand needed for grasping, writing, or cutting a paper.

In the opening scenario, Amelia is having difficulty with motor planning. Motor planning is the ability to assess a motor activity, plan and organize how to carry out that motor activity, and finally implement motor skills to achieve that motor activity. Typically after a person practices a motor activity enough, they develop the ability to perform that skill proficiently without having to consciously to think about it. In other words, the motor skill becomes automatic. Examples include riding a bike or driving a car.

Playing Twister requires the motor planning skills of planning which colored circle to place a hand or foot on as well as implementing this particular gross motor activity.
Kids playing twister

Motor Planning Deficits

People with motor planning deficits may require much more practice of motor activities in the development of motor skills. Either that or they may never develop the skill at all. Let's look at the example of hitting a baseball with a bat.

Eight-year-old Billy must assess what he needs to do (hit the ball with the bat), plan how he is going to do this (swing the bat in a way that it meets the ball), and utilize his arm and bodily muscles to swing the bat at the right moment after the ball is pitched. Yet, Billy has motor planning deficits and therefore has difficulty integrating all of this sensory information. He requires 100 attempts at batting before being able to hit a ball while his teammate Matt only requires 8.

Like hitting a ball with a bat, catching a baseball with a mitt requires immense coordination and quick motor planning.
catching a baseball

Similarly, five-year-old Antoinette is learning to ride a bike. She requires an extra year of daily practice before acquiring this skill compared to the average child. Not only does she take longer, but she needs to ride the same bike the same way every time in order to carry out this skill. When she tries to ride her neighbor Michael's' bike, she doesn't have the motor planning capabilities to successfully plan how to carry out riding someone else's bike with different features than her own.

Persons with motor planning deficits may:

  • Appear clumsy, awkward, or uncoordinated.
  • Be slow in mastering basic motor skills like walking, running, and jumping (or may fall often while engaging in these motor activities).
  • Have trouble carrying many items at once.
  • Stick to what they are familiar or comfortable with in regards to motor activities (might not take risks or venture far from what they already know).
  • Appear to have a lack of imagination in coming up with new ideas during play.
  • Apply too much or too little force in certain motor activities.
  • Have trouble with tasks that require multiple directions or steps.
  • Be slow in learning games or songs that require physical movement such as the 'Itsy Bitsy Spider' or the clapping song 'Miss Mary Mack'.

Kids or adults with motor planning deficits can see an occupational or physical therapist to assist them with further development of these skills.

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