What is motor planning?

For the last week of our The Sensory Path™ product series, I want to cover motor planning & sequencing! All of The Sensory Path’s™ products, even the individual elements, require motor planning & sequencing in order to use them. However, their full Sensory Path Packages, both indoor and outdoor, as well as their Learning Noodles contain individual elements placed in a specific order to create obstacle courses which challenge a child’s ability to motor plan & sequence multi-step activities.

So, what is motor planning? 

Motor planning is the ability to coordinate & plan body movements in order to successfully perform tasks. Motor planning, also known as praxis, occurs during every task/action/skill we complete, no matter how simple (i.e. brushing hair or teeth). Motor planning activities also involve aspects of memory & learning which are necessary for us to be able to learn & repeat daily tasks. Infants are not born with this ability to motor plan but develop this with time and practice. 

First, the brain & body must learn to communicate effectively. As this communication develops an infant learns & performs developmental skills such as lifting their head, rolling over, sitting up, etc. As the brain’s neural connections strengthen and the communication between the brain & body increases, so does a child’s ability to complete tasks of increasing complexity, until these tasks become automatic (i.e. they do not have to consciously think & plan out how to perform them). 

The ability to motor plan and sequence can be extremely difficult for some children, especially those with physical disabilities which makes it harder for them to perform the action or task itself. Deficits in motor planning can be the result of physical impairments or poor neural connections in the brain and can make it difficult for the child to receive & process important sensory feedback from their body. This inability to receive & process feedback in turn affects the body’s ability to seamlessly & fluidly coordinate the appropriate movements to complete the task or skill, and the child may appear uncoordinated or clumsy. Unfortunately, this can affect their ability to perform age appropriate fine & gross motor skills which can impact their self-confidence, academics, and social skills. 

Around school age, 4-5 years of age, children begin to be able to sequence & complete more complex multi-step activities. This ability is also shaped & developed in school through games & activities in PE and with their peers at recess as well as in the classroom, as directions/instructions given often encompass more steps & complexity as well as carry a higher expectation that the student will complete them in an efficient & timely manner. A teacher may ask a student to hang up their jacket & backpack, take out a certain workbook or textbook, take a seat at their desk, and open the book to a specific page number. While this may seem simple to us, those instructions contained at least 4-5 steps, and for a child who may struggle to just simply take off their backpack & coat this could be extremely challenging. 

So, now that we’ve covered what motor planning is, why it’s important generally and why it’s important in the school setting… let’s talk about goals and ways to address it! Here’s an example of a goal I’m working on with one of the kiddos I see at school. 

By the end of the IEP year, Name will complete a 3 step activity or gross motor sequence with 80% accuracy in 4/5 trials with < 5 cues (verbal or tactile) to improve participation in PE and with multi-step classroom directives.

So how does PT address this? Some of this depends on what the child is struggling with at school. They may be having difficulty motor planning/sequencing multi-step classroom directives (like that motor planning example above), they may have difficulty motor planning/sequencing specific gross motor skills, or they may have no issue performing individual gross motor skills but have difficulty when they are set up in a more complex game format with rules (think like Simon Says or Twister). My favorite way to address motor planning deficits is by having the child sequence & perform an obstacle course! The beauty of an obstacle course is you can add any particular skills you want to address, even those classroom skills we talked about, and put them in any order. I’ve even set-up an obstacle course for a little boy to help him participate better in the cafeteria that mimicked his lunchtime routine: placing food (pretend food in this scenario) on his tray, holding his tray, and navigating through obstacles without spilling his food. Remember children learn best through play so practicing skills through fun games or activities is ideal! 

The indoor and outdoor Sensory Paths by The Sensory Path™ are perfect for addressing motor planning & sequencing deficits as they are essentially non-slip obstacle courses which provide built in visual cues for where & how to perform certain gross motor skills and in what order. They come in so many fun, colorful themes and patterns which naturally appeal to kids. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been walking a kid back to class only to look over and see them playing on one of the Sensory Paths in the hall! These Sensory Paths combine different strengthening, coordination, and balance elements which can be placed in varying orders to promote & challenge gross motor skill development as well as motor planning & sequencing. They truly are a physical therapist’s dream and have saved my sessions many times on days when I’ve been stuck in a creative rut and fresh out of ideas!

Thanks for tuning in for this series on The Sensory Path’s™ products! Hopefully, they have been both informative and enjoyable. Please check out The Sensory Path’s™ website for their awesome products that I’ve listed above and many others! 

See y’all next week!


Catherine C. Skelton, PT, DPT

Pediatric Physical Therapist

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