Motor planning: What you need to know

The brain does lightning-fast planning to determine how we’ll move, the steps we’ll take, and the order we’ll do them in. Learn more about motor planning skills and their role in learning and doing everyday tasks.

You may be familiar with the terms fine motor skills and gross motor skills. But what is motor planning? This important skill is key to executing movement. It allows us to know, remember, and perform small steps that make a particular movement or task happen.

How motor planning works

Motor planning is part of a group of skills that help us move our body the way we want to. There are different kinds of motor skills that we use over and over again throughout our lifetime to get things done.

Gross motor skills help us move our large muscles so we can perform actions like walking, jumping, and balancing. Fine motor skills help us move smaller muscles that control our hands, wrists, and feet. They’re key to smaller actions, like grasping a pencil or tying shoelaces. Coordination is how we organize all of our physical actions so that we move efficiently.

All of those skills are needed for physical actions. But something has to happen before we can use those skills effectively. We have to think about how we’re going to move our body, so we can complete the task at hand. Here’s an example.

When we learned to wash our hands as young children, someone showed us how to do it. Eventually, though, our brain had to figure out how our body would physically do what we’d been shown.

How would we move our arms and fingers to get the soap? How would we hold the soap in order to rub our hands on it? How far would we stand from the sink so that water didn’t splash everywhere? We also had to think about the order of all of these steps.

In the beginning, it was very hard. We had to do things very slowly. We had to constantly adjust what we were doing — scrub for longer or get closer to the sink. We paid a lot of attention to the process. And with corrections and help, we eventually were able to do it on our own.

Two things change dramatically once we really know how to wash our hands. We move much faster and are much more precise. We don’t need to pay as much attention to our actions. They’ve become automatic. Our planning for the whole task is quick and efficient. And if we need to make corrections, we can do it easily.

Trouble with motor planning

Motor planning is a process that helps us learn motor actions. You try something, and you get instant feedback on how it went. You adjust what you’re doing and try again. And you keep adjusting until you find the most efficient way of doing it. From then on, your brain quickly plans for that action every time.

When kids have trouble with motor planning, however, they don’t easily learn from the feedback they get. Even if they’ve done a task before, it’s like they’re doing it for the first time.

Kids who struggle with motor planning can seem clumsy. They might seem slow to learn basic skills and take “forever” to complete physical tasks like tying shoes. Motor planning issues can also affect how kids do in school, since basic physical tasks can be hard for them.

Trouble with motor planning may be part of a larger problem with movement and coordination. It’s common in kids who have developmental coordination disorder (DCD), which is sometimes referred to as dyspraxia.

How to help your child with motor planning

If your child struggles with motor planning, it’s important to know that this skill can improve. An occupational therapist can help your child learn the initial steps and sequences of tasks. This will help the tasks become more automatic. But it takes time, patience, visual and physical demonstrations, and lots of practice.

There are ways you can help at home, too. Find out how to teach self-care routines to kids with motor planning issues. See how to teach your child to tie shoes. And learn how professionals evaluate for motor skills issues.


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