Think back to learning how to drive. Remember those first days of intently focusing on your every move while jerking a car through an empty parking lot? Now, you can maneuver traffic while chatting with others in the car, and even hit the brakes in an instant if you need to — all without a second thought. Your body has memorized how to drive.
Learning to use your body to accomplish a goal, before you can do it automatically, relies on motor planning. It’s a complex process that requires focus. Childhood is motor-planning prime time as your little one learns and memorizes ways to use her body to safely, efficiently, and effectively accomplish tasks.
The Three Steps of Motor Planning
Motor planning involves three steps. Let’s take a look at them through the lens of your toddler learning to jump down from a step. Although this example involves a gross motor skill, your little one uses motor planning for all movement — from using zippers to feeding herself to placing her tongue in the correct spot to make speech sounds.
- Ideation — First, your little one stands on the step and gets the idea to jump down.
- Planning — Using body awareness and spatial awareness, she plans how to execute the jump. First, she needs to stabilize her body, then bend her knees, then push off, then bend her knees and stabilize her body again when she lands. And, she needs to do these things in the correct order with the right timing.
- Execution — Your little one coordinates her planned movements to accomplish her goal. In the beginning she may not get the sequence or timing right. She may stumble or tumble. Just like anyone learning a new skill, she pays attention to these “misses” and adjusts her movements until she successfully does what she set out to do.
When motor planning is successful, not only does jumping become automatic but she can also generalize jumping skills to similar situations. When she encounters a higher step, or a different landing surface, she tweaks her movements to adapt to the new conditions and then jumps easily. Going back to the driving example, we generalize our driving skills when we drive an unfamiliar vehicle. We adjust our movements (the brake requires less pressure than we’re used to, the gear shift is a different design, etc.) and then we easily slip back into driving without thinking about what our body it doing.
Motor Planning Challenges
Some children have trouble planning and/or executing movements. This may be caused by a breakdown in motor planning, which can make everyday tasks (like playing with toys, playing on a playground, getting dressed, eating, drawing, or learning new routines) difficult.
Here are some possible red flags for motor planning challenges:
- Difficulty learning new skills
- Lagging behind on milestones
- Difficulty imitating movements
- Consistent clumsiness
If you are worried about your little one’s motor planning, your pediatrician or a pediatric physical or occupational therapist can offer guidance.
How to Support Motor Planning
Give your little one lots of opportunities to use her body. Some motor planning happens naturally as little ones explore their surroundings and play, but she will also rely on you for help learning skills. You may need to demonstrate how to drink from a cup, for instance, or remind her of the steps involved in multi-step skills like getting dressed. Our BabySparks program is a great resource for activities that support this learning!