Motor Planning – how we learn new skills.

Motor Planning  – is the ability of the brain to imagine an idea, then organise and carry out a sequence of unfamiliar actions. Think back to the early days of learning to drive – especially a manual car! You had to learn to change gears and move your foot between the clutch and brake – all without looking! Then you needed to work out how hard to press the brakes to stop in the required space  and how hard to pull the steering wheel to negotiate the different gradients of each corner  and curves in the road – but it didn’t stop there! You were then constantly assessing your movements – next time do I need  to change the force, speed, direction and timing of my movements for smoother driving? For most people who have been driving for a while these movements are now all automatic – you are successfully motor planning. Now travel to another country where they drive on the other side of the road and you will very quickly realise what motor planning is all about as your brain initially struggles with the combination of unfamiliar movements! This is what it feels like for young children – the ability to successfully motor plan is a learned skill and Marianne Schriever in her article Motor Planning – what does it involve? cleverly describes this process and how each level of development plays it’s role in your child’s ability to motor plan.

Motor Planning consists of the ability of children to imagine a mental strategy to carry out a movement or action; for instance how to walk down steps, how to put on a shirt or to cut out a shape. Children have sequentially developed patterns of movement that are programmed in their brain i.e. creeping and walking, but this is not enough for higher levels of learning. The brain needs to be able to motor plan.

Motor planning involves a number of abilities, including the visual detection of motion and errors in movement, selection of responses, and self corrective motions. Movements must be timed adequately, and attention and concentration are also necessary.

Most of the movements in the first six months of life happen automatically. The infant then begins to make movements that he must plan. He rotates his wrist so he can turn his hand to manipulate objects and to play. Each new play activity involves more motor planning and more sensory integration. At eight months the infant plans his hand movement well enough to put simple things together and to take them apart. By twelve months he can pick up fine objects or bang two blocks together. This way he learns to plan and carry out a sequence of movements in proper order.

In the second year the child learns to walk, talk and to plan more complex actions and perform them more effectively. The sensory-motor integration that took place during the first year has helped the child to learn. By the second year he can tell where he is being touched and the sensations from his skin tells him where his body begins and ends. Children who cannot integrate the body sensations well are not able to feel exactly how their bodies are structured or what each part is doing.

During his second year the child practises countless variations of movements to gain additional sensory awareness of how his body works and how his environment functions. He naturally explores everything. Parents should be concerned if their child does not get into everything. Children at this age enjoy swinging and riding, to learn about gravity, how different parts of the body move, how they interact with each other, what they can and cannot do, what feels good or not. All of this sensory-motor information forms an internal sensory body percept in the brain. His brain stores countless bits of information to use for motor planning.

The third to the seventh year is a critical period of sensory integration so that efficient motor planning can take place. The child’s inner drive makes him active and he learns to do many things with his body. His adaptive responses are more and more complex and each adaptive response expands the child’s capacity for sensory integration. There is improvement in balance, eye-hand coordination and planning a sequence of movements. He tries things that are dangerous, so that he learns the limits of his sensory-motor ability. Playgrounds are the most popular places as they fulfil the need to develop motor planning.

Between the ages of three and seven, a child learns to use tools such as a knife and fork, scissors or pencils. Each task requires all the sensory information that has been stored in the brain during earlier activities. We take it for granted, but motor planning is required to put on a pair of shoes, butter a piece of toast or dig a hole in the sand. Seven years of sensory-motor experiences are required to give the child a sensory-motor intelligence necessary for intellectual, social and personal development.

Motor planning is the sensory process that enables a child to adapt to an unfamiliar task and to learn how to do that task automatically. The key to motor planning is having a body percept with accurate tactile, visual, auditory, proprioceptive and vestibular information. If a child does not have a good internal map of his body, he cannot direct unfamiliar movements and takes a long time to learn them. It can make the child clumsy or messy and he can feel confused.

A skill is something that the child had to motor plan in order to learn. When he first learns to tie his shoe laces, he has to pay attention to his fingers and the laces. That attention is motor planning. After he has motor planned the knot successfully a few times, it sinks into his brain and becomes a skill. Once a skill has been learned, it no longer requires motor planning. Skills become integrated into the overall operation of the brain and so they emerge spontaneously.

Motor planning is the bridge between the sensory-motor and intellectual aspects of brain function. It is the highest and most complex form of function in children. Parents are often puzzled by the ease a child learned to sit or walk, but is experiencing problems learning to dress, colouring, doing jig-saw puzzles, folding paper and later reading or writing. They do not realise how much motor planning is required to figure things out.

References are available for this article – if you would like to receive these please contact us.

Author: Marianne Schriever is a past school principal, GymbaROO teacher and trainer and Early Childhood Neuro-Developmental consultant.



  1. Joanne Looney says:

    Thanks Katherine for the link to our post from your Motor Planning Post – glad that you found our content helpful.


  1. […] experiences that a child collects during the first seven years of his life – and is the “bridge between the sensory-motor and intellectual aspects of brain function.”  In fact, it has been labelled as the “highest and most complex form of functioning in […]

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