What is Motor Planning and Praxis?

by Jessica Hill, COTA/L May 13, 2022 1 Comment

Motor Planning and Praxis blog post

What is motor planning? And what the heck is praxis? How are they related and why are they important?

What can you do if your child struggles with motor planning and praxis?

These are the questions we are going to dive into in this article!

Ready? Ok, let’s go!

What is motor planning?

According to Understood.org, motor planning is, “a skill that allows us to remember and perform steps to make a movement happen.”

Everything you do, every single day, involves motor planning. From the moment you wake up to the moment you go back to bed, you are constantly motor planning your movements. Much of your motor planning is subconscious - you’ve brushed your teeth so many times that it seems to come naturally and you don’t have to think about it. The same goes for getting dressed, driving to work or the grocery story, cooking dinner.

For your child, they also motor plan everything they do throughout the day. Ideally, many of the things they do are also subconscious - getting dressed, playing on the playground, riding a bike, etc. However it doesn’t start out that way! Motor planning begins in infancy and as your child grows, they are constantly learning and motor planning new skills!

So what about praxis. Where does that fit in?

Praxis - the whole picture

Motor planning is actually one piece of praxis. “Praxis is the neurological process by which cognition directs motor action (Ayres, 1985).” (OTFC Group) Praxis is the ability to conceptualize, plan, organize, and execute a new action. Let’s break it down into 4 pieces:

  1. Ideation - This is the ability to form an idea. When a child is drawing (not copying), they are participating in ideation!
  2. Motor plan - This is where the organization and plan for the idea happens. This includes understanding when and how to move the body and/or objects.
  3. Execution - This is the actual performance of the idea.
  4. Feedback and adaptation - This is being able to identify how the task went, identify any areas of improvement, and make those changes.

Sound simple? Well, it’s actually quite complex! There is a LOT of sensory processing involved in praxis. In order to complete each step of praxis starting with ideation, a child must understand where their body is in space related to their environment; they must understand how to move and coordinate their body and any objects they are using; they must have the cognitive ability to organize, plan, initiate, problem solve, and more!

Let’s take a look at a common childhood activity - riding a bicycle - and break it down to see what it looks like through the lens of praxis.

Praxis and riding a bicycle

Step 1: Ideation. The child must form the idea to ride the bicycle. This likely occurs from watching someone else ride a bicycle. Maybe a sibling, a friend, or a caregiver. Maybe they’ve been on a bicycle with a caregiver before, but this will be their first experience doing it independently.

child riding bik

Step 2: Motor plan. The child must understand their body in relation to the bicycle. They must plan how to lift one leg up over the bike in order to sit on the seat while simultaneously stabilizing the bike with their hands. This includes a good amount of postural control / balance. Then, they must plan how to place one foot on the pedal. Next, they must accurately time the push-off with their postural control and their upper body to propel themselves forward. And finally, they must coordinate both legs and arms to pedal and steer, while simultaneously using their vision to move through space safely. (This of course does not include stopping!)

Step 3: Execution. Now it’s time to put all of it together and complete the plan from step 2! This will include several components of executive functioning including: impulse control, working memory, self-monitoring, planning, and initiation.

Step 4: Feedback and adaptation. Once the child has attempted to execute their plan of riding their bike, they can evaluate their performance and ideally perform better each time until they become a proficient bike rider!

Praxis requires repetition

We are not born with perfect motor planning and praxis abilities. These skills are learned! In infancy, a baby must learn how to control and coordinate their body in order to roll, reach for toys, hold a bottle, push up onto their hands and knees to start crawling, and ultimately walk! They must also learn how to hold toys, bang them together, and throw. In toddlerhood, the child begins learning how to manipulate objects in more complex ways, such as scribbling and self-feeding. They also learn higher level gross motor skills such as jumping and running. All of these skills require consistent repetition.

As the child ages and gets into pre-k and elementary school, they begin learning new motor skills such as reading and writing, swinging and riding a bike, tying their shoes and manipulating buttons. They also likely learn higher level skills for throwing and catching, kicking a ball, and even jumping rope! Just like in infancy and toddlerhood, these skills cannot be learned without consistent repetition.

Challenges with praxis

So what happens when a child has challenges in one or all areas of praxis? What does that potentially look like?

Ideation

If a child struggles with ideation...

  • They will have difficulty coming up with ideas.

  • They may lack the ability to identify new activities they want to try (even when provided with several options to choose from).

  • They may struggle with coming up with things to do when they are bored.

  • They may perseverate on only playing one specific game, over and over again.

  • They may not participate in imaginative play.

  • They may not enjoy drawing, coloring, writing, and reading.

  • They may struggle engaging in social activities and games with peers.

  • They may have difficulty with writing projects in school.

Motor Planning

If a child struggles with motor planning...

  • They will have difficulty with understanding their body in space, in relation to other objects and people.

  • They may have experienced delayed motor development in infancy and toddlerhood.

  • They may appear clumsy and uncoordinated.

  • They may lack postural control and exhibit low tone.

  • They may have difficulty with age-appropriate sports and gross motor games.

  • They may show signs of Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD).

  • They may have challenges with reading and writing tasks.

  • They may avoid “normal” childhood activities such as climbing or riding a bike.

Oftentimes motor planning challenges can be diagnosed as dyspraxia, also known as Developmental Coordination Disorder (DCD) (Learn more about DCD and dyspraxia here).

Execution

If a child struggles with execution...

  • They may exhibit many of the challenges listed above.

  • They may also struggle with executive functioning skills, such as planning and organization, initiation of tasks, impulse control, self-awareness, and working memory skills.

  • They may have challenges with fully completing school tasks.

  • They may have challenges with fully completing daily self-care tasks.

Feedback and adaptation

If a child struggles with feedback and adaptation...

  • They may not seem aware that they have challenges with tasks.

  • They may struggle with identifying areas of difficulty - they may say, “that was easy!” to everything to do.

  • They may lack impulse control.

  • They may struggle with accepting feedback from others - this can include challenges with emotional control.

  • They may complete the same task the exact same way each time.

  • They may seem rigid and dislike change.

Teach praxis and motor planning skills

If your child struggles in one or more areas of praxis, what do you do?

First, it’s always recommended to seek out an occupational therapy evaluation through your pediatrician. If your child’s challenges are interfering with their ability to get through their day and complete daily tasks, in-person occupational therapy can be very helpful!

But what can you do right now, at home, with what you have? Let’s dive into some activity ideas that will help boost all areas of praxis!

Obstacle course

Obstacle courses are the ultimate motor planning/praxis activities! An obstacle course requires a child to utilize all areas of praxis. If possible, have your child create the obstacle course to really work on ideation!

Try something simple (especially if your child is unfamiliar with obstacle courses) such as:

  • Step 1: Crawl through a tunnel (don’t have a pop-up tunnel? Make one with chairs and blankets!). Place some items, such as bean bags, in the tunnel for your child to pick up - pick up 1 item at a time.
  • Step 2: Walk or hop along a balance beam (don’t have a balance item? Make one with a rolled up blanket or a line of pillows!)
  • Step 3: Jump and crash while simultaneously tossing the item from step 1 into a target (don’t have a crash pad? Make one with cushions, pillows, and blankets!)
  • Repeat!

This obstacle course requires use of all areas of praxis and each time your child moves through it, they will improve!

Once your child is familiar with obstacle courses, have them work on building their own (if possible). Have them write out the steps on a piece of paper before building it. Or if they enjoy drawing, have them sketch it out.

Check out our YouTube video on How to Build an Obstacle Course in 5 Easy Steps!

Simon says

Simon says is a great way to work on praxis. Providing an auditory or visual instruction to complete a motor action is a great opportunity to improve body awareness, organization and planning, sequencing, motor planning, and more!

Don’t forget to switch roles - have your child be Simon so that they can really work on that ideation piece!

Story telling

Take some time during a walk, a car ride, or before bedtime and have story time. You can personalize this activity to fit your child’s needs. Maybe they tell you a story of a memory from last year. Maybe you begin telling a story of a memory and they finish it. Or get really creative and come up with a new, made-up story and take turns adding on details to the plot.

If your child is able, incorporate drawing and writing to really work on ideation, planning, and organization. Remember, if your child really struggles with these areas you’ll have to find new ways to make it fun and motivating! Doing it with them is always beneficial!

Legos

Building games are the perfect way to build constructional praxis skills. If your child isn’t interested in legos, it might be due to challenges in this area. Start participating in building games with your child to help develop the necessary skills.

Start with letting them watch you build something. Then challenge them to copy what you’ve built. Draw a picture and build the picture with your legos. Challenge them to do the same. Start building a new structure and ask your child to add on to it. Ask your child to build something and then you copy it.

Gymnastics, martial arts, etc.

Getting your child into a program such as gymnastics or martial arts can be a great way to improve their praxis skills. Try other programs such as tennis, swimming, rock climbing, or soccer. Some communities have programs specifically for children who struggle with motor planning.

Final thoughts

Because motor planning and praxis are a part of everyday life (everything we do requires some form of praxis!), it’s important to help our children develop and refine these skills. It takes consistent repetition, motivation, and encouragement. For more information, see the links below!


Check out these awesome resources on Motor Planning & Praxis!

Digital Courses

Gross Motor Skills Digital Course

Fine Motor Skills Digital Course

Primitive Reflex Course

Podcasts

#157- What is Constructional Praxis and Why Is It So Important?

#167 - Facilitating Free Play!

#37 - Motor Planning & Praxis Abilities

#85 - Creating Your Very Own Sensory Motor Experience

#147 - Tips for Improving Body Awareness, Mid-Range Control, and Force Modulation

 

Jessica Hill, COTA/L
Jessica Hill, COTA/L

Jessica Hill, COTA/L is Harkla's in-house Certified Occupational Therapy Assistant (COTA). She has been working with children for over 6 years in outpatient settings. Jessica specializes in creating easy-to-digest, actionable content that families can use to help their child's progress at home. Jessica is the in-house expert, content creator, and one of the podcast hosts at Harkla! To learn more about Jessica, visit the Harkla About Us Page. Make sure to listen to her weekly podcast, All Things Sensory by Harkla for actionable, fun advice on child development.


1 Response

Lilian Ekpo
Lilian Ekpo

June 16, 2022

Do you do virtual assessments or therapy? My son is 12 and was assessed as being on the spectrum for Autism at 3 years . He has also being assessed as having ADHD and struggles with impulsivity amongst other things. I’ve read that the persistence of primitive reflexes can affect learning but no OT in my country (Nigeria) has heard of this.

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