Tuesday, May 3, 2011

What are Perceptual Motor Skills and How Do I Get My Kid Some?

May is clearly here.  Ball games, swimming, outdoor sports...all here.  But for some of us, these sports are daunting as participants.  We're klutzes and perceptual motor skills are our bane!

Perceptual motor skills refer to our ability to coordinate small and/or large muscle groups to accomplish some task we visualize doing.  It requires our integrating eye-hand or eye-foot coordination (or eye-any other body part) so we can button our shirts, writing our names, enter our blogs (even after accidentally erasing them...yes this is a rewrite), jumping rope, shooting hoops, skiing, etc.

Who has it?  Who doesn't?
The Harlem Globetrotters; jugglers, dancers, athletes HAVE IT.
Klutzes - like me - and Homer Simpson don't.

I love dancing...when I'm not tripping and twisting my already weak ankles.  On the other hand, my daughter dances hip hop and can move her hands, arms, feet, body at ridiculous speeds.  My dad tells us how in the army, he had a knack of finding the holes and ditches - he'd always be the one tripping over them.  I took piano lessons and clunked out the songs, my other daughter plays and her fingers glide with grace and agility over the keys playing songs that I could never play (when she's not juggling or fencing).  We are either blessed with strong perceptual motor skills (like my daughters) or we have to painfully gain muscle strength and memory to compensate for weak perceptual motor skills.

What's the big deal about these skills?  We are constantly calling upon these skills when we write, walk, play games/sports, eat, dress...you name it.

A Day in the Life of Perceptual Motor Skills:
  • Dressing: sorting through clothes, taking clothes off the hanger, unbuttoning/ buttoning, unzipping/ zipping, snapping, tucking, tying, covering/uncovering ALL require perceptual motor skills.
  • Getting to work or school:  walking, driving, biking, running;
  • If you take a bus: getting out your pass; climbing large stairs, walking down the aisle of a moving vehicle, etc.
  • Entering work or school- opening doors, lockers, desks, drawers and taking out what is needed;
  • Navigating the room to get to the desk - either moving around a classroom or large/small office;
  • Taking out books and turning to the correct page;
  • Writing or typing information;
  • In class - handling what teachers call "manipulatives" or chips, disks, cubes to help visualize a problem or classroom topic;
  • Computing a math problem:  navigating a page of problems and calculating a long problem requiring carrying, writing, computing;
  • Lab skills: handing different types, sizes, and weights of equipment;
  • Eating:  cutting, carrying a tray to a table and sitting with others making sure not to spill your food over the heart throb across from you, clearing dishes, washing dishes, etc.;
  • Recess/play time:  any kind of ball playing, jumping rope, skipping, running, playing any game with movable pieces;
  • Getting ready for bed - brushing hair and teeth, clearing the bed, laying out clothes,
You get the idea.  There are perceptual motor demands in EVERYTHING we do.

How to help your child build and strengthen these skills:
  • Practice.  Break down the task into manageable subparts and practice them.  Build muscle strength and muscle memory by doing them over and over again.  With your child who is weak or learning - make sure she or he practices in private at first because it can be embarrassing.
For example, if your child is is learning to throw and catch:  Practice at home.  Use larger ball and/or lighter equipment at first.  Initially throw and catch at close range with the lighter, larger ball.  Once she is confident widen the range.  Slowly increase the weight of the ball.  Then gradually decrease its size.  Train her eyes and hands in terms of what to expect vis-a-vis range, weight, depth, etc.
  • Use light weights on arms and/or feet to improve awareness of the muscles needed for the desired task.  This will also help build strength and coordination.  You or your child can also use light weights to build muscle strength.
  • Target weak muscles with activities that strengthen arms, hands fingers, feet.  Erasing the board is a great for strengthening arms.  If your child has weak upper body muscle control, ask the teacher if he or she can help erase/wash the board.
  • Practice the desired movements in front of a mirror or in front of a video camera. This can help provide visual feedback for monitoring body position. 
  • Help your child visualize what he or she should be doing.  Go through the steps just picturing what has to be done and then slowly have him or her do enact the steps just visualized.
  • Hand grips, pencil grips, and squeezy balls often help build finger and hand strength needed for handwriting.
  • With handwriting issues, experiment with different sizes and types of pencils and pens.  Sometimes kids find pencils easier to write with, some pens (my son was a 'pen kind of guy' and he hated the grips- experiment - everyone is a bit different).
Note:  There are different types of perceptual motor motor skills.  Those pertaining to either large muscle groups  are called "gross motor skills" involving jumping and walking, for example.  Those pertaining to small muscle groups are called "fine motor skills" involving buttoning, sewing, piano playing, for example. And there are "grapho-motor skills" involving fingers and hands and handwriting. Handwriting, a grapho-motor skill while relying on perceptual motor skills requires its own post as there is a lot involved.  Please visit this post for more information on FINE MOTOR, GROSS MOTOR AND GRAPHOMOTOR SKILLS.

I have only touched the tip of the iceberg.  Please let me know if you have questions or issues you'd like me to cover in greater detail.  And please, in the comments let all of us know about your successes or strategies.


  1. This is an area that I need to work on with my kids. Thanks for the very doable list of tips! :)

  2. Practice? Who wants to do THAT?
    I'll bet I'm a bigger klutz than you!
    Seriously, another fine article.
    ROG, ABC Wednesday team

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  4. An interesting post, Meryl, - how nice to be endowed with them, but the rest of us just stumble along!

  5. Fascinating and helpful thoughts. I think we can all use more work on those skills.

  6. Very interesting! We always started to teach the children first gross motor skills and little by little we introduce the fine motor skills by doing embroidery for instance. Writing is for some children very difficult. One of my grandsons cannot write properly, but he can write a letter on the computer. He is 18 years old and his fine motor skills are still very badly developed. We tried everything: lego, ball games, jigsaw puzzles etc. but he will always have problems using his fine motor skills.

  7. My daughter's perpetual motion skills have always been better than mine.

  8. Guess I will pass....can't walk and chew gum at the same time. HaHa

  9. Great post. We had an occupational therapist who worked with us and taught us a lot about perceptual motor skills. Articulation is a fine motor skill and many children with speech (as opposed to language) disorders have poor oral motor skills or poor fine motor skills in general.

  10. My muscle groups don't know anything about cooperating or coordinating with my other muscle groups, and they tell me they're too old to learn now.
    — K

    Kay, Alberta, Canada
    An Unfittie's Guide to Adventurous Travel

  11. Being a klutz is my forte. :) I enjoyed reading this though.

  12. I always like the sports quote,"the more I practice the luckier I get". I played a lot of sports but was never any good at racket games (no hand/eye coordination), apart from squash. With squash being in an enclosed space I found if I looked away and towards where the ball was going rather than following it I could happily bash it around the court. Three years ago an optician casually mentioned my right eye condition, turns out it does not move as quickly as it should do. If only an someone had mentioned that information to me 40 years ago! At least I now know why I can't play racket sports.

  13. That is some story, Joy. Understanding and validation are great aren't they!

  14. I always look forward to your POST for ABC every week, very educational!

  15. I'm a klutz too. I wish I could do half the things the Harlem Globetrotters can do. Do are a lot of fun to watch.

  16. Wonderful article! You share the best videos. :D

  17. This is my first visit your unique and informative site. Practicing in private to save embarrassment is a great tip! Some kids have more problems than others when it comes to sports, for example, due to coordination as well as confidence issues. So getting a head start in a safe environment would be very helpful, indeed. Learning a new skill is often as awkward as trying to tie shoelaces for the first time. :)

  18. Love the globetrotters video clip - I haven't seen them in years - love it!

    I've been helping out with at my daughter's school with their PMP (Perceptual motor programme). The kids love it, and I too get lots out of it. One thing did strike me though - is that a lot of things seem to need 'taught' nowadays that maybe when we were children we learned ourselves by playing outside more -running around, climbing, jumping, falling.

    I think kids today are less active and more 'protected' by parents and by society's rules and regulations compared to 20 or 30 years ago, and as a result and not learning some quite basic and necessary skills - like the ones you mention here!


  19. Thanks for explaining more of the details. I became aware of this motor learning when my middle son was diagnosed with sensory issues. So fascinating! I appreciate your dropping by for the Wordless Wednesday on Mundane Magic.

  20. I like the way you explained this.

    Very nicely done!

  21. Hi Meryl,
    What a great post. Very informative and positive. Instead of saying there is nothing you can do with your kid, either he has skill or he hasn't. You are telling us mothers that there is hope!

  22. Thanks for your blog again! I learn so much when I read you.

    I would love to see a post on grapho-motor skills. My 3rd grade son has made great progress with PT and OT, and while he can now color beautifully, he is frustrated with cursive. When he puts his mind to it, he can write well. But it does wear him out.

    He can tell wonderful stories (that skill came about 3 years later than his younger brother), but he hates to write them down. He would rather draw a picture, add some talk balloons, and then vocally tell the story. What can we do over the summer to help build finger strength and confidence in cursive?

  23. Meryl, stop by my blog and pick up the Versatile Blogger Award button. Then mention my blog on yours, list 15 other bloggers to get the award and mention 7 to 10 facts about yourself. Happy blogging.

  24. Your posts always remind me just how much we have to know in order to get by in the world - you really don't consider it most of the time..so thank you! jae

  25. This is a very interesting post for me as I have a son who's dealing with these issues. It has gotten much better thanks to, you guessed it, practice.

    When it came to writing we also tried all sorts of pens and pencils. He still squeezes the pen too hard though. What could we do about that, any ideas? Thanks.

  26. Thank you for your comments.

    Amanda, please know that my next blog will continue, talking more in detail about grapho-motor skills.

  27. I feel it better if I do not comment on this - so I wont!

  28. Hi,

    I recently had a brain infection, called ADEM, Acute Disseminated Encephalomyelitis.

    Although I have recovered really well with lots of hard work, Im still experiencing difficulty with some perceptual motor skill, handwriting in particular. Could you give me some pointers.


  29. Thank you for posting here, Michelle. While I don't really know what exactly your weaknesses are, here are some general pointers to help with graphomotor skills necessary for writing:

    1. PRACTICE. Practice as much as you can. Take your time, writing and perfecting your letters and eventually words.

    2. When you practice begin writing large letters and gradually decrease their size.

    3. You may want to try different types of grips for the pencil or pen you're using (many now come with grips as well). These will help you control the pen or pencil a bit better and may be more comfortable as well.

    4. Practice writing on paper, practice writing in the sand (this will help with muscle as well as brain memory).

    5. Baking bread, kneading dough is a wonderful motor exercise for your hands.

    These are just a few suggestions 'off the cuff'. PLEASE BE IN TOUCH... LET ME KNOW IF/HOW THESE WORK and feel free to ask more questions.

    Wishing a speedy recovery and all the best!!!

  30. You have shared some great tips. Though I work with kids on improving these skills, I'm also a klutz. I agree with your bread exercise advice, it's a great workout for your hands and you end up with something you can enjoy. Thanks for visiting my blog.

  31. What a way to break it down! This information is awesome. Thanks.

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