Department of Psychology, Health and Professional Development

Movement Planning in Adults and Children

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  • What is motor planning and why is it important?  

    Our everyday movements are often made without any conscious thought. However, even a simple action such as picking up an object or opening a door require the mover to plan both the immediate action and to take into account what the next action will be. For example, to pour water from a jug into a cup, the way in which we pick up the jug will influence whether we can pour the water without spilling it. As such the way we pick up objects and the grasps we use must be tailored to each task, getting this wrong may mean spilling the water or food falling off the fork. This planning extends beyond hand movements and has an impact on every movement we make..

    Looking at motor planning in the lab

    To examine motor planning in the lab we start with tasks that may seem abstract but which allow us to mimic everyday life in a controlled environment. The study you/your child took part in considered motor planning in individuals with DCD using two tasks:

    Grip choice:

    Participants were asked to grasp an octagon and turn it to one, two or three colours. We were interested in where the fingers were placed and whether that allowed the octagon to be rotated as required.

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    Movement control:

    Participants were asked to reach out, grasp a cylinder and then perform one of four different actions. Small markers were stuck on the hand which allowed us to track: how fast people moved, how long they spent accelerating and how they positioned their finger and thumb. We were interested in the differences between the different actions. Was how people reached for the object different depending on what they intended to do with the object?

    Study looking at these tasks in children and adults with DCD (Developmental Coordination Disorder)

    This research was supported by the ESRC (Economic and Social Research Council) and four papers have been published from this study:



    In both tasks participants with DCD planned movements in light of the forthcoming action, for example grasping the octagon in a way that allowed the intended movement and accelerating towards the cylinder in a way that was tailored to the specific action. Adults with DCD showed a level of performance which was clearly better than that of children with DCD, suggesting an improvement in this skill with age. However, in all cases, the participants with DCD performed very differently to the participants without DCD. This result suggests that there is an aspect of motor planning which is different in individuals with DCD compared to a non-DCD group.

    What does this mean?

    There is still a real need for a greater understanding of the precise nature of the movement difficulties in DCD in order to help design more helpful interventions. The studies described here have added to our understanding of movement planning. Although more research is needed this is an important first step. Studies on different developmental disabilities have already used this approach to gain a better understanding of movement difficulties, which has led to the identification of areas for targeting intervention.

    Who are we telling about these findings?

    We have published findings in fours academic journals. In addition, we have published the findings in the professional journal of the Dyspraxia Foundation and presented findings at the national and international conference on Developmental Coordination Disorder which is attended by UK based researchers and clinicians working with children and adults with DCD.

    Study looking at these tasks across the adult lifespan

    This research was supported by The Leverhulme Trust and has only recently been completed.

    In this study we also asked participants to complete a number of other tasks to see how performance on these additional tasks relates to motor planning. These included: motor control (for example bouncing a ball and walking a path); memory (remembering the order in which images on the screen changed colour); cognitive planning (moving virtual discs around until one image matches another); inhibition (responding to numbers on a screen); and imagery (using two tasks: firstly stating whether an image of a hand was a right or a left hand and secondly time taken to write out the alphabet versus time taken to imagine writing the alphabet).


    Interestingly, the simpler planning tasks (grip choice in one or two colours in a sequence) did not show any sign of motor planning ‘decline’ or change with age. In fact on these tasks performance was only related to general motor control and not to age, memory, cognitive planning, inhibition or imagery. However, in the more complex grip choice task (planning for a three colours in a sequence) adults above 70 years of age did appear to plan movements differently, opting for movements which started in a comfortable position rather ending that way. We believe this is a functional compensation to an increased limit to movement rather than a ‘deficit’ to planning.

    For the second motor planning task (movement control) all participants showed a change in the ‘reach’ movement across different intended actions (place, throw, lift). However, different age groups showed distinctly different ‘patterns of change’ across intended action.The 20-39 year-olds on average showing a pattern of change resulting in the most efficient movements, the 40-69 year-olds showing a different pattern of change which resulted in less efficient movements and the 70-81 year-olds showing another pattern of change which once again resulted in a reduction in efficiency of movement. Importantly though it was the pattern of change which predicted movement efficiency and not age, memory, cognitive planning, inhibition or imagery.

    Finally, we considered the imagery tasks and found no clear change in imagery ability (the ability to imagine an action) across age.

    What does this all mean?

    The studies described here have added to our understanding of motor planning and have demonstrated that motor planning is linked to motor control but does not seem to be influenced by cognitive control. Furthermore, there is no clear decline in motor planning, but rather the differences we see across age are compensations to changes in movement ability.

    Although our research focuses only on hand movements, planning is needed for all movement types and there is no reason to think this would be different across body segments.

    Who are we telling about these findings?

    We have submitted these findings for peer review to three academic journals. We have also presented these nationally at the BPS Section Cognitive conference and internationally at the 2018 Cognitive Aging Conference. We are currently looking for funding to extend these findings.