Lindsay, A. 2020, Perceptual Motor Development | Connecting the Brain & the Body, Extension | University of Nevada, Reno, IP
kids crossing their legs

Being physically active is an important part of growing healthy children. Building an early foundation of physical activity is critical to being active throughout life but may require more than just spending time outdoors running and playing. Children need to build strength, learn basic fundamental movement skills and also develop their perceptual motor skills.


Unlike fundamental movement skills that form the building blocks for movement, such as hopping, jumping, running or balance, perceptual motor development connects a child’s perceptual or sensory skills (his brain) to his motor skills (his body) so they can perform a variety of movements and confidently interact with their environment. Developing perceptual motor skills involves teaching children movements related to time (e.g. moving fast vs slow), direction (moving forward, back or to the side) and spatial awareness (e.g. crossing his arm from the right side of the body to the left or tapping the heel to the ground).


Preschoolers are still in Jean Piaget’s pre-operational stage of development. They think in symbols, are developing memory, imagination and their thinking is egocentric and based on intuition not logic so they cannot yet grasp complex concepts such as direction, spatial awareness and speed variance (fast or slow). Perceptual motor development involves brain functions necessary to plan and make decisions from simple to more complex. Building perceptual motor skills allows children to practice these complex and unfamiliar tasks such as stepping back without looking or touching the right hand to the left knee (spatial awareness). Mastery of these perceptual motor skills sets a foundation for being more active and completing important day-to-day activities independently while preparing to read, write and master more complex skills. Young children need to be taught and provided with opportunities to practice perceptual motor skills; they do not just occur overnight (1). Waiting until elementary school (when specific sports and other physical activities are introduced) to teach motor skills to the child contributes to her lack of self-efficacy and consequently her ability to successfully participate. Children who do not develop these skills will eventually gravitate away from active sports, games and dance towards less threatening sedentary hobbies (2).


Note: While most children need to be taught and given opportunities to practice these moves, some children may have delays or impairments that prevent them from completing tasks and should be referred to their doctor.


kids moving in all directions

Children need to understand directional instructions in order to perform most physical activities. Understanding directions verbally is the first step. “Which way is forward?” “Where is backwards?” “Can you point to the side?” Once a child knows the direction he is moving, the next step is ensuring that he moves into space with ease and confidence. Practice having the child walk backwards on a painted line or step to the side while looking straight ahead. Children often step in the direction of the command without actually stepping sideways or backwards (e.g. turn around and step forward, behind them instead of stepping backwards).


a clock

Children should be taught skills that connect the brain to the body through varying speeds of movement. Children often have difficulty detecting differences in speed. Slow movement might be interpreted as smaller motions, while fast movements might be interpreted as larger motions. Learning to distinguish and practice the difference can help improve brain function and skill development. Try playing Red Light, Green Light or Simon Says and ask the child to move fast and then slow. Use visual learning. Teach “fast like a jackrabbit” or “slow like a slow motion video action figure”.


the world

This is one of the most difficult concepts for young children to grasp. Children tend to stand or sit close to each other because they haven’t learned spatial awareness. We often teach children to create a bubble around themselves when we want them to spread out. Spatial awareness simply means being aware of where your body is as it moves about in space. Closing your eyes while touching your nose with your finger requires understanding spatial awareness.

For children, this can be taught by practicing moving their body up high or down low to experience different spatial directional movements; swinging their hips or shrugging their shoulders to learn to isolate or pinpoint specific areas of the body to move; or touching the right hand to the left knee to master crossing the midline of their body. Crossing the midline (vertical imaginary wall that separates the two sides of the body) is not only a physical challenge, it is also a brain development challenge. Crossing the midline of the body can improve literacy and reading skills (3, 4) which require writing numbers and letters and moving the eyes from left to right.


  1. Clark, J. E. (2007). On the problem of motor skill development. Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, 78(5), 39-44.
  2. Stodden et al (2008) A Developmental Perspective on the Role of Motor Skill Competence in Physical Activity: An Emergent Relationship, Quest, 60:2, 290-306, DOI: 10.1080/00336297.2008.10483582
  3. Kephart, N., & Godfrey, B. (1969). Movement patterns and motor education. (Educational Series in Health, Physical Education, Physical Therapy and Recreation). New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.
  4. Ayres, A. J. (1971). Characteristics of types of sensory integrative function. The American Journal of Occupational Therapy. 251271. 329-334.


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