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gross motor coordination

gross motor coordination


Therapeutic intervention at Giant Leaps OT strengthens the foundational components of gross motor skill development. Gross motor skills are important whether you are riding a bicycle, playing soccer or climbing a rock wall. The coordination of our body’s major muscle groups requires an intricate neurological dance involving sensory discrimination, motor planning, balance, strength and endurance. A misstep in this interplay can inhibit successful participation in recess play or sports and may have social and emotional ramifications.

Therapy can help children of all ages to move in the right direction.

Good gross motor coordination does typically rely on proper processing of the inputs from our eight senses (sensory processing). Imagine yourself as a computer – the mouse, keyboard, or touchscreen are the ways the computer can sense inputs. If something goes wrong with the way the computer (you) processes a “click” or a “tap” (information from your sensory systems) then the output (movement or coordination) is not usually correct. If you have ever had a phone or tablet “lag” or respond late, wrongly, or even shut down as a result of clicking / tapping at the wrong times then you have a good framework to understand how difficulties in sensory processing may change a child’s ability to do things. Instead of a mouse, keyboard, or touchscreen we have the eight senses.

Click below to explore the common senses of our body: 

sight (vision)

Sight works based on detection of electomagnetic radiation aka light. Your eye has specialized cells called photo-receptors which catch the light and turn them into electrical signals which the brain can use. These signals then travel through the optic nerve into the brain which then creates images which you can see.

While the eyes are important to detecting light, the brain is responsible for making these signals useful.

sound (audition)

Sound is created through vibrations which travel through air molecules. When these vibrations reach our body, special hair cells within your inner ear which are all attuned to different frequencies of vibration start to detect and transmit to the brain the presence of vibration. Your brain is then able to do things like interpret the sounds to distinguish direction of the sound, if the sound is speech, or any other important information the sounds might indicate. Your brain is also able to modulate the sound and filter some sounds out, attune to one sound among others, or “tune-in” to an important sound. 

 You’ll notice that while your ears (the hardware i.e. touchscreen) do the main job of detecting the sound, the brain does much of the work of interpreting and filtering sound to make it useful.

smell (olfaction)

Smells are chemical messages and your nose is the hardware needed to detect these chemicals (kind of like a chemical test kit). When you smell something, you are actually breathing in tiny molecules which stimulate very specialized cells which detect their presence. These cells then send an electrical signal to the correct area of the brain which then gets to work interpreting what these odors mean. Some scents are regarded by the brain as so important to know about, that your body can detect molecules as little as 1 part per million (like natural gas).

 You’ll notice that while your nose (the hardware i.e. touchscreen) does the main job of detecting the smells, the brain does much of the work of interpreting and filtering odors to make them useful.

taste (gustation)

Taste is the other chemical sense. Tastebuds have highly sensitive hair cells (similar to the ears) which can detect how something tastes. There are 5 types of chemicals that the tastebuds watch out for, which leads to 5 main types of tastes: 1) Sweet, 2) Salty, 3) Sour, 4) Bitter, and 5) Umami. 

Once the tastebuds have detected the presence of some of these chemicals, you guessed it, it goes to the brain for interpretation of if the taste is good or bad. 

touch (tactility)

Touch is a mechano-sensory sense which responds to pressure on the body. Sensory nuerons in your skin send messages up or down the chain to the spinal cord and back up to the brain.

There are two sensory expressways in the brain for tactility: One for 1) pain and temperature, and one for 2) different types of touch such as detecting vibration, really light touch, and discrimination along the surface of the skin. 

Once the skin cells have transmitted this information up these expressways, the brain can intpret and make the information useful (am I touching something dangerous? am I hurt right now? is there something asking for my attention?).

While the five senses above are commonly taught, they make up only a part of good sensory processing. Rarely must a person respond to something in the environment using only one of their senses. Often times it is a mix of sensory inputs that lead to a perfectly coordinated move, or success on a playground game. When speaking about gross motor coordination, there are two more senses that help the body respond correctly discussed below.

about gross motor coordination

Skilled movement requires our brains to coordinate sensory input from the five senses (sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell) with two “hidden” body senses. These are the proprioceptive and vestibular senses, which work on an unconscious level.

the vestibular sense

Those of us who have experienced vertigo or middle ear infections have felt the importance of vestibular functioning. Under these conditions, standing up, walking across the room, or moving our heads from side to side can be so disorienting that we are unable to perform our typical activities of daily living. Located in the inner ear and stimulated by head, neck, eye and body movements, the vestibular system is the foundation for the development of balance. It responds to the pull of gravity and provides information about the position and movement of the head.

Therefore, it lets us know if we are at rest or moving, and the speed and direction of our movement. It also provides information about the movement of objects around us. This information is crucial to coordinating head and eye movements and using the two sides of our body at the same time. When we lose our balance and begin to fall, our body’s vestibular system activates muscles to pull us back into balance. The vestibular system also modulates muscle tone. 

Learn more about the signs and symptoms of vestibular dysfunction.

the proprioceptive sense

Proprioception contributes to the understanding of our own body — its position and how it’s moving — through sensors in our muscles, joints and tendons. Just as we don’t think about activating our heart muscle to beat, we don’t typically think about all the specific positioning and repositioning of our body parts required to stand in a line, hit a ball or walk across a crowded room. Proprioceptive input also tells us how much force is needed for tasks. For instance, we know how much pressure we need in order to hold and write with a pencil and the amount of force we need to pick up a backpack or throw a ball thanks to proprioception.

from sensory processing -> motor coordination

After we have received information from our eight sensory systems (also called sensory processing), our brains have to synthesize it all for skilled movement. There are three components of sensory processing which lead to movement — sensory modulation, sensory discrimination and motor planning.

sensory modulation

Sensory modulation allows us to respond to relevant sensory input and disregard other sensations. Our sensory likes and dislikes, as well as the quantity of sensory stimulation that we prefer, are determined by the modulation component. Our tolerance of sensation is very personal and situational. One person may enjoy music while reading while another requires silence, but both may enjoy music while doing household chores. Also, our ability to modulate sensation changes as sensation accumulates, the so-called “summation effect.” Children with difficulties modulating sensory input may fear typical sensations or seek extreme sensation. 

Learn more about the signs of overly-responsive behavior.

sensory discrimination

Efficient sensory discrimination informs our brains about the specific qualities of sensation so it can distinguish one experience from another. Sensory discrimination allows us to determine if a siren is moving toward or away from us. We are able to learn about the size, shape and texture of objects and discern body positions and movements. Difficulties with sensory discrimination frequently result in poor coordination and delayed development of motor skill. 

Learn more about the functional signs of inefficient perception of sensation.

motor planning ("praxis")

Motor planning or praxis (from the Greek, “to do”) is the ability to formulate an idea, to make a plan that includes timing and sequencing, and to execute the plan for a new or non-habitual movement. The processes of beginning and ending movement are discrete aspects of motor planning, as are the minute adjustments in response to body feedback and environmental cues that must take place once movement is initiated. Dyspraxia is the term applied when children have difficulty with motor planning. 

Learn more about the signs of dyspraxia. 

the impact of impaired sensory processing

When children feel clumsy and are not adept at activities that other children easily perform, they may lose self-esteem. In addition, these children may come to feel that trying is just too hard, and some may refuse to participate in physical activities. The refusal may be subtle, with the child insisting that they do not like these activities, or the child may over-engage in passive nonphysical activities to avoid potential for embarrassment (for example, excessive computer gaming to avoid a neighborhood game of baseball).

Unfortunately, the lack of participation in recreational group play may also lead to decreased opportunities for developing social skills. On the playground, we learn to make friends, collaborate, compete graciously and negotiate conflict.

With proper treatment, children learn to modulate the sensations that are incoming, discriminate between needed factors, and motor plan in order to execute a movement. This can include anything from complex cheoreographed dances, to simple running or step over step patterns up the stairs. 


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