Motor Planning

Is your child unable to catch a ball?

Is your child:

  • Missing the Ball?
  • Demonstrating poor hand-eye coordination?
  • Having trouble catching a ball or throwing a ball?
  • Not showing interest in sports or struggling to participate in P.E. class?
  • Earning high grades in many subjects while failing P.E.?
  • Avoiding physical activity for fear of falling down, or being laughed at for lack of athleticism?
  • Not learning how to do jumping jacks?
  • Appearing inefficient with movement during dressing tasks?
  • Having difficulty picking what do on at the playground?
  • Appearing clumsy and slow when doing puzzles, writing, or cutting?


Some children struggle with their coordination and may have more difficulty with athletics than others do. These problems may become evident to you while watching your child play at the park. Your child may be unsteady on the play structure, have trouble climbing the ladder of the slide, or struggle getting onto the swings. Your child might not like hopscotch, or he may struggle to catch a ball.

Coordination may be a problem if your child’s skills are outside the typical developmental trajectory. For example, a child who is 24 months old may be able to catch a beach ball but would likely struggle with a smaller ball like a tennis ball. Coordination should become more fluid as your child ages.

If your child continues to watch peers mature, while he or she stays behind, an issue with motor development could be the cause. Your child may be feeling tired of being ‘the last one picked’ for the team in baseball. It may be that your child is failing P.E. class. You may have tried to introduce your child to multiple sports, finding that he does not enjoy them and drops out.

This struggle is only a problem when it starts ‘getting in the way.’ If your child feels socially isolated and left out of things due to poor motor skills, it is worthwhile to look into the issue further. However, some children may shy away from sports but find other activities they enjoy instead.

Maybe P.E. class is not their favorite activity, but they are not experiencing distress over it. In that case, a cause for concern may not be present. If, however, your child is feeling very frustrated and discouraged by poor motor skills, treatments are available that may be helpful.


The first aspect to consider with the inability to catch a ball is the typical developmental course. A simple guide is provided here to help you. If your child is a tad behind, it is quite possible he or she will catch up. If, however, significant differences are apparent in your child’s skills as compared to typical development, clinical consideration may be worthwhile. A typical course is as follows (Linder, 2008, p.59-60) [3]:

24 months (2 years): Can toss a ball toward a larger target; can kick a ball forward

36 months (3 years): Can catch a ten-inch ball against chest

42 months: Can throw a ball 5-7 feet

60 months (5 years): Can throw smoothly, aimed at target; can line up body with ball to catch with elbows at sides; can hit a baseball using a bat [3]

A number of factors may influence a child’s coordination and ability to master activities like playing catch.

Motor planning: A child may struggle with catching a ball because of challenges with gross motor planning. If a child has deficits in motor planning, the parts of the brain (parietal lobe and basal ganglia) responsible for planning and executing gross motor movements may not be working smoothly. Gross motor planning is the ability to visually make these judgments and then to direct one’s body toward the intended goal.

Attention: If a child has a deficit in this area, it may be worthwhile to consider attention as well. Your child may not be motivated or interested in catching the ball. Gross motor planning problems are only concerning if they ‘get in the way’ of goals and activities. While not everyone is good at playing catch, is this difficulty just one symptom of a more general concern?

Visual tracking: It also may be that your child struggles to visually see the ball moving through the sky (visual tracking) or to judge how far away it is (depth perception), which are visual spatial skills.

Proprioception: Lastly, proprioception affects a child’s ability to motor plan. Proprioception is commonly explained as body awareness or knowing where your body is in space. For example, if a child is unable to sense where her arms are while trying to catch a ball without looking at her arms, she will have increased difficulty catching the ball.

Some children will grow out of these problems with practice and repetition. If concerns continue to interfere, however, it might be wise to seek an occupational therapy consultation or evaluation (see below).


Consider whether your child may benefit from therapy like Occupational Therapy (OT) or Physical Therapy (PT).

Occupational therapy: OT helps to strengthen fine motor skills like writing, drawing, beading, etc. OT can also help to provide sensory input or modifications, work to strengthen the core, and address bilateral coordination (using both sides of the body) during everyday tasks.

Physical therapy: PT is recommended for challenges with ambulation and gait, such as running, walking, and movement. If your child has significant impact from a genetic condition, such as Cerebral Palsy, Down Syndrome, Spina Bifida, Rett syndrome, and other genetic conditions, a full treatment plan would include physical therapy and other types of therapies to address his or her cognitive, social-emotional, or speech delays.

At home: Encourage participation in sports that do not have as much emphasis on these areas. Perhaps avoiding team softball or soccer will take away the pressure to be well coordinated. Meanwhile, sports like running, swimming, yoga, dance, and martial arts may allow your child to improve his or her confidence and to strengthen his or her body. Coordination can improve with strengthening and activity. Work with your child to find a sport that fits his or her interest. Getting into the rhythm of being active will form good fitness habits that can continue throughout your child’s life.

Additional ideas to help improve your child’s motor planning skills

  • breaking down the task and practicing step by step
  • playing balloon tap back and forth with your hands or rackets
  • making a fun game out of being statues and having the child copy the exact pose you are in (can make it harder by copying a series of motion) or follow the leader
  • engaging in proprioceptive input prior to completing gross motor tasks can help increase coordination and body awareness, such as wall-push ups, crab walking, or carrying heavy objects (e.g., books, weighted stuffed animals, or laundry)
  • having the child plan and complete an obstacle course
  • encouraging the child to plan a craft activity from start to finish and complete it
  • board games such as Don’t Break the Ice, Feed the Woozle, or Jenga
  • completing dot to dots and mazes
  • lacing cards
  • stacking legos and blocks
  • climbing through hula hoops in various positions


If your child is struggling with a similar problem, not directly addressed in this section, see the list below for links to information about other related symptom areas.

  • Visual tracking: challenges with visually following words on a page while reading or following an object as it moves through space
  • Depth perception: challenges with judging the distance in space between oneself and an object, such as a ball or other objects in the visual field
  • Attention (Focusing): challenges with focus can impact a child’s athletic abilities and motor skills
  • Coordination: challenges with the ability to control muscle movement can impact gross motor, fine motor skills, or both


Children who have significant problems in this area may have any of the following potential disabilities. *Note, this does not serve as a diagnosis in any way. See ‘Where to Go for Help’ section for professionals who can diagnose or provide a referral.

  • Developmental Coordination Disorder: challenges with fine motor, likely including poor handwriting
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder: deficits in social communication and restricted interests or behaviors; at times motor planning and coordination are impacted in children with autism
  • Dyslexia (Educationally identified disabilities – may be diagnosed clinically as well): challenges with reading that have underlying visual processing deficits
  • Dysgraphia (Educationally identified disabilities – may be diagnosed clinically as well): challenges with writing due to visual or motor processing deficits
  • Dyscalculia (Educationally identified disabilities – may be diagnosed clinically as well): challenges with mathematics may relate to visual-spatial deficits
  • Motor Apraxia: challenges with gross motor movement


If your child is struggling with this symptom to the point that it is getting in the way of his learning, relationships, or happiness, the following professionals could help; they may offer diagnosis, treatment, or both.

  • CLEAR Child Psychology: to consult ‘live’ with a psychologist or obtain a customized profile of the concerns you have for your child
  • Physical Therapist: to assess and treat gross motor coordination; to help with large muscle groups and movement
  • Occupational Therapist: to assess and treat fine motor skills and sensory integration needs
  • Psychologist or Neuropsychologist: to consider possible symptoms in a mental health context; to evaluate your child in the motor domain as well as other related areas, such as attention, social development, learning areas

These professionals may recommend or administer the following tests for this symptom:

  • MVPT-4: assesses areas of visual perception (Neuropsychological evaluation)
  • WISC-V: subtests related to block design, picture memory, coding, symbol search and cancellation (Psychological or School Psychological evaluation)
  • Beery VMI sequence: assess visual-motor integration, visual perception and motor coordination. (Neuropsychological evaluation or Occupational Therapy evaluation)
  • ADOS-2: for related concerns indicating an autism diagnosis should be considered
  • WIAT-III: for related concerns in reading, writing, or math


[1] Moyer, Lindsay (2013). 7 Developmental steps to teaching your child to catch.

[2] Debrabant, Julie; Vingerhoets, Guy; Van Waelvelde, Hilde; Leemans, Alexander; Taymans, Tom; Caeyenberghs, Karen. Brain Connectomics of Visual-Motor Deficits in Children with Developmental Coordination Disorder. The Journal of Pediatrics, Volume 169, 21 – 27. e2.

[3] Linder Ed.D., Toni & Petersen-Smith Ph.D., Ann (2008) Administration Guide for TPBA2 & TPBI2 (Play-Based Tpba, Tpbi, Tpbc). Paul H. Brookes, Inc.


[4] Kroncke, Anna P., & Willard, Marcy & Huckabee, Helena (2016). Assessment of autism spectrum disorder: Critical issues in clinical forensic and school settings. Springer, San Francisco.



Image Credit:
Description: Goalkeeper jumps to block soccer ball from scoring goal
Image ID: #61323937

By: Mikkelwilliam
Previously Licensed on: May 13, 2017
Stylized by Katie Harwood exclusively for CLEAR Child Psychology

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