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Perceptual-Motor Development in the Toddler

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By Beth Witt, M.A.
Copyright 1990 by Communication Skill Builders, Inc.

What is perceptual-motor development?

Two aspects of a child's growth combine to produce perceptual-motor development. Perception is any process by which children become aware of what is happening around them. Children gain information through their senses-what they see, hear, smell, taste, and touch. As babies grow, their senses become sharper and more accurate, and their ability to perceive becomes stronger. They begin to organize their perceptions and make sense of them.

The increasing ability to control the movement of the body is called motor development. Little children learn to move different parts of their bodies as they get involved with the objects and people they perceive. This is called perceptual-motor development. The perceptual-motor process is an "in-out" process, since the information comes in to the mind, which then tells the body how to move in response.

The first years of life are very important in developing good perceptual-motor abilities. Educators call this period the sensori-motor period, because infants and toddlers spend so much time observing and reacting to their world through their senses.

What are some perceptual-motor milestones?

Newborn to 1 month: Babies use basic reflexes, present at birth, to respond to their perceptions. They suck, cry and grasp. When awake, they look and hear; this is early perceiving.

1 to 4 months: To gain information, babies begin trying to improve their listening and looking. They try to refine their movements, such as thumb-sucking, to satisfy needs.

4 to 8 months: Babies begin to realize they can make things happen. They rub, strike, shake, and kick at objects to make them move, make noise, or produce new information for their senses. They try to hold onto and look at toys and body parts (such as hands and feet). Most importantly, their perceptions begin to become organized enough so that they develop object permanence-they've learned that an object still exists even when it is out of sight. They can mentally "hold a picture," a very important first step in learning to think!

8 to 12 months: Babies begin to move intentionally-the way they move is a means to an end. They pull strings and use sticks to pull in out-of-reach objects. They hunt for out-of-sight objects, crawling under tables and lifting covers. At this age, babies are fun to play with. They imitate simple actions (clapping, wagging tongue, lying down) and simple sounds and words ("ma-ma," "bye-bye"). Coordinating face, mouth, and throat muscles to imitate and produce sound combinations is a perceptual-motor response.

The pincer grasp is another important perceptual-motor ability that develops now. To use the pincer grasp, your baby must visually focus on tiny objects and put the thumb and forefinger together to pick them up.

1 to 1-1/2 years: Babies are toddlers now and more able to get about. They are interested in learning how to move their bodies in different ways, such as walking, running, jumping, and climbing. They also explore objects to learn about them. They love to combine objects. They make a lot of noise and often a big mess as they "move to learn."

They respond to their perceptions with such motor responses as:

  • Stuffing socks in shoes
  • Trying to put on and take off pan and jar lids
  • Stacking a couple of soup cans or blocks.

1 1/2 to 2 years: These active little ones have now refined their perceptions into mental pictures with names. They've learned that many things go together. They know that things have function(s) and are usually found in certain places. Their motor responses are more planned and deliberate. And these babies can make their body parts move more efficiently for their purposes! They begin to see relationship when they put objects together.

They enjoy activities that help answer the simple questions they have. These could include:

  • Fitting different-sized cups together
  • Turning a crank to make a toy pop up
  • Turning a key to make a toy move
  • Fitting round and square blocks in simple form boards
  • Scribbling with a crayon to see the marks.

2 to 3 years: By now, children have gained enough information through their senses and exploration that they begin to form ideas. They are learning to think effectively. However, they still learn much through their manipulation of objects and people. Their "percepts" (single thoughts) become "concepts" (combined thoughts). They learn that things can be a size (small) and a color (red). They learn things have more than one function (eat, cook) and have various parts (skin, pulp, stem, seeds). They combine words to try to describe their world and express their thoughts.

Children now ask for information as they move their bodies and objects;

"What color is this?"

"Where this go?"

"Why this not have buttons?"

"What you doing?"

They like to dress and undress dolls, put simple puzzles together, "string" objects, and manipulate clay and paintbrushes. Toward the end of the second year; they enjoy learning to fasten their clothing, mark with crayons, and snip with scissors. These activities require them to use both hands together. By the third year, their perceptual-motor development has involved much combined mental and physical growth.

What can interfere with perceptual-motor growth?

Many things can interfere with perceptual-motor growth. Deafness and blindness prevent children from perceiving important information. Not learning how things look or sound can interfere with developing good movement responses to them.

A lack of motor exploration of objects can also interfere with children's forming proper concepts about them, so children who are physically limited need special help with their perceptual-motor development. Mental disabilities, specific learning and language disabilities, and emotional difficulties can also interfere with development in this important pre academic area.

How can I help when there is a problem?

It is important to spot a problem early if your child seems unable to respond appropriately to people and objects. The earlier problems are taken care of, the better your child will grow, develop, and learn.

Sometimes medical attention is needed.

Sometimes early special education and therapy will help. Don't assume your child will "grow out of the problem." Educators know a variety of ways to adapt training so that your child can move, look, and listen-and-learn-as normally as possible.

Seeking such help is the most basic way you can help. By working with educators and therapists, you can help your child learn at home and school.

For more information

Honig, A.S., and J.R. Lally. 1981. Infant Caregiving: A design for training. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press.

Cooke, J., and D. Williams. 1987 Working with children's language. Tucson: Communication Skill Builders.

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