Ways to enhance perceptual-motor learning

Early intervention is successful when it helps caregivers to shape the environment to suit the needs and abilities of the infant - and in this way motivate the infant to move, explore, interact and learn more. 

Four important ideas about infant learning 

1   Infant motor learning can be characterized as the process by which the infant learns about:

  • the structure of the task (the sequence and timing of movements needed to complete the task),
  • the information needed to plan and complete a task,
  • how to adapt posture to anticipate and respond to changing forces actin on the body;

2   Infants learning occurs when they interact with the environment through repeated cycles of perception and action.  

3    Repetition allows for repeated  action-perception cycles, with embedded exploration of different options that lead to success. Read mre about perception-action cycles. 

4    Infants learn best when they actively engage in self-initiated actions that are somewhat challenging but allow for success most of the time.

5   Repeated experience of success builds the infant's belief in their ability to succeed (self-efficacy) 

The shift from spontaneous to intentional and goal directed action 

Early spontaneous movement provides the earliest experience 

Active movement in the uterus provides the infant with repeated experience of moving the head trunk and limbs in a variety of ways. These spontaneous movements are the first opportunity to link  motor commands with proprioceptive feedback from the movement itself as well as the outcome of the movement, such as contact with the uterine wall and contact of the hands with the face and sucking of the hand. 

After birth healthy term infants quickly learn to adapt their spontaneous movements to accommodate the force of gravity acting on the body. They also learn to stabilize their heads and trunk when moving the limbs. 

During periods when the infant is awake and alert,  they start to adapt the spontaneous movements to allow their hands and feet to explore the surfaces they encounter, as well as respond to external events (sounds and sights) in the environment. 

The repeated cycles of perception and action are variable, with each repetition providing differences in the movement that is produced and the consequent feedback. 

Repeated kicking actions provide a good example of the variability inherent in infant movement. Consider a sequence of kicking movements starting from full extension of the hip and knee of one lower extremity. 

The first flexion-extension sequence of movement of the hips and knees will end in an extended position of the hip and knee that is different from start position of the first kicking action. In addition the kicking action will have perturbed the trunk creating a different set of forces acting on the lower extremities which need to be accommodated in the next kicking cycle. 

Infants learns to exploit this variability as they become increasingly aware of their ability to engage with and influence, the social and physical environment, and influence their own actions to create interesting and novel experiences. 

Examples of early infant learning 

  • Infants change the pattern of kicking when a bell is attached to one lower extremity. 
  • They learn to quieten their limb movements when visually attending to an interesting event 

Emergence of intentional, curiosity driven exploration 

Over the first weeks infants start to intentionally adapt their movements as they increasingly use their hands and feet to explore the surfaces they encounter. When the hands encounter a surface infants use individual finger movements to explore the texture, size, and "move-ability" of the surfaces they encounter. 

They start to reach for objects within easy reach and learn to grasp and steady the object with one hand while using the other hand to manipulate and explore its features. 

This early exploratory behavior is primarily curiosity driven, the purpose being to obtain new and interesting information. 

"The fact that animals, and particularly humans, seem avidly to seek out information without an apparent ulterior motive suggests that the brain generates intrinsic rewards that assign value to information, and raises complex questions regarding the benefits and computations of such rewards." Gottlieb 2013

The shift to intentional and goal directed actions 

From about 4-6 months infant actions are increasingly goal directed.  

The infant or child starts starts off  by having an idea of what you want to achieve,  a goal and possibly some idea of how that goal might be achieved. The next step is to explore ways of achieving the goal – trying out different possibilities and deciding which is the most efficient and then repeating the actions until you can do the action easily.

This process of exploring, trying out possibilities, refining coordination, checking progress is supported by a number of important behaviors including:

•    Willingness to approach a new and unfamiliar task

•    Ability to put up with the frustration of failure – and the patience to try again

•    A sense of your own ability to solve the problem – a belief in your abilities – called self-efficacy

•    The desire to achieve your goals – to get things right – called mastery motivation

•    Ability to pay attention to the important details of the task – and not be distracted by irrelevant detail

Enhancing infants' motivation to move and explore 

Infants differ in their level of activity and their motivation to move. 

  • Temperament is one factor that influences the infant's general level of activity: highly sensitive/cautious infants  are often less willing to engage with tasks that are novel or appear to be difficult. 
  • Infants whose early experience has been difficult may also be very cautious, even fearful confronted with new situations and tasks.
  • Pre-term infants also tend to be less active than their full term peers. 

The motivation to move is enhanced by the experience of success in achieving goals, which in turn enhances the sense of self-efficacy. 

Providing many and varied opportunities to engage in activities that are adapted to allow the infant to succeed builds their sense of self-efficacy and willingness take on new challenges. 

A play gym with a few toys suspended in easy reach allows the infant to use their hands to explore a toy. Because the toy is suspended it does not get lost when the infant lets it go, allowing for repeated experience of reaching-grasping-exploration.

M 19w playmat.jpg

Placing a small step in a doorway allows the infant to step up and down using the door jam for support each time they move through to doorway. 

Standing in a triangle of boxes allows the infant to stand and play without fear of falling. The boxes provide support if the infant looses balance and allows them to regain their balance independent. 

R 11m triangle of boxes 3.jpg

Autonomy and a sense of control enhances motor learning 

Motor learning at all ages and levels of expertise is enhanced when the learner has a sense that they have some control of the situation when practicing a task. 

Interestingly learning is enhanced even when the learner is given a choice between some aspect of the task, even when this does not have a real bearing on the task. For instance, a choice between different colored but otherwise identical balls in a putting task improves the accuracy of the putting trials. 

Providing infants with choices between,or within, tasks to be practiced also increases an infant's willingness to engage with an activity. 

  • Let the infant choose between 2 or 3  balls when engaging in a catching and throwing game
  • Follow the infant's lead when playing imitation game

Adapt the task to allow the infant to succeed

Success breeds success. Successful achievement of a goal leads to response from the brains's reward center: a burst of dopamine from the basal ganglia is responsible for the good feeling that is associated with success.

The pleasure associated with mastering a task is linked to the effort required to achieve the success. 

A just-right challenge requires some mental and physical effort as well as persistence to master the task. 

Analysis of the task demands allows the therapist or parent to adapt the task or change the environment to allow the infant to complete the task successfully. 

When practicing stepping up, starting with a low step allows the infant to succeed. Providing a surface for hand support also makes the task easier and allows the infant to succeed.

Allow time for exploration and trial-and-error learning 

Infants often need time to figure out how to do something.  If the challenge is just-right and the infant is motivated they will persist and try out different ways to reach the goal. 

Respect the infant's wishes and needs 

There are times when an infant is just not interested in an activity introduced by an activity partner. The infant may simply refuse to engage with the task, or may engage with the task in a way that is different from the intention of the activity partner. 

When this happens it is important to allow the infant the chance to follow their own path and explore a different activity. This may lead to surprising and exciting new discoveries for the infant. 

Provide external encouragement that reflects the infant's success 

Infants engaged in a self-initiated goal directed activity are usually very aware of whether they have succeeded or not. 

Often they will share their pleasure with an activity partner. 

If the infant succeeds verbal and gestural responses from activity partners provide an additional reward signal and opportunity for shared delight. These external rewards enhance the internal reward from the dopamine system. 

However, it is important not to "reward" attempts that are not successful. As infants are usually very aware of the outcome of their efforts and whether the activity partner's responses align with their experience. 

Set up the environment to encourage repetition

Infants can often be motivated by the presence of interesting toys. They will make an effort to reach beyond easy reaching distance to get the toy. Problem is that once the infant has the toy, they want to play with it and are unhappy when it is removed from their hands. 

Small pieces of food that can be quickly chewed and swallowed can be used to tempt infants repeatedly. Parents will know whether this is a safe option for their child. 

Another way to encourage repeated reaching is to set up an activity that naturally involves repeated action: knocking a plastic bottle of a feeding chair table, knocking over a tower of plastic tubs, posting a set of blocks through a hole in the lid of a tub, picking up and throwing a ball. 


Gottlieb, J., Oudeyer, P.-Y., Lopes, M., & Baranes, A. (2013). Information seeking, curiosity and attention: computational and neural mechanisms. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 17(11), 585–593. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.tics.2013.09.001