How children plan their movements

Psychologist Erik Domellöf is using advanced digital technology to study how children plan their movements. His findings may form the basis for new diagnostic methods and training models for children with functional disabilities.

Erik Domellöf

PhD. Psychology

Wallenberg Academy Fellow 2015

Umeå University

Research field:
Motor planning ability in children

Daniella, 6, is sitting in front of a number of video cameras in a research lab at Umeå University. On her nose rests a pair of “space glasses”, which register her eye movements; sensors have been attached to her wrists and index fingers to monitor how she moves her hands.

Domellöf begins by calibrating the equipment.

“Are you ready?” he asks.

Daniella nods. When she hears the signal she has been asked to move a wooden stick from one receptacle to another with her right hand. She does so quickly. Anna Bäckström, a PhD student, places a black cloth over the receptacle so that Daniella cannot see how the hole in which she has to insert the stick is changed before each attempt. Daniella eagerly follows her movements and reacts at once when the cloth is removed. Quick as a flash she inserts the stick.Daniella is almost as good with her left hand.

She is also asked to put various wooden shapes through the right holes of a shape sorter.

Finally, she has to watch two film clips. First, one version, where two people talk with one another. Then another version with two talking trucks. They say exactly the same things as the people in the first dialogue. The equipment records how Daniella’s gaze moves from one thing to another.

“Her gaze shifts in anticipation of who she expects to speak, in the same way as it shifted to find the hole in which she planned to put the stick or the wooden shape,” Domellöf comments.

He explains that we need the ability to foresee what will happen to perform functional movements. The mental processes we use to understand and adapt to the world around us are also important, along with our talent for social communication.

“Goal-oriented actions are important. An advanced plan is needed to stretch out your hand and pick up a glass of water. Someone who has the slightest motor problem may well knock the glass over,” Domellöf explains.

But there are many gaps in our understanding of children’s motor planning ability. There is a particular lack of studies on development in children with various autistic conditions, whose symptoms include difficulties in understanding how others think and feel.

“Developmental psychology is a large field of research, but not much of it involves children, particularly not children with disabilities,” Domellöf comments.

Motor planning ability

Domellöf’s admission as a Wallenberg Academy Fellow in 2015 marked the beginning of a multi-year study of children’s motor ability to prepare for, and perform, movements. He has had a studio built, complete with video cameras to record movements, where various experiments are carried out in which children have to focus their gaze, reach out for an object, grasp it and perform a set task.

“I wanted to make a detailed study of why some people find it hard to plan their movements, and came up with the idea of combining it with the study of eye movements in goal-oriented actions,” Domellöf explains.

The project is monitoring the same participants from pre-school age to early school age, and includes children with typical development, and those in the risk zone for autism.

“I think that anyone who works with children with autism has noticed they can be a little clumsy and possibly also socially isolated. Someone who cannot foresee their own movements might not be able to foresee those of others either. The differences are not so great at pre-school age, but may become more apparent at school, when greater demands are made of children’s intellectual and social skills,” Domellöf adds.

The results will be compared with brain images from older children with and without autism. They may show how differences in brain structure and function may be linked to the ability to plan movements. The project will also be examining whether there is any connection with the child’s health, life quality and behavior at home and in school.

“Admission as a Wallenberg Academy Fellow will give me time and the financial means to monitor the same children over several years to study development of their ability to plan their movements.”

Less evident handedness in infants born prematurely

Domellöf first became acquainted with the field when he was studying to become a psychologist at Umeå University, and writing his thesis on infant head movements. As a PhD student, he went on to study differences in arm and leg movements on the right and left side of very young children.

His doctoral thesis in 2006 showed that even most new-born babies have better control on their right side. But the same obvious difference could not be seen in the arm movements of young infants born prematurely. Domellöf believes that our tendency to prefer using our right hand and foot has a biological explanation.

“The hand we prefer to use has a well-organized movement. The other hand is less mature, and does not move straight towards the target in the same way. We don’t see this difference as clearly among babies born prematurely. This might be due to the risks to which the brain is exposed as a result of premature birth,” he says.

The new study will also be examining the difference between the left and right hand.

Domellöf hopes that his methods of measuring motor planning ability will ultimately be of use in diagnosis. He also hopes to be able to develop training methods to improve movement patterns.

“We will be studying whether video games, for example, can improve motor planning ability in children with autism,” he adds.

Text Carin Mannberg-Zackari
Translation Maxwell Arding
Photo Magnus Bergström