More Sensory-Motor Concepts: Rolling

In the first Sensory-Motor Concepts article, we discussed basic gross motor skills organized around anterior/posterior motions of the body, vertical movements, and lateral and rotational movements. In this second article, we'll explore a narrower but still quite prevalent category of motor concepts.

This exploration of motor concepts is based on observations from my years of teaching and working hands-on with clients.  Like a natural historian, I use my observational skills to try to categorize the things I see. However, since there’s not much hard research on these concepts and connections, I will add to the discussion of these motor concept categories some questions for further research, along with possibilities for intervention to improve movement. I look forward to hearing your experiences and observations.


This is an example of rolling the arm up and down.

There’s a movement lesson I’ve taught to thousands of people in many different countries, which involves lying on your back with your arms straight out to the sides, about shoulder height. I would then ask the student to make a soft fist and roll their arm and fist down toward the feet and up toward the head. In other words, the amplitude of the movement of the arms would be determined by how far you could roll your fist.

This is an example of sliding the arm up and down.

Some people do not roll the fist or arm at all; they only slide the arm up and down on the floor. More people roll a small amount and then slide. About 1 out of 3 people might partially roll then slide their arm down and up.

Now one could say, “So what?”

What I’ve observed countless times is that people who roll clearly and fully in both directions will also walk in a softer manner, as if rolling the bottom of the foot on the floor, moving softly from heel, across the foot and off the toes, thus making knee and hip actions easier.

People who tend to slide the arms do not readily show this kind of walk and foot action on the ground. Instead, particularly in older adults, the tendency with arm sliders is to shuffle with the feet, almost as though they were trying to slide their feet like they slid their arms in the lesson.

A dramatic example that has appeared several times in my courses: I’ve also asked people lying on their backs to roll their legs, in and out, internally and externally. Most people understand those words and how to translate them into their bodily actions, but some arm sliders can only think of sliding their legs together and sliding them out. These people have very pronounced shuffles in their walks.

To understand how pervasive these issues are, often a student might need to be handled so they could feel what it’s like to roll an arm compared to sliding it. If students watch other students rolling their arms on the floor, they can at least approximate the idea better but sometimes the translation from seeing to sensing is also not available.

Another interesting issue/observation- people who roll their arms while lying on their back generally look more graceful and coordinated if asked to simply roll onto their stomach and return to their back. In some people, this whole body rolling motion is done easily and quickly as one simple whole body movement. In other people, it takes multiple movements and adjustments to move from their back to their stomach and even more movements to roll from stomach to back.

And again, people who physically understand the motor concept of rolling seem to maintain the concept in a large number of actions. But then, people who slide their arms in the lesson I described show that sliding and shuffling belong to a large number of actions, as though that too was a motor concept.

Further movement puzzles: if someone who can’t understand the feeling of rolling the arm compared to sliding it is handled so they can sense what the word ‘roll’ means and that sense is accepted and internalized, it still takes some teaching to develop the same sensation in the legs while still lying on the back or rolling over. Only then does it seem to affect how they experience the ground that they walk on. In which case, a shuffler can learn to organize rolling across the foot much more easily.

Clearly more research needs to be done on how our brain organizes the control of movement. So far no theories of motor control address some of these important issues and observations.

Questions for further research

  • Is the motor concept for rolling so pervasive that if it doesn’t show in the arms, it might not show elsewhere in the body, like in walking and the feet?

  • Why and how does a simple movement of the arms reflect itself in similar qualities of motion in the legs and feet?

For the next article in this Sensory Motor Concepts series, I’ll discuss motor concepts related to balance.

-Frank Wildman, PhD