Reaching decisions: integration of action selection and action performance in learning tool use during middle childhood


Host Institution: University Medical Center Groningen

Department that hosts the PhD: Department of Human Movement Sciences

Contact: Dr. Smith (use this email contact only to request additional information, do NOT use this email for applications)


Project description

This project aims to determine how decision-making and action performance are integrated through examining processes and patterns of affordance exploration during learning tool use in middle childhood. This knowledge will lay the basis for developing rehabilitation training for with children with Developmental Coordination Disorder (DCD). An affordance is a possibility for action that is determined by relations between the features of the environment and the abilities of the actor, in this case the child. Hence, a child perceives the surrounding world in terms of the behaviourally relevant features. This implies that the decision to act depends on the affordances that are perceived. For instance, an object is only reachable when the location of the object is considered in relation to the arm-length or maximum reaching distance of the child.

Affordances change during learning and development, which implies that the child needs to learn to perceive these changed affordances. A key process involved in learning to discover and act on affordances is the process of exploration. To understand the role of exploration in learning to perceive affordances, the current project focusses on the interaction between the decision to perform a certain action (based on the currently perceived affordances) and the actualizations of the act and the possible encounters taking place during that act. Simply stated, if a child decides to reach for an object but discovers that this object is out of reach, it learns to perceive the actor-environment fit (i.e., reachable distance). Moreover, it can learn to perceive that a stick as a tool in the hand can extend the reaching space. Thus the unfolding of the act informs about the accuracy of the perceived affordance. Hence, learning to perceive affordances is a process that involves the constraints of perception-action at the agent-environment level, the brain level, and the history of action performance.

For children with DCD learning to perceive affordances accurately is important because they need to learn to consider their high movement variability when making action decisions. In the experiments children in the age range from 6-12 learn to use tools (changes of the affordances depend on the properties of the tool). The tool use task (i.e., grasping an object with a pair of pliers) will be performed repetitively to examine how children learn through exploring the selection of tools with different properties. Kinematics of the grasping action with the pliers is measured to be able to assess how the decisions and the performance interact. Experiments with typically developing children should reveal how exploration in decisions and actions interact during learning to select the best tool and how this develops over age. Conducting part of these experiment with children with DCD should reveal how variability in actions emerges from interactions between decision-making and action performance. This provides a basis to design rehabilitation training.


People involved

Dr. Smith

Dr. Bongers

Dr. Reinders-Messelink

Prof. dr. Schöner 

Dr. Zhang


Key publications

Franchak, J., & Adolph, K. (2014) Affordances as Probabilistic Functions: Implications for Development, Perception, and Decisions for Action. Ecological Psychology, 26:1-2, 109-124,

Golenia, L., Schoemaker, M.M., Mouton, L.J., Bongers, R.M. (2014) Individual Differences in Learning a Novel Discrete Motor Task. PLoS ONE 9(11): e112806.

Smith, J., & Pepping, G.-J. (2010). Effects of affordance perception on the initiation and actualization of action. Ecological Psychology, 22:2, 119-149,


Specific required skills of PhD student


Skill area
Language (writing) English
Language (speaking) English, Dutch (preferred or willingness to learn)
Programming Matlab, Python (or other programming skills with capacity to learn)
Statistics ANOVA, multiple regression
Statistical programs SPSS, R
Background Human Movement Sciences

Sport and Exercise science


Experimental Psychology

Developmental Psychology

Cognitive Psychology

Rehabilitation science

Project specific knowledge


Project characteristics


Primary focus project Perception-action exploration during learning;

Behavioral experiments examining exploration of affordances (opportunities available for action);

Children without disorders and children with Developmental Coordination Disorders

Methods Kinematics of arm and hand, gaze direction and/or eye movements, video-based scoring