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Encouraging Little Movers

Dr Jane Williams

Do you know that when infants and young children move thousands of messages are sent to their brains that are important for learning?

Movement is an integral of part of learning. If we don’t move how can we learn about the feel of things, how our own body works or how we can best interact with those who love and care for us? Jean Piaget, a famous infant and child psychologist was particularly interested in investigating how infants and children learn to think. Importantly, he determined that moving plays a very important role in learning – an Idea that has been supported by later researchers.

From before birth, movement is an integral part of how a baby stimulates his brain and body to develop. Tumbling, kicking, elbowing, wriggling and hiccupping in their fluid filled sac. A newborn baby appears to move less. Tightly wrapped and exposed to the effects of gravity for the first time really limits their movement! But if you watch an unwrapped infant closely you will see that they actually move quite a lot – in wriggly or fidgety movements.

Infants are also born with a set of involuntary movement-based reflexes. These reflexes have a twofold purpose – firstly to assist survival in the vulnerable first months of life and secondly to lay the crucial foundations for the development of voluntary movement. These reflex movements help an infant to develop muscle tone and strength, head control, visual acuity, balance and coordination. When an infant moves they are also stimulating hundreds of touch and position senses that tell the brain about the body’s position in space and where the limbs are at any given time.

Moving also allows the young infant and child to interact with their environment. Learning occurs through these interactions as the brain receives the stimulation necessary for the development of thinking skills.

Not only does moving stimulate learning, but learning stimulates the next level of moving, as the brain matures and is able to tackle a more difficult movement task. For example, a ‘cruising’ baby will repeatedly pull up to standing and cruise around the furniture or whatever else is available – taller people’s legs, stationary cars, bushes, beds etc… Once that learning task is accomplished successfully (over weeks or months) the infant will then attempt first unassisted steps. Once the brain pathways for the first movement are successfully ‘locked in’ the next level of movement Is attempted.

Helping your baby to move and learn

While modern conveniences provide parents with lots of ways to ‘help protect’ their babies, many of them restrict movement, preventing babies from getting the very experiences that promote healthy development.

A baby in a bouncinette, for example, is limited to watching, rather than doing. He has no opportunity to move and strengthen his head, neck, shoulder and arm muscles like he would if he was on the floor on his tummy. Jolly jumpers and fixed swings appear at first glance to be developmentally stimulating – but long term use usually means that infants are deprived of movement experiences that they need to learn to control their own environment. (So make sure you limit their use to just 10 or 15 minutes a day.)

‘Bumble chairs’ and walkers should be avoided all together. A baby who is forced into a sitting position under 6 months of age, such as in the leg hugging, bottom securing ‘bumble chair’, will not be able to move freely, nor develop the muscle strength necessary for crawling and creeping. Walkers are just downright dangerous. Infants have no way of protecting themselves if the walker rolls down a set of stairs. Developmentally, walkers take the infant off the floor and into a position that does not promote the normal developmental sequence. Children who use walkers do not walk any earlier than children who do not. They just miss out on crawling and creeping and all the brain stimulation that these essential movement skills promote.

Baby capsules are an essential part of car travel as every child must be restrained safely and securely. However, when taken out of the car these containers tightly restrict a baby’s movements. It’s best to leave the capsule in the car and just take baby out.

Little children who are creepers, crawlers and cruisers need the space to “roam”. Be aware of ‘what’s safe’. Put away all your precious ornaments and breakables! Make sure cleaning agents, toiletries and other poisons are safely stored. (The kitchen saucepan cupboard is a favourite exploration site!)

Let your toddler WALK. Go for walks every day. There are so many things to do while walking: stepping into puddles, jumping over lines, picking up leaves and twigs, balancing along fences etc… Go to parks and play on swings, see saws and slides. Run up and down hills. Roll and tumble. Balance along edges.

Don’t hurry your child – it takes time for the body to fine-tune its movements. Let them tackle the same task as often as they need to. Every time your child practices a movement they are taking another important step along the pathway to learning.

About Our Expert

Dr Jane Williams is the Research and Education General Manager for Toddler Kindy GymbaROO and Adjunct Senior Lecturer at the School of Nursing, Midwifery & Nutrition, James Cook University. For more information about encouraging your babies movement and development see Jane’s article ‘Tummy Time” (Autumn Issue, 2009) available online via our website