How do we support infants and young children in developing robust motor skills and a strong, healthy body?
The answer is through respect, trust, and freedom of movement.
Within days of giving birth to your precious new baby, you’re back at the doctor’s office establishing pediatric care, and beginning the lifelong routine of “well visits” for your little one. The emotional experience of having your baby measured and tested is often a mixed bag for parents. The appointments can be both reassuring, and a little intimidating. My baby is losing weight; how much is too much? Is their poop the right color? What does the 40th percentile really mean? Should I worry?
With the objective of catching early warning signs and making sure the baby is on track, this practice of regular doctor’s visits inadvertently trains us to perceive our infant’s physical development through the lens of “milestones”. We set forth, tracking baby’s movements on a timeline, always aspiring to help them reach the next stage, whether that be grasping objects, rolling over, crawling, walking, or running. And while it’s helpful to know the range of normal, and to encourage our baby’s growth and learning, this mindset can detract from the varied, individual, and organic experience of physical development in each child.
In the same way that teaching to a standardized test is short-sighted about one’s goals for a robust internalization of the full breadth of an academic subject, focusing too much on these milestones can fail a child’s broader development. We may sprint narrowly and unsustainably towards the goal directly in front of us, forgetting the richness of a child’s experience of the world and of themselves. The child does not know about milestones, and has an innate, often overlooked, intuition and curiosity about what they most need. The best thing we can do is trust that intuition and follow their lead.
Of course, placing restrictions on your child’s movement is necessary on occasion (car seats are an obviously good thing), but in my experience, moving in the direction of more physical freedom can have positive, compounding effects both for a child’s development and for the parent-child relationship. When we grant a child more freedom, we create an opportunity to observe just how capable they are. We start to trust their intuition, the child feels our trust and is inspired to continue moving and exploring, which in turn encourages us to make more space for such moments. Ex: mom sits on the floor, back against the wall as she crochets a scarf and observes her infant crawl around his play space. The child may start in mom’s lap, but slowly, in his own time, gains the confidence to crawl away, and crawl back again, each time going a little further and interacting with more play objects. While mom observes, she smiles at him as he rights himself after briefly toppling over. Together they start to trust the “together” yet “individual” experience, and a beautiful feedback loop begins.
Below I’ve listed some downsides to modern day play equipment and adult-directed movement, as well as the benefits of unrestricted movement. And I close with some practical ways you can support your little one’s free play and physical development.
Though useful in some regards, contraptions like exersaucers and swings …
- Limit a child’s choice of activity and experience;
- Eliminate the opportunity to turn away from stimulation;
- Restrict mobility by confining them to one position;
- Exacerbate digestive issues like constipation and gas when the body can’t twist, crunch, or invert.
The trouble with tummy time, swim classes, holding a child’s arms up as they learn to walk, and other such directed experiences:
- The adult decides what’s going to be learned and experienced in each moment, how fast to progress through movements and skills, and what’s expected of a child at a certain age;
- We tend to compare our little ones to the other children in the same group;
- It gives the message that “I know your body and your needs better than you do”;
- Children can’t change position, or simply quit if they get tired;
- Children learn a skill (standing and balancing) in an unnatural position (arms up) and have a harder time recalibrating when the supports go away (walking on their own);
- With tummy time in particular, being facedown can be uncomfortable and is hard for breathing.
So what are the benefits of free, unrestricted movement?
- Refined strength – children can practice over and over as many times as they see fit;
- The confidence that comes with learning something independently;
- Knowing how to learn;
- Grace and ease of movement;
- Persistence and motivation;
- A drive to experiment;
- Self-awareness of overcoming difficulty;
- Uncompromised self-esteem;
- Flexibility, posture, and good form;
- A body that is ready for organic learning and play;
- A feeling of respect when their parent trusts in their timeline, their ability, and their choices.
Ways you can support freedom of movement
- Create a “yes space” for your little one to play in. This term was coined by parent educator Janet Lansbury to describe an area in your home or yard designed specifically for safe, self-directed, uninterrupted play. Without having to constantly jump up and protect your child from the dangers of tipping over a potted plant or pulling on a lamp cord, “yes spaces” allow you to relax and observe your child as they deeply immerse themselves in playful exploration.
- Have regular time outside. The great outdoors offer the best variety of terrain, temperature, texture, light, sound, etc.
- Create time daily for your baby to lay on their back with a few toys nearby. As their strength and coordination improves, they will naturally find their way to their tummy, and back again. Be close by should they get stuck and signal to you that they’d like some help.
- Invite your little one to help with everything from a diaper change to making dinner. Involving them in authentic movement experiences is the perfect way to encourage their development. By lifting their legs or stirring a pot, they are connecting with you, becoming a contributing member of the family, and strengthening their bodies all at the same time.