Besides the fact that they were built to do so, there are a
great many reasons why infants need to move. The truth is,
even though their movement capabilities are extremely
limited when compared with even those of a toddler, movement
experiences may be more important for infants than for
children of any other age group. And it's not all about
motor development either.
Thanks to new insights in brain research, we now know that
early movement experiences are considered essential to the
neural stimulation (the "use-it-or-lose-it" principle
involved in the keeping or pruning of brain cells ) needed
for healthy brain development.
Not long ago, neuroscientists believed that the structure of
a human brain was genetically determined at birth. They now
realize that although the main "circuits" are "prewired"
(for such functions as breathing and the heartbeat), the
experiences that fill each child's days are what actually
determine the brain's ultimate design and the nature and
extent of that child's adult capabilities.
An infant's brain, it turns out, is chock-full of brain
cells (neurons) at birth. (In fact, a one-pound fetus
already has 100 billion of them!) Over time, each of these
brain cells can form as many as 15,000 connections
(synapses) with other brain cells. And it is during the
first three years of life that most of these connections are
made. Synapses not used often enough are eliminated. On the
other hand, those synapses that have been activated by
repeated early experiences tend to become permanent. And it
appears that physical activity and play during early
childhood have a vital role in the sensory and physiological
stimulation that results in more synapses.
Neurophysiologist Carla Hannaford, in her excellent book,
Smart Moves: Why Learning Is Not All in Your Head, states:
"Physical movement, from earliest infancy and throughout our
lives, plays an important role in the creation of nerve cell
networks which are actually the essence of learning."
She then goes on to relate how movement, because it
activates the neural wiring throughout the body, makes the
entire body - not just the brain - the instrument of
Gross and fine motor skills are learned through repetition
as well - both by virtue of being practiced and because
repetition lays down patterns in the brain. Although it
hasn't been clearly determined that such early movements as
kicking, waving the arms, and rocking on hands and knees are
"practice" for later, more advanced motor skills, it's
believed that they are indeed part of a process of
neurological maturation needed for the control of motor
skills. In other words, these spontaneous actions prepare
the child ? physically and neurologically ? to later perform
more complex, voluntary actions.
Then, once the child is performing voluntary actions (for
example, rolling over, creeping, and walking), the circle
completes itself, as these skills provide both glucose (the
brain's primary source of energy) and blood flow ("food") to
the brain, in all likelihood increasing neuronal
According to Rebecca Anne Bailey and Elsie Carter Burton,
authors of The Dynamic Self: Activities to Enhance Infant
Development, whenever babies move any part of their bodies,
there exists the potential for two different kinds of
learning to occur: learning to move and moving to learn.
Still, recent evidence indicates that infants are spending
upward of 60 waking hours a week in things ? high chairs,
carriers, car seats, and the like!
The reasons for this trend are varied. Part of the problem
is that more and more infants are being placed in childcare
centers, where there may not be enough space to let babies
roam the floor. Or, given the number of infants enrolled,
there may be little opportunity for caregivers to spend
one-on-one time with each baby. This means, in the morning,
an infant is typically fed, dressed, and then carried to the
automobile, where she's placed in a car seat. She's then
carried into the childcare center, where she may spend much
of her time in a crib or playpen. At the end of the day,
she's picked up, placed again into the car seat, and carried
back into the house, where she's fed, bathed, and put to
Even when parents are home with baby, they seem to be busier
than ever these days. Who has time to get on the floor and
creep around with a child? Besides, with today's emphasis on
being productive, playing with a baby would seem almost a
guilty pleasure! And if the baby seems happy and safe in a
seat placed conveniently in front of the TV, in a bouncer
hung in a doorway, or cruising about in a walker, then
what's the harm? It's a win/win situation, isn't it?
In fact, it isn't. Being confined (as one colleague says:
"containerized") affects a baby's personality; they need to
be held. It may also have serious consequences for the
child's motor ? and cognitive ? development.
Other trends in today's society having an impact on infants'
opportunities to move are the inclination to restrict,
rather than encourage, freedom of movement and the misguided
belief that early academic instruction will result in
superbabies. (In 1999, 770,000 copies of infant software ?
"lapware" ? were sold!)
Humans are meant to move and play. The inclination ? the
need ? is hardwired into them. Babies, in fact, spend nearly
half of their waking time ? 40% ? doing things like kicking,
bouncing, and waving their arms. And while it may appear all
this activity is just for the sake of moving, it's important
to realize a baby is never "just moving" or "just playing."
Every action extends the child's development in some way.
Rae Pica is a children's physical activity specialist and author of Your Active Child: How to Boost Physical, Emotional, and Cognitive Development through Age-Appropriate Activity
(McGraw-Hill, 2003). Rae speaks to parent and education
groups throughout North America. Visit her and read more
articles at http://www.movingandlearning.com.