We’ve all heard how important the first years of life are developmentally, but have we stopped to consider the process of learning to walk and the role it plays in brain development? Are the two even related? Do early motor skills stimulate cognitive processing?
I had never heard the words brain and body used in the same sentence prior to raising my son with sensory motor challenges. As a professional modern dancer, cognitive skills and motor skills seemed as far apart as the North and South Poles. The brain is for thinking and the body for doing. My son’s deficits, however, gave me a hunger to learn more about it, and I soon discovered that sensory motor development during the first year of life is paramount to our cognitive processing, including behavior and self-regulation.
Looking for answers, I dug deep, and began to understand the complex connections that develop during the first year of a child’s life. The brain needs to learn to control both gross and fine motor actions, talking, impulse control, and complex motor sequences. I had to ask myself, what links the body to the brain? What I found has forever changed my perception of children’s behavior, the source of their well-being, and their appetite for life long learning. It begins with our sensory motor system.
Sensory Motor Development
As in other forms of development, there is a sequence to sensory motor development that each child follows. These skills provide the building blocks that drive our ability to navigate our world and learn. This awareness of one’s body in space is called Kinesthesia which develops through the use of our limbs and torso to organize and coordinate movement on the way to walking.
The jerky, uncoordinated movements of a newborn mirror the unorganized neural networks in their brain. Since the brain is built on demand, the more the infant moves, the more robust connections develop in the brain. The disorganized synapses seeking incoming stimuli become the sensory motor foundation for life-long learning. The synapses are organized and communication between the brain and the body is established when an infant presses or pushes off the floor, resisting gravity. This “heavy work” coordinates the limbs in relation to the body. Infants must push, press, and reach to establish proprioception—the understanding of where they are in space. This is the most important sensory motor building block. It develops mental focus and establishes emotional well-being.
The second building block in sensory motor development is the ability to balance or the development of the Vestibular System. Without a clear relationship to the vertical and the ability to right ourselves from stumbles and falls, not only do we feel clumsy, but we also lack confidence. A baby invests 12 months mastering the balance needed to gain a vertical stance for walking. The ability to balance involves multiple streams of sensory input, including vision, hearing, and touch. The vestibular system has nerve endings in every major muscle group of the body, helping develop coordinated movement. The vestibular system is vital for healthy brain development.
The connection between healthy brain development and motor function is clear. Young children need to move to develop a healthy brain. Sadly, we regularly contain our babies and toddlers in forms of “container care” from Bumbo seats to car seats inhibiting healthy sensory motor development, especially affecting the vestibular system.
The brain is built on demand: “use it or lose it” is as true for infants as it is for adults. The stakes are much higher for young children because the sensory motor connections are just being formed. Our orientation in space, our ability to maintain balance, our ability to process touch, sight, and sound sensations all form during the first year! Eyesight, for example—the least developed sense at birth, takes 18 months to fully develop to 20/20 vision and full color range. Do you know what takes place over 18 months to develop 20/20 vision? Gross motor movement and the environment interact to give input to the eyes (muscles) and the optic nerve grows in response to the stimuli. We see because we move and work out our eyeballs. Containers, screens, and lack of tummy time lead to visual deficits from lack of eye teaming, tracking, and sustained focus.
Linking the body to the brain in order that thought, intention, and action are coordinated and effortless, is the bedrock for school readiness. Perhaps those preschool meltdowns, frustration with fine motor tasks, and lack of focus are a result of a weak, disconnected sensory motor system.
The Road to Walking
Three essential motor patterns in the learning-to-walk process, help infants fearlessly explore the space around them. These three motor patterns stimulate three neural pathways in the brain that process incoming sensory motor stimuli. From hearing to sight to touch, these movement patterns are the source for connecting the brain to the body and connecting the communication within the brain to one sensory system to another.
The upper and lower movement pattern is the pre-mobile pattern infants engage in from birth to approximately six months. The baby rocks from the top of its body to the bottom, pressing up on its hands and then releasing the hands and kicking and pushing its legs.
Homolateral movements are those that use the same side of the body, arm, and leg; pushing with the foot and reaching with the arm. The army crawl emerges from this pattern.
Cross crawling is the final pattern on the way to walking. At this stage the baby integrates across its body by moving opposite hand and foot, first reaching with the arm and then pushing with the opposite foot.
Why does all of this make such a difference for preschoolers? At any stage, revisiting these motor patterns can have a profound and positive affect on the brain. Eighty percent of the brain is dedicated to processing sensory motor experiences. When our sensory “symphony” gets out of tune we can observe a host of issues from picky eaters, difficulty listening and staying on task, touch that is too hard or too soft, troubles with sleep, difficulty sharing and shifting focus, difficulty with potty training, speech that is hard to understand, moody, difficulty with transitions, and an aversion to fine motor tasks—just to name a few. We must never underestimate the power of movement, structured and unstructured, for its capacity to develop, repair, refine, and maintain neural networks in the brain.
We are a country with an epidemic of young children who suffer from sensory processing disorder. Some sources say as many as one in six are affected to the point where it interferes with their daily activities. Are our babies and toddlers not moving enough? When 46% of elementary schools nation-wide eliminate recess and the average daily rate of screen time for 8–18 year olds is at 10.75 hours we certainly aren’t moving enough. Could we be setting up and setting back our preschoolers with sedentary patterns that begin in the car seat?
Patricia Kuhl, co-director of the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences in Seattle, says “it’s all about timing.” With the brain doubling in size during the first year from one to two pounds and reaching 95% of its adult brain weight by 4 years—every encounter counts.
So what is the Solution? GET OUT!
- Get babies out of containers of all kinds.
- Get out the mats for babies and toddlers to tumble and roll on.
- Get out the obstacle course materials and create tunnels, steps, cones, and mats for them to master a sequence of movement.
- Get out and play.
- Get out toys that move and spin.
- Get out the open-ended toys.
- Get out the instruments and music with simple clear rhythms.
- Get out the water play.
- Get out the heavy materials to push, pull, and lift.
- Get out of the way!
Blythe, Sally Goddard. 2005. The Well Balanced Child: Movement and Early Learning, 2nd ed. Gloucestershire: Hawthorn Press.
Miller, Lucy Jane. 2006. Sensational Kids: Hope and Help for Children with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). New York: Penguin Group.
Hannaford, Carla. 1995. Smart Moves: Why Learning Is Not All In Your Head. Arlington: Great Ocean Publishers, Inc.
Randolph, Shirley L., Heiniger, Margot C. 1998. Kids Learn From the Inside Out: How to Enhance the Human Matrix, 2nd ed. Boise: Legendary Publishing Company
Cohen, Bonnie Bainbridge. 2003. Sensing, Feeling, and Action, rev. ed. Northampton: Contact Editions