Eleven-month-old Annabel is always on the go — climbing the stairs, pulling herself up onto the furniture, and creeping into every available space in the house.
Her busy body is exploring the world around her, saturating her senses, feeding her brain with lots of information from her eyes, ears, hands, feet, muscles, and skin.
While her movements may still be clumsy she is not only learning to move, but she is moving to learn.
Why is movement so important for babies and young children?
Infants and young children need to move. It is one of the important keys to later learning. Moving stimulates the development of the brain in many ways.
When babies are born, their brain is a mass of millions and millions of (mostly) unconnected nerves. Emotional, sensory, and movement experiences that an infant and child have stimulate these nerves to connect, and this allows information to flow smoothly and quickly between the body and the brain, and around the brain.
The more stimulation these nerve pathways receive, the more consolidated they become — eventually transforming from disconnected tracks to superhighways that efficiently and rapidly zoom messages throughout the brain and to and from the brain and body.
What happens if babies and young children don’t move enough?
Children who have not had the opportunity to move a lot as infants may be placed at risk of later learning difficulties.
Growing research points to the link between learning difficulties and movement. This link has to do with how the brain develops and the skills a baby develops as they move — young babies who move are able to inhibit the involuntary, inbuilt reflexes that are designed to help a newborn survive.
Once these reflexes are inhibited the babies can learn to control body movement and stimulate higher levels of brain function — levels that are important for the accomplishment of complex skills that are required for learning at school.
Toddlers are refining the movements of their bodies, learning to balance, and improving hand-eye and eye-foot co-ordination. During this time the brain is working as two separate sides — this means both sides of the body like to do the same thing at the same time — just ask an eighteen-month-old child to hold out their hand for a treat — both hands go out!
Lots of movement in the toddler years brings with it the opportunities for both sides of the brain to work together, so that by three years old the young child is able to engage in more complex movement skills, cross-pattern actions, throwing and catching with a preferred hand, refined hand-eye coordination, smooth running, jumping, hopping, skipping, and marching.
These movement skills stimulate the higher-order centres of the brain that are important to academic learning. As the child is able to engage in movement experiences the message superhighways in the brain develop, and the child is able to perform more and more complex tasks.
Movement activities parents can do with children
Babies need tummy time to really get going. Babies are born with inbuilt reflexes, some of which are there to help them push forward, but to do this, they must be on their tummies while they are awake.
Babies who spend lots of time on their tummies have stronger heads, necks, and shoulders, move earlier, are more content as they don’t rely on parents to entertain themselves, and they are stimulating their brain through their senses of taste, touch, hearing, sight, and balance.
Both parents can do movement exercises with bub – it benefits the baby and strengthens the bond between them. In particular though, many fathers find this type of physical activity comes quite naturally to them and they enjoy the chance to play and bond with their baby.
- Get your baby used to tummy time straight away. Lie your baby on your own body, across your legs and over your arm in the tummy position. You can do this while you watch TV or are resting on the couch!
- Once babies are older than four months, they seem to love being raised high in the air and then rapidly lowered — one movement dads are always depicted doing — or to be spun around while wrapped tightly in a loved one’s arms.
- Once babies are crawling and creeping, get down on your hands and knees with your creeper and encourage them to explore the world around them — under chairs and tables, through open boxes, over different textures, along ladders flat on the floor, and up and down slopes.
Toddlers need lots of opportunities to explore. Their energy and enthusiasm for movement need only be curbed for safety concerns. This is the age where they really get out there and discover!
- Get into the backyard or visit your local park regularly. They love running up and down the grassy slopes, swinging and spinning, chasing balls, and having the freedom to run unfettered by the confines of a house.
- Encourage your toddler to hang by his hands to strengthen shoulder, neck and back muscles. You can just use a broom handle for this.
- Dance with your toddler — they love moving and grooving to the beat, bobbing, turning, clapping and running!
- Play topsy turvy, swinging, rolling and tumbling games to help their muscle tone, balance and vision.
Pre-schoolers (3-5 years)
By three years of age, most children will be refining their movement skills.
- Go for walks — they provide opportunities to balance along lines on the footpath, along gutters, and on low brick fences, run, jump and skip. Provide lots of opportunities to climb, roll, swing tumble, go upside down, run, jump, hop, skip and march.
- Help your pre-schooler learn to ride. At first a tricycle or balance bike, then later a bicycle. Scooters are also great at this age. Start with a three-wheeler and move to a two-wheeler once this is mastered.
- Find some space and play ball games — throwing, catching and hitting a ball with a bat are great for eye-hand co-ordination, timing skills and muscle control.