How Infants Learn to Move

by Rae Pica

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 learning.

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 connections.

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 bed.

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

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.

About the Author:

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.


Marilyn Clinton

Mary is a single parent and writer. She likes to share her family adventures, and tips for managing a busy family and a full-time job.

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