Learning & Development: Physical well-being - First moves


Neurophysical development takes a number of forms in early childhood. In an edited extract from her new book, Anne O'Connor explains what these are, why they matter and how to support them.

The 'biological drive' for children to use their bodies and their developing physical skills referred to in the Early Years Foundation Stage themes and commitments (2008) is fundamental, not just to the growth of muscles and joints but also to brain development. Because of the link between physical development and the architecture of the brain, we refer to this specifically as neurophysiological development.

Physical activity is vital long before a baby begins walking and moving around independently. Even in the womb, a foetus is moving and as well as helping to build skeletal development those little kicks and movements are also the first language the child has for communicating with the world outside the womb. Once born, a baby is expected to wriggle and squirm, to kick their legs and reach out with their hands, without realising that every time a movement is repeated it is creating and reinforcing an important pathway in the brain.

PRIMITIVE REFLEXES

There is an another important reason for all those kicks and wriggles. We are all born with 'primitive reflexes' that exist in the womb and are vital for our survival and in our earliest months. A reflex is an involuntary response, usually to a stimulus of some kind. Because a reflex action is involuntary it is hard to suppress while it is still active, but it can become 'inhibited', which means it is no longer as responsive to the stimulus.

Once we are born, these primitive reflexes need to be inhibited so that they don't interfere with our physical development outside the womb and beyond the first six months of life. The best way for this to happen is through lots of spontaneous, natural physical activity, usually when being held or lying on backs or tummies. Unlike most baby animals, baby humans can't get up and stand on their feet and walk around straight away. Ideally, we spend our first 12 months (or so) being held and cuddled, rocked and dandled as well as lying on our tummies and backs with our legs and arms free to kick and wave.

Then we learn to roll over and start to creep and crawl before we pull ourselves up and start to toddle about and begin to walk. Walking is seen as a very important milestone in a baby's life, but in truth it is the activity that happens before walking that is hugely important in our physical development, and is particularly significant in the inhibition of those primitive reflexes.

CREEPING AND CRAWLING

The interaction with the ground or other flat surfaces when children are playing on their backs or tummies allows many of the opportunities babies and children need to inhibit their primary reflexes.

For most babies, after they have managed to roll over, there is a period of time when they begin to pull themselves along the floor, first with their bellies low down and then up on their hands and knees (or feet). This process is more than just an 'in between' stage before walking begins. It is a vital part of early physical growth and has an important part to play in many aspects of a child's development, including neurological, visual, co-ordination and spatial development.

In the Well-Balanced Child (2005), Sally Goddard Blythe also suggests that the early physical development of infants matches our understanding of evolutionary development. As well as providing a blueprint for the development of locomotion, the theory also emphasises the importance of each one of these early stages as more than just a stepping stone on the way to the ultimate goal of walking.

First, the child is in a fish-like state in the womb, then a 'reptilian' stage when they begin creeping on their tummies and raising their heads, followed by the 'mammalian' stage of crawling around on hands and knees or feet. Once they begin pulling themselves up to stand and cruise round the furniture, or walk holding someone's hands, they are at the 'primate' stage where their arms and hands are still fundamental to their mobility, before finally they reach the 'human' bipedal stage where they can move speedily in a variety of ways, leaving their hands free to do other things at the same time.

TUMMY TIME

Time spent on the tummy is really beneficial to babies and young children. Just a few carefully supervised minutes on a lap, a blanket on the floor or even outdoors on the grass in good weather is the first step to an important physical development 'workout' that has many long-term benefits.

Time on the tummy:

  • helps lengthen the spine and develop the neck muscles
  • expands the chest cavity, allowing for deeper breathing
  • allows weight bearing through the hands, which develops a full palm stretch - important for finger dexterity, strength of grip and fine motor skills
  • encourages close-range eye focusing
  • decreases primitive reflexes that tie head movement to whole body movement
  • helps body alignment by freeing the head to move separately from the body
  • begins to develop movement across the mid-line of the body, which create the cross-lateral connections thought to be important for higher level thinking and memory skills.

RACING TO WALK

Typically, children begin to walk any time between nine and 15 months. There have always been children who are early walkers, and it is human nature to encourage and applaud the moment a child begins to walk. It is seen as a major milestone in a child's life, is often recorded and is a question regularly asked in infant health checks.

We know that delayed walking might be an indicator of problems with development, though not always. But we also have evidence now to suggest that some children who walk early and miss out on crawling may have later difficulties with some aspects of co-ordination (such as understanding left and right); visual difficulties (copying from a board); and other neurological issues that can interfere with cognitive development.

This is not to suggest that children should be prevented from walking early or made to crawl when they are reluctant, but as Sally Goddard Blythe (2005) reminds us, 'the important point is to allow your baby to experience as wide a range of movements as possible; to enjoy and value each stage of development as it occurs'.

MISSING OUT

Why might children miss out on some of these neurophysiological stages? There are a variety of reasons why children might spend less time on their backs or tummies, or crawling around on the floor in the way they have done in the past.

1. A change in the way we move babies around. Think about how much time a baby or small child is likely to spend in a baby seat of one form or another - in a car or at home or strapped into a buggy.

2. A reluctance to put babies on their tummies. As a result of new awareness of the potential causes of sudden infant death syndrome, parents are advised not to let their babies sleep on their tummies. This seems to have led to generalised public anxiety about putting babies on their fronts at other times when they are awake. Some babies and children don't like being put on their tummies, so parents are reluctant to try. It is important to be sensitive to what the individual child can handle, but there are safe and gentle ways to make the sensation more fun and enjoyable, gradually building up their tolerance.

3. Adult attitudes to risk. In these health and safety conscious times, some children have become more restricted in play experiences, tending to spend more time indoors watching TV and playing screen-based games. They have fewer opportunities for rough and tumble games and for playing outdoors, stretching, climbing, rolling and sliding.

WHY DOES IT MATTER?

A study of Reception-age children in Sutton Coldfield in 2012 was the first to measure Foundation Stage children's neuromotor skills against their performance at school. Its findings were that children who struggle to sit still or hold a pencil may not have fully completed steps in their neurophysiological development as babies (see www.open-doors-therapy.co.uk).

It seems there 'are children who are five-year-olds on the outside, but three-year-olds in terms of their motor skills'. (Goddard Blythe, 2011). This has a major impact, not only on the health and well-being of the individual child, but also to generations of children whose potential is being compromised by cultural and lifestyle changes. What makes it worse is that these children are prematurely deemed to be 'failing' and 'unready' for school when, more often than not, they have been denied the physical experiences necessary to develop the required motor skills. This has a knock-on effect on self-esteem, confidence and ultimately their sense of well-being. Research by early years movement specialist Jabadao over a ten-year period is beginning to show the positive impact of movement activity on emotional well-being.

SUPPORT

How we can help children with their physical development?

  • We can provide lots of opportunities for physical play and movement.
  • These can be in specific movement sessions, but also encouraged in the way that the learning environment is organised both indoors and out.
  • We can encourage children down on to the floor for crawling experience, tummy time activities and general floor play indoors and out.
  • Put games and activities down on the floor to encourage older children.
  • Have circle or story times down on your tummies.

Make the most of the floor for activities and learning opportunities.

This is an edited extract from Health and Wellbeing by Anne O'Connor (Practical Pre-School Books, £21)

READER OFFER

Health and Wellbeing by Anne O'Connor (Practical Pre-School Books, £21) explains how physical and emotional well-being strengthens both the body and architecture of the brain and sets out the role of early years practitioners in supporting that development. Physical development consultant and trainer Dr Lala Manners says of the book, 'It's a brilliant resource - one of the best!'

Nursery World readers can receive a 10 per cent discount on the title, part of the 'A Unique Child' series by Practical Pre-School Books, by using the code HWC at www.practicalpreschoolbooks.com or by calling 01722 716935. The code is valid until 31 December 2014.

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