Reaching for a toy, 3-month-old Lucia surprises herself by rolling over. An hour later, she is still practicing.
Sitting securely at 9 months, DeShawn is using both hands together to hold, bang, and toss small toys. He shifts his weight and maintains his balance as he reaches for the squeaky dog in front of him.
Wyatt takes two steps, falls, gets up, takes two steps, falls, and gets up over and over, undaunted and determined to walk at 11 months.
Traditionally, we have thought of motor development as coming with maturation and that one skill leads naturally to the next as the child grows. But actually, motor development is a constant learning process. A child’s body is continuously growing and changing, and his environment offers different opportunities for movement. Each new movement involves the child making adjustments in balance and posture. Gibson (2000) describes the process of motor development as the child finding the best possible solutions to the problems and opportunities presented by his environment.
Let’s think about the early skill of reaching. In the first months, a baby seems to move her arms randomly, without control or intention. Some people call this body babbling—the body is practicing for controlled movement the same way babbling speech is practice for later language. Over the first four months, an infant’s
reaching becomes more controlled and purposeful. For example, Sima’s first swipe at a hanging toy misses by several inches, but her next swipe includes some corrections of angle, eye–hand coordination, and force of thrust. Before long, Sima masters hitting dangling bells. But has she mastered reaching? Perhaps for the moment. But within two weeks, Sima has gained a pound and grown an inch. She is a little bigger and stronger, and she needs to readjust the force of her reach.
Later, at 7 months, she needs to reach from a sitting position—however, her reach makes her fall forward. She learns to shift her weight and her balance as she changes her position. And now she is crawling! How to reach for that giraffe when her hands and arms are busy holding her up? More learning. More shifting and balancing. And so on, with cruising, walking, stooping, and running. All of this learning and adjusting is complicated by Sima continuing to grow bigger, heavier, and stronger. At the same time, her proportions are changing. Her newborn head was almost the same size as the rest of her body. Over the first two years, her body begins to grow and change. As a newborn, her arms were thin and short; now, her arms and legs grow longer and stronger. Her trunk changes from that adorable jellybelly to the trim, strong body of a young toddler.
Learning about movement is discontinuous. This means that the skills learned from one ability—like crawling—are not the same skills that will help a baby learn to walk. In fact, crawling requires completely different skills than walking does. Toddlers give up a lot of speed, knowledge, and competence in order to walk. The payoff is the ability to do two things at once—move and carry things—and to see more from the relative increase in height (Adolph & Tamis-LaMonda 2014). In Karen Adolph’s labs at New York University, new crawlers move right onto a steep incline with no fear of falling—they don’t recognize the risk. A few weeks later, as experienced crawlers, they back away from the edge. When they return as new walkers, they have forgotten all they knew about falling off of edges and are willing to step right onto the incline. They can’t apply the knowledge of edges and inclines they gained as crawlers to the exact same experience while using their new skill of walking; they have to learn about safety and risks all over again.
Infants and toddlers enjoy movement for its own sake; they like to roll and crawl and cruise. They also move because they are interested in the people, nature, and materials around them. Think of how you’ve encouraged babies to crawl toward you by being on the floor, a few feet away, with your big smile and open arms. Have you noticed a toddler crouch down to watch an ant crawl across the sand? Or step and fall and step and fall to cross the room to the water table? These motivations—reaching you, getting closer to the ant, playing at the water table— all encourage movement. The greater number and variety of opportunities children have to move, to reach, and to handle objects, the more chances they have to grow, test, and refine motor skills.
People who study motor learning describe how the objects in the environment invite certain kinds of movement. Any object makes certain kinds of movement possible—the object affords certain actions. So, the opportunity the object offers is called an affordance (Adolph & Kretch 2015). For example, a small wooden firetruck affords a child the chance to hold it, to run it along the floor while sitting or crawling, and to use it to put out pretend fires in the block area. The child-sized firetruck in the play yard affords the child the opportunity to climb in, turn the wheel, and ring the bell. It is helpful to look around your play spaces once in a while and review whether you are offering a good variety of these invitations for movement.
When we understand that motor skills are the result of opportunities for learning, we can take a more active role as teachers. Here are some ideas:
Create an obstacle course for toddlers using firm pillows to climb over, chairs to move around, and other household objects to maneuver past.
Play follow the leader with infants and toddlers. Let them be the leaders while you imitate their movements as they use their bodies in new and different ways!
Have open spaces indoors for active play. Provide floor space for crawling, walking, and running. Offer surfaces at different levels. Design spaces that allow children to climb and jump safely.
Think about it
Think about your program and classroom. How do you intentionally set up invitations for developing movement skills?
How might you set up spaces differently for young infants, mobile infants, and walking toddlers?
Appreciate the learning. Document and describe children’s early attempts at new movements (body babbling). When you recognize the steps toward exciting milestones, look for ways you can help learning happen.
Notice how a child’s temperament influences motor exploration and notice each child’s individual approach to movement. Is the child cautious or completely unafraid? Offer activities that meet children where they are.
Observe yourself! Keep a list over the course of the day to see how often you provide opportunities for infants and toddlers to grow motor skills. Ask yourself if you have enough different kinds of activities in the environment to support the wide range of motor development.
What we are learning from researchers about motor development is pretty amazing! We thought for a long time that one kind of motor skill led to another. Instead, it turns out that skills like crawling and walking are quite different from each other. Infants and toddlers keep doing the difficult work of learning these new skills because it’s worth it! Crawling is a much better way to get around than rolling. Walking offers the chance for toddlers to see the world from a whole new vantage point—with the added bonus of being able to carry things in their hands. When you recognize young children’s hard work at learning new motor skills, you’ll be able to support all the steps along the way!
Adolph, K.E., & K.S. Kretch. 2015. “Gibson’s Theory of Perceptual Learning.” In International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences, 2nd ed., ed. J.D. Wright. New York: Elsevier.
Adolph, K.E.,. & C.S. Tamis-LaMonda. 2014. “The Costs and Benefits of Development: The Transition From Crawling to Walking.” Child Development Perspectives 8 (4): 187–92. www.ncbi.nim.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4357016.
Gibson, E.J. 2000. “Perceptual Learning in Development: Some Basic Concepts.” Ecological Psychology 12 (4): 295–302.
About the authors
Sandra Petersen, MA, is the infant/toddler expert for the National Center for Early Childhood Development, Teaching, and Learning at ZERO TO THREE. She is coauthor of three college textbooks on infant and early childhood development and group care. firstname.lastname@example.org
Emily J. Adams, MA, works for ZERO TO THREE as a writer and trainer. She loves to synthesize research and bring it to life in practical strategies for those who work with young children and their families. She is currently a Buell fellow in Colorado. email@example.com
Linda Gillespie, MS, is a senior training, technical assistance, and engagement specialist at ZERO TO THREE, where she has worked for 12 years. Linda has spent the past 40 years in the field of early education, providing professional development about the importance of the first three years of life. Additionally, she has written many articles and was one of the authors of Preventing Child Abuse and Neglect: Parent/Provider Partnerships in Child Care. She currently supports the work of the Healthy Steps Project and the Center for Training Services. firstname.lastname@example.org