Free to Move at My Own Pace!
By Amanda Watt (2015, published in Fingerprints Magazine)
Sometimes, despite good intent, helping can be a hindrance. As parents, we have probably all experienced the temptation to help our young children develop their ability to move. However, few of us are aware of the potential impact this may have on brain development and self-esteem.
Children of all ages need independent movement experiences to link up neural structures so they ultimately gain control over their bodies. The primitive reflexes are involuntary movements stored in the brain stem and seen in all babies, which are thought to assist with the birth process. To learn to voluntarily control movement an infant has to inhibit and integrate the primitive reflexes and develop the lifelong postural reflexes that are controlled from the basal ganglia in the brain. Most of this should happen while baby is still on the floor and the more time spent there on tummy and back, the more opportunity there is for good integration.
Postural reflexes are also automatic and cannot be replaced by voluntary movements – just as well, otherwise we’d be constantly having to think about our balance and stability! They are necessary for developing automatic ability to move when crawling, walking, running, rising, etc. The voluntary part of movement is about deciding when to start, where to go and how fast. Ever wondered why your child is constantly on the go? Their constant movement is because the nerve nets of the basal ganglia are undeveloped while the child is learning to master his balance and stability. Eventually (ideally!), the postural reflexes become integrated within the motor cortex and movement becomes more controlled.
What happens if the reflexes are not integrated? My colleagues and I see this more and more in practice and even at the local primary school, where I coordinate a Perceptual Motor Programme. Some indications of retained or unintegrated postural reflex patterns include poor balance and coordination, inability to sit still, slumping, slouching, falling off chairs…inability to concentrate or focus, difficulty controlling eye movements for reading, preferring to lie down or standing up to write, draw or paint. These are often the very behaviours that draw negative attention from parents and teachers. However, it is vital to realise that these children are doing incredibly well to even be standing upright in the world, given they are operating with retained automatic reflex patterns and immature motor control, which continually challenges their stability and balance. Imagine having to consciously exercise muscle control to orient yourself in space every time you moved…how exhausting!
So, what can you do to integrate retained reflexes? For older children or adults there are options such as Rhythmic Movement Training, Kinesiology or Brain Gym movements (feel free to email me for more information). For your young children, integration will usually occur naturally if you let them move, at their own pace!
- Let baby develop motor abilities on her own, at her own pace, so she develops foundational movement patterns as she learns to raise from a lying position to crawling and finally standing up.
- Encourage your child to develop by moving around as much as possible at her own level of development, without helping out! Letting baby lie on the floor will develop his postural reflexes as he moves around by himself. Placing a few toys just out of reach as you supportively encourage movement is more beneficial than surrounding your child with many toys and eliminating any need for movement.
- Avoid unnecessary or prolonged time in car seats or strollers if baby is not yet ready to sit by himself; avoid walkers/exosaucers if baby is not yet ready to walk by himself. Be guided by your child’s own pace of development and remember, the floor is a fabulous integration forum! If you have a child who seemed to run almost before he could crawl, set up some obstacle courses that encourage crawling, get down on the floor with him for crawling races – do whatever you can to maximise that crawling time. This is great for vestibular (balance) maturity, near/far vision development and the cross lateral movement involved is brilliant for creating neural connections between the two hemispheres of the brain.
Rushing your child through developmental movement patterns runs the risk of later developing challenges with focus and learning and may contribute to emotional difficulties. Those of you familiar with Gill Connell’s book “A Moving Child is a Learning Child” will recognise the learning hierarchy (pictured), which is similar to the “learning buckets” represented on the “Ready for School” DVD by Robyn Cox. In essence, development occurs from the brain stem up to the cortex with mastery of one level depending upon integration within the previous level. So a child who has not had sufficient freedom to move and integrate primitive and postural reflexes from brain stem responses into integrated mid-brain functioning, is at risk of later struggling with higher level tasks such as reading and writing.
The children I see with retained primitive and postural reflexes tend to have high stress levels (seen in anxiety and emotional highs and lows), inefficient motor functioning through use of compensation strategies, and insufficient capacity to attain the higher levels of functioning needed for school. They usually struggle with the physical skills needed for learning, which means any new cognitive learning becomes stressful. Think about writing for instance… a child with certain retained reflexes may struggle to know where they are in space, let alone be able to sit upright, or sit still and master an appropriate pencil grip… and that all has to occur before they can even begin to make sense of the concept that “a is for apple” (or as Gill Connell from Moving Smart would say, “apple is for a”!)
One of the greatest gifts you can give your child in the early years is the freedom to move and discover in their own time and at their own pace. Children have an inbuilt sense of what they need to do, how they need to move, in order to integrate early reflex patterns and create the neural pathways required for more sophisticated thought and movement. Our job as parents is to engage with our children in a loving way, to provide verbal encouragement, fun, laughter and a sense of security that arises from us being fully present.
We do not help our children by moving for them, limiting movement opportunities or being so over-protective that our children miss the fun of discovery and self-esteem that independent effort rewards. Obviously we remain aware of our child’s limits and create a safe forum for that discovery…without being unnecessarily restrictive.
Being aware of our own insecurities and fears can help ensure we do not unconsciously limit our children, but rather, supportively guide them on their own learning journey. By creating safe risks & encouraging freedom of movement you give your child the opportunity to develop resilience, positive self-esteem and the solid foundation from which to fully express themselves in life.
Amanda Watt uses brain gym movements, kinesiology and other mind-body integration techniques to help children and adults achieve their learning, development and life goals. For better balance, less stress, greater self-awareness and achieving change, see www.healios.co.nz