Are you worried about your child's physical coordination? Maybe you have a late walker or a seemingly timid or clumsy child? Maybe you have a child who is constantly getting hurt because they attempt things too hard for them?
The key to supporting your child is becoming familiar with motor development. From there it’s all about providing a safe environment, respect, trust, and connection.
Motor Development 101
What is motor development? Motor development is the progression of strength, flexibility, coordination, and control of the body. I consider it to be the most important and sacred developmental process because it is the first thing we learn and master in front of others. For example, an infant may have mastered distinguishing the sound of his mother’s voice from other sounds, but we can’t see that and do not know the moment it is mastered. We see an infant practice, and try, and try, then roll for the first time right before our eyes.
Motor development is sacred because it’s the first time adults are faced with the decision to respect, trust, and honor how the child learns and figures things out. It's our first chance at saying, "I see you. Go as fast or slow you need to. I will be right here watching in appreciation. There will be no pressure from me and there will be no way for you to disappoint me because I'm not invested in any immediate outcome for you. I trust with all my heart that you have the capacity for growth, learning, and perseverance. All things will happen eventually through time, trust, respect, and freedom to learn." You can trust the process because you will have learned about motor development and provided an environment and relationships conducive to learning. That's all your child needs from you.
Progression of Development
Contrary to popular belief, the natural process of motor development goes something like this, from bottom to top:
I say popular belief because many people don’t realize we are sitting babies up too soon and they need to be crawling and climbing earlier and more often than we typically think. Janet Lansbury wrote a great article on this topic called “Sitting Babies Up-The Downside”
Baby containers (Bumbos, entertainment bouncers, swings) have infants sitting up and restricting our children's physical growth and coordination. Another concerning thing is that many websites, "experts", and even doctors will tell you skipping crawling is normal and natural. It’s not. Crawling is an essential step for motor development. In fact, crawling/climbing is so wired in our DNA that infants as young as 3 weeks old will automatically participate in crawling motions when put on a rolling board. If your child skipped crawling, fine, no big deal, each child is their own individual and should be honored. This is simply the exception, not the rule. As a rule, we should be encouraging crawling and climbing.
This episode from “Babies” on Netflix illustrates the importance of crawling and highlights the research that supports the skill.
To be clear, it’s okay if kids go out of order. In fact, development is not a straight line. It’s a rollercoaster that goes up and down. Children will go in and out of trying, giving up, and mastering skills. For example, my first child walked before he climbed. My second son was climbing very early because we had moved into a home with stairs. He had lots of exposure and practice to climbing. I can tell you, having exposure to climbing in infancy supports coordination, balance, endurance, and strength immensely. Here's my lil monkey at 13 months old:
Provide a Safe Environment
What does a safe environment look like? In infancy, it looks like an open floor free of blankets, toys, pillows, or other objects. Just allow your baby to experience their bodies and concentrate on muscles and movement. When you place a baby on their back on the floor they will curiously, naturally, and happily begin to move their bodies. Let them experience this. My babies would spend 45 minutes happily alone on the floor manipulating their bodies.
A safe environment for toddlers and preschoolers includes climbing structures that are appropriate heights and safe railings when things are too high. Typically there are ramps, ladders, steps, slides, swings. Safety also includes an attentive adult spotting them when they are attempting things the first few times. If I see my child attempting something I know they don’t have the skills to accomplish yet I will be near to spot them if they need help or fall. At this point, I am in charge of catching the fall or giving as little help as necessary. Because I am in charge of catching the fall I only allow my kids to climb as high or far as I feel I can confidently catch them. I will pull them off and say, “I need to feel stable to support you right now. I don’t feel stable with you that high. I’m going to bring you down.”
Here is a picture of my 3-year-old "spotting" my 17-month-old. At this point, I felt he was too high to be helped by his brother so I stepped into the spotting role.
Here is a great video to illustrate the way babies learn to move their bodies when they have a safe environment and time to just be on their own. Notice how this seems boring and like “nothing” for adults. That is the point! It will feel boring and slow at first. Once you get the hang of it you will be able to observe in wonder and inspiration.
I want to add that a safe environment does not have to be a contained play structure or indoors. It can also be a tree stump, boulders to climb on, or a dirt hill to slide down. When you are using the natural environment as your playground the adults in charge are responsible to make sure the rocks and trees are secure enough to hold the child’s weight.
Respect Them and Their Process
Part of supporting a child’s natural motor development is saying yes to most, if not all attempts at practicing. Especially if we are on a playground designed for their general age group; all attempts at climbing and playing are allowed. With that in mind, you do need to be present and available for spotting and safety. My child would have never discovered he can climb this big structure unless I allowed him to attempt for weeks with me spotting him. The first time he did it he stood at the top, flung his arms into the air, and with the biggest grin exclaimed, "Ta-Da!"
Trust Your Child
I try not to teach or do things for my kids especially when it comes to motor skills. When you hold a child's hand or put them up onto something they cannot independently reach it gives them false confidence and can be dangerous. This is because if they attempt things they already "did" with a grown-up they do not actually have the skills to go that high so they fall or get hurt while trying to do it alone.
Here is a great article from Janet Lansbury that highlights the importance of allowing children to practice skills independently:
If they are stressed and stuck, I help in the smallest way possible. For example, I will often hold my hand over the top of my three-year-old's tight grip when he is trying to pull himself up to something. Just my hand firmly on top of his is all the support he needed to get up. Or sometimes my one-year-old just needs a tiny little nudge from his bum to get up onto something. I only help if they are asking for help and I help in the smallest way possible. More often, they will grunt, struggle, fail and try again without protest. In that case, I am a silent observer. I don‘t “teach” my boys how to climb stairs, ride a scooter, climb up a slide. They just do it. There is no teaching or helping necessary. Because of this they also do not attempt things they aren't ready for. If they go too high or get in a tricky spot they turn around and say things like "That's too big for me."
There are two parts to trusting your child in their motor development.
Trust that their attempts and desires to try something are usually valid. They can do more than we think. Let them surprise you.
Trust that if they cannot do it today, tomorrow, or even next year it's okay. They will work on each skill when their interest, motivation, and skills align to begin the work.
Let me share a story. When my son was two we got him a balance bike. He was not interested at all. He whined and complained every time we brought it out. I let it go completely. I let it go so much that I put the bike in storage because simply the sight of it was causing tension. 6 months later we were on a playdate and his friend was riding a balance bike. After that, he asked to use it. Each time we played with this friend his interest and motivation were high. Also, his skill set was stronger because he had been using a tricycle so the steering motions were easier for him. As soon as the skills, interest, and motivation aligned he figured it out. Next, we got him a pedal bike with training wheels that he had been riding for a few months. After an episode of Peppa Pig where she takes off her training wheels he asked to take his off. We took them off and boom, he is riding a two-wheeler. For him, the process took a year and a half. I'm so glad I let him do it in his own time. It's his accomplishment and pride he gets to hold for the rest of his life.
Below is an excerpt from the book “Your One Year Old” by Louise Bates Aimes and Frances L. llg.
“A third important lesson which any infant can teach you is that you do not have to teach him how to perform many of the basic tasks of living. Your child will eventually sit alone with only modest encouragement from you. He will crawl and later creep without your showing him how. Though you may, in your enthusiasm encourage such baby games as pat-a-cake, the actual basic motion that underlies this game (patting the hands together in a horizontal movement of the arms) comes into the infant repertoire quite naturally and without demonstration from you. …Numerous research studies at the former Yale Clinic of Child Development by Dr. Arnold Gesell and his staff have established this fact conclusively. Using identical infant twins as subjects, research was carried out to find out whether or not behavior could be sped up. Kinds of behavior checked on were stair climbing, block building, language, and other basic behaviors. At just about the time when a new behavior might be expected to appear but neither twin had as yet exhibited this behavior, one twin was trained rather rigorously in the performance. The other twin was not presented with the situation (stairs, blocks, or whatever) until the first twin had been trained for several weeks. In a typical instance, when both twins were Forty-six weeks old and neither had as yet climbed or attempted to climb stairs, one twin (T for Trained) was given six weeks’ encouragement and practice on the stairs. By the end of this period, she was climbing proficiently. The other twin (C for Control) was kept in a living situation where there were no stairs for the six weeks of T’s training and was then introduced to the stairs when she was Fifty-two weeks old. Within a day she was climbing as effectively and even with the same hand-knee pattern as her twin, even though she had not earlier seen stairs and had not seen her twin climbing them.”
I love this study because it supports what we can feel and see every day working with children. They already have it in them. They do not need to be taught, they only need an environment and expectations that support them in practicing what they want to practice.
Being aware of motor development is special because it’s the first time adults get to witness learning. For the first time, we watch them learn how to learn! We have a choice to make. We can either stay out of their way and facilitate a healthy progression, or we can be disruptive and intrusive with our “teaching” and “showing”, or "encouraging". I choose to honor them by providing a safe environment, trust, respect, and connection. This frees me to sit back and watch in wonder and pride over how they figure it out.
Here’s my 3.5-year-old for the first time on a two-wheeler: