Why Children Need Movement to Learn – Integrating Primary Reflexes
Earlier this week I wrote about a presentation I was able to attend where Janet Hoag, a local Early Childhood Educator, shared with myself and some other local ECEs a project she has been working hard on as part of her Master’s program. This project and presentation – Developing the Brain Through Movement – focused on the importance of movement in childhood as it relates to setting the foundation for the ability to learn and do well in school. A professional Physical Therapist attended the presentation to offer her own knowledgeable insights about this topic.
Sitting in this presentation, I became all tingly with excitement about what we were talking about and how much I love what I do – facilitating families in raising children to be thoughtful, confident, and empowered beings who will lead the next generation and our world to (hopefully) a more peaceful, kind, ethical and intelligent society.
Knowledge and perspectives are important to pass on, so I would like to share with you some of the things that were shared at this presentation. As I mentioned in the previous post, a lot of what was brought up made me realize the many mistakes I’ve made with my own little one. If, like me, what you read reminds you of the less-than-ideal choices you’ve found yourself making in your own parenting, please do not be discouraged. We are all doing the best we can, and we can’t know it all, or do it all in exactly a “perfect” way. There will be a million things we find ourselves feeling regret over, or doubting our ability to give our children the best chance. That’s life, and part of being a reflective and caring parent. I promise you, you are doing an amazing job and your kids will in fact make it into healthy adulthood despite not eating that piece of broccoli, or being nursed to sleep every night. It’s okay.
If you’re feeling less than secure, I really encourage you to read that post first, before diving into this one.
So without further ado, I will share with you some of the key points that were brought up during the presentation.
Why do children need to move?
Children are born with “primitive” or “primary” reflexes. These reflexes in newborn or young babies are things the body does automatically in response to a stimulus that serve a survival and learning purpose. There are somewhere around 50 of them, but only 28 or so are majorly discussed. If you’ve had a baby, or been around little ones, you likely already are aware of at least a few. For example, the moro reflex is where babies will throw out their arms and legs when startled, or with the palmar grasp, a baby will close his fist around and hold fast to a finger or object placed in their palm. There is a walking/stepping reflex For more information about these primary reflexes, you can check out what Wikipedia has to say about some of these main primary reflexes.
As a child grows, these reflexes often seem to disappear (although they never really disappear). What is supposed to happen is that, through the child’s own movements, these primitive reflexes will integrate and postural reflexes (for balance, posture and movement) will emerge. (As an aside, if you’re like me and suffered a diastasis rectus or severe separation of the abdominal muscles during pregnancy, you will have to retrain your body to regain these reflexes by consciously flexing your abdomen and lower back muscles before movements.) As a baby goes through the motions of the primary motor reflexes, neurons (brain cells) grow and create connections with other parts of the brain that provide a solid foundation for future learning. Visual tracking (being able to control where your eyes look to follow an object), auditory processing (processing what you hear), and cerebral dominance (using the higher-level “thinking” part of your brain) are key components of this foundation. Pretty important things for being able to read, listen and learn, right?
Sometimes these primary reflexes do not integrate and are retained by the child. When this happens, it means big problems for the child’s ability to learn, since those neural pathways haven’t been made properly. Obviously, this is a problem.
Reasons for Not Integrating Primary Reflexes
Developmental neurological impairment
It is so important for babies and toddlers to be able to move and integrate their primary reflexes. Unfortunately, our busy lives and desire for quick achievement often lead to fewer and fewer opportunities for our children to experience movement. Often parents are so busy trying to stay on top of everything they are used to doing before baby, like the cooking and cleaning and shopping and all of the other things that we fill our lives with. We try to fit our children into our lives, when really we need to be the ones to reorganize our lives to offer our children what it is that they need to grow into confident and capable human beings. I know I have been guilty of this. It’s important to remember that when you become a parent, it’s not all about you anymore – your child needs you to make sacrifices for them. If you can’t do it all (and who can??) let the laundry pile up. Leave the dishes. Hire a cleaner. Make the adjustments you need to make to be available and present for your child, and offer them the chances to experience the independent movement that they need.
Here are some of the things that we may be doing as parents that might be holding our children back from developing properly by integrating the primary reflexes. This is where you need to be gentle with yourself and keep in mind that moderation and balance is key to a healthy life. Just because something is on this list, doesn’t mean that if you use it you’re a terrible parent and are ruining your child. I only include this section so that we can be aware of the things we may not realize we’re doing that we might choose to limit or do differently if we had more information. (I’ll also admit that I’ve been guilty of all of these.)
Constrained car seats – Busy days of errands might mean baby is stuck in their car seat for the drive, and carried around in the seat for ease of the parent.
Holding baby’s hands up above their head as they take steps learning to walk. This puts baby into an unnatural position for walking that is reminiscent of the moro reflex and promotes the development of a wrong walking pattern, such as waddling. Instead, let them struggle. We instinctively want to help our children, but it’s in their best interest for them to struggle and develop their skills naturally. If you want to help your attempting walker so they don’t fall, gently hold around their shoulders. (And remember, falling is part of life. We need to learn how to deal with it and get back up.)
Push toys or “walkers”. These put baby into a hunched and forward-leaning stance that isn’t helping baby’s posture or sense of balance.
Swaddling in containers (ie crib). When a baby is swaddled, their movements are restrained. Now, when a baby is wrapped against mom or in a carrier, they may be constrained but they’re still learning about movement from the parent’s natural movements, so this is different than being swaddled and left in a crib. However, if a baby is constantly flailing it’s limbs in uncontrollable movements, he’s constantly activating his propriocentric system and keeping himself awake. Baby’s need sleep, so swaddling in this case should be helpful. (Remember, using common sense and our own personal judgement is the most important thing.)
Jolly Jumpers – Sure, baby seems to be having fun bouncing around, but their movement is still restricted and unnatural. This may not be the best place for your little one to spend long periods of time, but moderation is probably alright.
Tummy time pillows – Yes, the cushion may seem to allow your babe to enjoy being on their tummy more, but in our efforts to “help” because we love them, we are missing the point of why we put our babies down on their tummies in the first place.
Restricting play – Early childhood centres include sandboxes, water tables, paint, markers and other messy materials for a reason. There is a method to the madness, and not allowing children to explore through these mediums denies them the chance to grow and learn through these experiences.
So what kind of things CAN we do to promote the integration of these primary reflexes, and help our children develop as healthy learners?
Let them spin! So they’ll get dizzy. They’ll also be developing their sense of balance and understanding of their body.
Let them PLAY! If you think play is pointless, boy are you wrong. So much learning about EVERYTHING (including movement) occurs in play, I’m not even going to get into the benefits here. That is a whole other post for another day. (Or you can check out this one called I Choose Play.)
Get outside. There is research to back up that children gain much more from being outside to play. Not only are they experiencing sunlight and fresh air, but the outdoor environment offers children greater opportunities to develop their vestibular (balance and spacial orientation) and propriocentric (understanding of your body and where you are) systems. Inside a gym, a building or on a paved plot the ground is even, but out in nature the ground is full of bumps and dents and all manner of obstacles to navigate. (Read this post on what I realized we’d been missing by spending too much time inside.)
Tummy time for babies. This promotes babies to lift their head to see what is going on around them, building muscles and integrating those reflexes. And remember, ditch the pillow and let them struggle for the best benefit.
Action songs and finger plays. Engaging with your little one in songs, games and stories that encourage you to move in different ways is a great way to get movement happening. There are so many ideas out there for fun things to try! You can check out the Song and Fingerplays section of this post, try some of these great ideas for fun and transitional songs, or check out this post on Our Favourite Toddler Song. I’ll try to keep adding more fun action song and game ideas as we enjoy them ourselves (right now The Wheels On the Bus is a huge hit, and I use it often at diaper changes or other times I need little Z to stay still). StrongStart is another great place to experience circle times full of fun ideas, as well.
Don’t rush development. We need to let our children develop at their own unique pace. We need to let them struggle to reach their goals, as that’s how they will best learn (although I know very well how hard it can be to not step in and take over in an attempt to “help”).
Although there are a lot of great resources and supports for parents in terms of finding professional opinions on whether a child may need a little help in order to get back on the highway for positive development, here are a few pointers for what you might notice if your child has retained some primary reflexes. There is also this article by Sally Goddard which includes instructions for testing for 15 of these reflexes.
Difficulty sitting still, holding a pencil, or walking up or down stairs.
If you suspect that your little one has retained some of their primary reflexes and may need some help getting back on those motor highways to ensure learning success, remediation does exist! You can talk to your doctor and find a physical therapist who has been trained properly to help your child get the exercises they need to integrate those reflexes and get back on track.