We saw in the notes for Bobby how much this kind of play contributes to the development of balance, body control and coordination through stimulating development of the vestibular (or motion) sense. Much of Bobby and Ko’s active play is also developing a second, fundamentally important, internal sensory system, called proprioception, which leads to body awareness and control. Awareness of our body, a feeling of being in it, knowing where our limbs and ‘edges’ are, and where it is in space are things we take for granted. We don’t need to take up conscious thought (working memory) for all the thousands of ways we position and use our bodies for day-to-day functioning, because as young children we worked very hard to develop our proprioceptive sensory system. Nerve-ending sensors (proprioceptors) in the muscles, joints and tendons become connected to the brain so that we gain the complex ability to sense and control body movement and position. It is this kinaesthetic sense that helps us to know about our body from the inside and that gives us a feeling of being in our body [Sacks, 1985] and the ‘feeling of life itself’ [Jabadao 2005]. Children with a well-developed proprioceptive system have a strong sense of their physical body and hence a firm sense of self, and are able to feel confident in the world. Since this is what we want for all children, it is our responsibility to ensure that the children in our care have lots of access to the movements that develop body sense. Fortunately, because it is so important to life functioning, like vestibular development this is hard-wired in to the drives and behaviour of babies; and the outdoor environment provides plenty of invitation and provocation. Being held and cuddled, being wrapped up; arm-waving, reaching and stretching, batting, grasping and pulling; playing with the hands and pulling at the toes and feet in back play, pushing up in tummy play, rolling and wriggling; crawling, pulling upright, standing and knee-bending all give the resistance and tension work that stimulates nerve and brain development for this sensory system [White, 2008]. Most of what Ko is doing in his play in the park is contributing to this sensory development through pressure and stretching in his body, but the body play and movement games with Mum, including clambering over the perfect baby-climbing-frame of her body, are especially good at feeding the growth of body awareness. The roly-poly, puppy-like play of babies has considerable developmental significance, helping to sculpt the body, the mind and the emotions [Brown, 2009].
“It is time that we recognised that the brain does not learn by itself: the body learns too, and if we are to educate our children properly we must encourage developmental parity between body and brain. Physical education is as important as the teaching of literacy and maths in the early years.”
[Sally Goddard Blythe, TES 7.1.00]
Like tummy play, crawling has been recognised as an important stage for babies as so much anatomical and neurological development is stimulated through it. “Crawling is in itself an integrating function. It provides training for hand and eye coordination at exactly the same visual distance as the child will use some years later when reading and writing. Crawling trains the balance mechanism in a new relationship with gravity. It helps to align the top and sacral sections of the spine in preparation for standing and walking, and combines use of left and right sides and upper and lower sections of the body in coordinated movement. Crawling requires the use of all four limbs coordinated with balance and rhythm, reflecting communication between both hemispheres of the brain.” [Goddard Blythe, 2008: 165-6]. “The infant also gains a huge amount of tactile stimulation both from bearing its own weight… and dragging itself along the ground. These early experiences assist in the internal ‘mapping’ of body awareness… This is important for good coordination later on.” [Goddard Blythe, 2008: 91]. Continuing on from tummy play, crawling is significantly influential in completing the work of opening up the hands from the baby fist to the wonderful tool that can grasp, hold and manipulate objects and operate fingers individually [Wilson, 1998].