The Role of Movement and Physicality for Babies

“Movement is an integral part of life from the moment of conception until death, and a child’s experience of movement will play a pivotal part in shaping his personality, his feelings, and his achievements. Learning is not just about reading, writing and maths. These are higher abilities that are built upon the integrity of the relationship between brain and body.”

[Sally Goddard Blythe, 2004:5]

Babies live in a sensory here-and-now

It is really not possible to overstate just how important movement is for babies throughout the first year – both being moved and moving themselves. Babies absolutely love to move and are driven to develop their physical abilities from the moment they are born (and in fact long before this in the womb). Living in a sensory here-and-now, they are bathed in the internal sensations of movement generated both by moving the body (from the body awareness or proprioceptive sensory system) and by moving in gravity-filled space (from the motion-detecting vestibular sensory system that gives us balance and coordination). Babies are biologically programmed to continually seek stimulation for developing these senses as these two systems are both vital in their own right and as the neurological underpinning for full functioning of other senses, such as touch, hearing and vision. This is why a small baby will wake up and protest as soon as you stop soothing it by rocking, jiggling or walking! Babies need huge amounts of time and opportunity to engage in a wide range of playful physical experiences every day in order to develop the right foundations for health and happiness, both now and in their futures [White, 2008].

Movement is the child’s first ‘language’

This drive for movement is perhaps so strong because of its fundamental influence on all other aspects of a child’s life. Movement is the child’s first ‘language’, providing the primary means of experiencing and thinking, and, although we become largely unaware of it, it remains our dominant sense throughout life [Hannaford, 1995; Goddard Blythe, 2004]. Young children learn about themselves and their environment through movement [Donaldson, 1978]. Babies take in information about the external world by physically and bodily interacting with it; they build understandings by moving through it and manipulating it; they think by moving and express their thoughts through movement; and they gain an understanding of their bodies, themselves and how their body relates to the world by experiencing the sense of movement [White, 2008].

Movement is being alarmingly reduced

However, opportunity for this much movement is being alarmingly reduced in
the lives of babies as they spend more time strapped into car seats and buggies by adults in a hurry (now becoming referred to as ‘bucket baby’ or ‘container baby’ syndrome!), have limited opportunities for active outdoor play, and ‘boisterous’ play by and with young children is increasingly frowned upon. The recent rise in numbers of diagnoses of special needs involving sensory processing issues, such as dyslexia, dyspraxia, problems of attention, language impairment, emotional problems (and later adult problems of anxiety, agoraphobia and panic disorder) may well be connected to the reduction in movement in the daily lives of babies and toddlers [Goddard Blythe, 2004: 17; Stock Kranowitz, 2005].

There is much to notice and understand about movement in the sequences of Bobby outdoors. The movement games that we see Bobby and Ko play with an adult they feel completely safe with, clearly give these babies great pleasure and fun, and are as important to healthy development as is touch.

Being moved through space – swooping, swaying, hanging up-side-down, jiggling, dropping and bouncing – all give pronounced feelings of motion in space. Children of all ages, from new-born to teenagers, actively seek experiences that involve rocking, swinging, rolling, turning, spinning, twisting, tilting, tipping, falling, bouncing, sliding and moving fast, wherever they can be found.

The vestibular sensory system underpins the development of balance

Moving in these ways provides sensations that develop vestibular organs in the inner ear that tell us where we are in space in relation to the force of gravity. Babies love these tipping and falling sensations because it’s very important for life functioning that they develop this sensory system very well. The vestibular sensory system underpins the development of balance, body control and coordination, which themselves underpin a great deal else both physically and emotionally. When our balance is out of sorts, we feel confused, uncomfortable and unable to function. Having a strong sense of motion and balance allows us to cope in the world, and is a vitally important developmental process [Goddard Blythe, 2004], that can only mature through movement of the body in space. Young children need very many such movements, every day, over several years to develop this sense fully so that they are comfortable in their body, and can move, control and position it with ease – and it clearly underpins the developing ability to walk towards the end of the first year.

Babies have to rely on adults to understand just how much they need to create the stimulation this neurological system requires and who find ways for them to access to it in as many appropriate ways as possible.

Men often play body and motion games in this way much more vigorously with babies [Jamison, 2004: 108] and it is more often the female carers that need to examine their reactions and concerns in the light of this biological need. Of course, it is the security of playing such games with a closely familiar adult, who knows how to handle the baby and picks up on their subtle clues of pleasure and distress that makes these games so beneficial. Experiencing ‘scary-funny’ feelings [Sandseter, 2007] and surviving ‘safe emergencies’ [Forencich, 2006] together is a tremendous way to build emotional bonding too. Notice the anticipation and relief in Ko’s body language and the way these emotions are shared by his Mum (for more on the value of body games for the sense of proprioception, see the notes for Ko). Bobby also demonstrates great enjoyment of the gentle rocking motion of the hammock alongside her key adult, so much so that she is stimulated by her feelings of well-being into some delightful vocalisations in a conversation with Mum. Hammocks and swing seats do make wonderful features for an outdoor environment and are commonly seen in early years settings in Europe, serving the nurture and movement needs of children from a few months to six years old.

“It is imperative that babies spend lots of time lying free of restraint on their backs, and especially on their tummies. A great deal of neurological and anatomical development takes place through being in these positions, also allowing babies to play with their feet and work on rolling over.”

[Jan White, 2010c]


Carefully watching the beautiful sequence of Bobby at 7 months in the garden in summer reveals some of the enormous value of babies being able to lie on the ground outdoors with full freedom of movement, minimal restraint by clothing and footwear, and all the wonderful gentle and complex stimulation of fresh air, nature, space and a fully attentive and tuned-in adult.

Without her shoes, Bobby can grab and handle her feet, finding out what is her, where it is, and how it feels from the outside and the inside at the same time; bringing about some deep neurological connections.

As she experiences her full physicality, cycling legs and hands, she is highly stimulated and this encourages her to express her pleasure by vocalising. Alongside this, her visual system is stimulated by the depth of the visual eld as she alternates her gaze and attention between close up (her hands) and far away (the sky, birds and other features in the distance). Changing focus easily like this is known as ‘accommodation’ and is an important aspect of well-functioning sight.

Head control is one of the most important motor skills a child ever develops

As soon as they are ready, babies need to spend increasing amounts of time on their tummies, giving them a new view on the world and bringing about a surprising range of anatomical and neurological growth. Head control is one of the most important motor skills a child ever develops [Goddard Blythe, 2008]. The spine, hips and hands are encouraged to open up; the shoulder girdle, neck, arms, joints and hands are strengthened; distance sight, eye tracking and hand-eye coordination is stimulated; dexterity of the hands and fingers and use of the feet are promoted. These all help considerably in the change over this year from the foetal C-shape to the S-shape spine needed for upright locomotion and from the closed fist of the newborn to the fully functioning toddler hand. Stimulation to the abdominal organs helps with such things as development of bladder control and feelings of hunger or fullness. And, not least, being on the tummy with interesting things such as daisies to reach for is the first step in the all-important development of crawling (see notes for Ko). [For more on this area see Goddard Blythe, 2008 chapter 7].

Extract from Babies Outdoors User Guide by Jan White

A baby is crawling on the grass with a joyful expression, featured in a promotional image with text for "Babies Outdoors", about play and learning.

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