Movement: Practice Makes Perfect

In this month's #Freshfromthelab, we will tell you about Professor Adolf work on movement acquisition in infants.

Babies move. They wriggle, they squirm, they kick. And the fact they do these things from as early as prenatally, points towards the critical role movement plays in development. Professor Adolf from New York University’s department of psychology tells us that movement is the foundation of wider learning. It allows infants to explore their everyday environment and opens new opportunities for perception, cognition, and social interaction.

From the day they are born, babies are growing at extraordinary speed. Within the first year of life, babies grow on average 10 inches and triple their birthweight. Moving with this rapidly changing body requires behavioural flexibility. Acquiring this flexibility also puts them in good stead to deal with a number of challenges related to efficient movement, such as selecting and modifying ongoing appropriate actions to suit a varying environment. Just think, when your toddler is traversing the living-room they might first crawl over to the sofa to cruise its length, then take a few steps before landing on their bum to crawl the remaining distance to the toy they intended to get. This range of movement requires on-the-fly changes to adapt to what is available to help them on their way in their ever-expanding environment.

Much like anything else, acquiring flexibility requires lots of practice and experience. With an ingenious study design, Professor Adolf demonstrated the effect experience has on movement in action. When placing 12-month old novice walkers on top of a platform with a steep 90cm drop, 50% of infants will literally walk off the edge (before mum/dad swiftly catches them). When the infant is 18-months they are experienced. They know they are too small to safely walk down the very steep drop. So, they get on their bum and shuffle down. This is flexibility - they knew their body wasn’t up for the drop while walking so they changed their movement to accommodate.

Interestingly, Professor Adolf demonstrated that this flexibility isn’t transferred to other skills. If an infant learns from experience something is too steep to crawl down, they will likely still try to walk down it if they are novice walkers. A new skills means new information needs to be gathered. More practice needs to be done.

Babies have a “try, try and try again” attitude when it comes to learning to move. Falling is all part of the practice – and babies are the prefect fallers. They aren’t very high off the ground in the first place, and they have squishy bodies padded with baby fat that cushions the blow. 91% of infant falls are uneventful, and on average infants recover from falls within 2 seconds. Infants aren’t put off learning to walk because they fell over, they just get back up and keep trying. This mentality is something we could (re)learn from our little ones and implement in our challenging adult lives – a notion touched upon by Silvia in her post this month.

Check out our Babybrains app for some movement activities to do with your little one as they are developing.

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