Movement is closely interrelated with your baby’s sensory development. In fact, movement has been called the sixth sense. Before she could move, she was dependent on adults for her location, but with the possibility of movement, she can purposefully impact her environment. For instance, once she can move, she can come closer to you, which increases her sense of security and promotes interaction for learning. Your baby’s movement is also related to her cognitive processes. Body movements send messages that stimulate her brain, and when she has ideas, she connects them to her body by putting them into motion. She experiments by testing cause and effect when she drops something on the floor for you to pick up over and over again.
As she learns to crawl and walk, she gains the mobility to exercise her curiosity, to explore, and to learn. Movement is also related to her other ways of learning: when she rolls a ball to you in the backyard, she may use her sensory, interactive, communication, naturalist, cognitive, and creative pathways, in addition to her motor pathway.
Motor memories create a foundation for other skills by making strong pathways through repetition. Your child can then generalize these skills and transfer them in order to learn other skills. You can help her to build her gross-motor skills, fine-motor skills, and spatial awareness in her body by encouraging her to engage in fun physical activities.
Gross-motor control refers to your baby’s ability to move her large muscles purposefully and proficiently with whole body movement. Examples of gross-motor skills include rolling over, crawling, sitting, standing, walking, running, jumping, skipping, and riding a tricycle or bicycle. She develops control of the larger muscles in her body from head to toe, starting with her head and moving to her torso, legs, and feet. Aligned posture, strength, balance, and a sense of weight bearing give your baby control of her large muscles. Gross-motor and fine-motor skills develop together, and one type influences the other. Related to movement is your baby’s vestibular system, which is responsible for balance via her inner ear. Her vestibular system is vital for her posture and her sense of position in space and motion.
You can help your baby develop her movement pathway of gross-motor skills by being an active role model and encouraging her to move. You can help her stimulate her vestibular system to develop her balance by rocking, swinging, and swaying together. For other kinds of gross-motor development, get down on the floor with your baby and let her lead the way during tummy time. Give her massages, practice yoga or movement exercises, and create a safe space for her to explore on her own. Give her a bat to hit a ball on the ground so that she can feel an extension of herself through action. Take her on excursions to the pool, to the park, and to the woods.
Fine-motor skills involve coordinating small muscle movements of your baby’s fingers, hands, wrists, toes, feet, tongue and other interior mouth structures, lips, and facial features. She develops this type of dexterity by picking up small objects with her thumb and pointer finger, holding a spoon or other utensil, drawing with a crayon, putting a puzzle together, doing origami, using scissors, or playing a musical instrument. She develops her fine-motor skills in coordination with her gross-motor skills.
You can help your baby develop her sensory pathway of fine-motor skills by massaging her fingers, toes, hands, and feet. Give her finger food, and show her how to feed herself. She can learn from moving small pieces of cereal from one cup to another. Let her hold the book at story time, provide her art supplies to use, help her draw, show her how to play a xylophone, and teach her to use chopsticks.
Spatial awareness is your baby’s ability to recognize where she is in space and to understand the relationships of the locations of different objects to herself or to each other. When she first develops her sensory and motor skills, she may interpret the world as a set of sensations that accompany actions. As she develops object permanence, she begins to understand that an object is a separate entity that does not disappear when it is not in her sight. Awareness of herself as separate from others is an essential part of your baby’s spatial development.
When your baby learns to sit up and she has a clearer view of her surroundings, her spatial awareness changes dramatically. Crawling and walking also give her a different perspective and an ability to integrate different scenes in her environment.
Your baby’s vision is directly related to her sense of spatial awareness. Before she develops depth perception, she is not afraid of a vertical drop. However, once she can crawl and begins to connect her own actions to visual events, she learns to recognize the danger of a vertical drop. When she can move voluntarily, she can understand how the locations of objects change as she moves.
Proprioception is your baby’s ability to sense movement and to know where her body is in space without looking at it. A physical feeling of deep pressure can help her focus and calm down if she is overstimulated or excited. To help your baby be still, press your hand on her back or belly firmly. For her first few months, swaddling provides pressure that helps her settle down and sleep; at any age, you can give her a massage or hold her close. When your baby is a toddler, a big bear hug can help her calm down and relax.
Your baby learns motor skills by moving on her own and by watching and imitating you. You can help her develop her sensory pathway of spatial awareness in the following ways:
- Make a defined play space for her. This will give her a sense of place.
- Give her a box to crawl into and steps or a ladder to crawl on to help her develop balance and body awareness.
- Make connections between her eyes and movements by playing games that help her with hand-eye coordination and foot-eye connection. For example, have her make the motions of pat-a-cake with her hands or feet.
- Point out the direction, distance, and location of objects to help her recognize where they are in her environment and how they are related to her and to each other.
- Give her directions to move different parts of her body or to pick up objects.