Discover the Child

Discover the Child
"There is a tiny light in the unconscious of mankind which guides it toward better things." "We must follow the child, but we must follow the child as his leader." -Maria Montessori

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Talking With Toddlers: Movement and Senses

I've spent a lot of time talking on the blog about movement, because it is so critical that we embrace a child's freedom of movement. Movement is also critical to sensory exploration. There are a few important things to remember about a toddler's need for sensory and movement experiences: 

  • All senses and movement abilities are still developing 
  • Development of skills relies on experience and repetition
  • The quality and variety of experience affects the sensorial acuity and agility a child may develop in adulthood.
  • Helping a child move gives the child incorrect information that hinders a child's ability to safely evaluate safe movement. 
  • Real experiences with real objects help a child integrate movement and senses because the child's movements are related to the auditory, tactile and sensory feedback the child receives. 
  • Electronic experiences are disintegrative because sensory feedback is not related to movement.
  • Self regulation results when a child can regularly control his own level of stimulation and move independently. 
  • Face time and massage help your child integrate his experiences. 
  • Television looks relaxing, but is actually a bombardment of sensory information beyond her control and constantly changing information that reinforces shift of attention, not concentration.
Read "Move It or Lose It" for more information about developing movement. 

I haven't talked a lot about integration. You may have heard the term, "Sensory Integration Disorder." That doesn't make a lot of sense until you think of integration as different parts working together. Sensory integration means that a child can form a cohesive impression of the environment based on the information he is receiving from all senses. For the senses to work together, they must be wired together in the brain. The common saying, "What fires together, wires together," suggests that the senses can only work together if a child experiences all senses working together. Exploring the world through senses requires freedom of movement. Unfortunately, automated experiences mean that movement and senses don't connect. 

If a child stacks and knocks over wooden blocks, the child's experience connects many parts of the brain because they are all engaged to complete one task:
  1. If Johnny chooses to work with blocks himself, then he is exercising choice.
  2. When he stacks the blocks his movement involves sensory information from the wood. He feels the weight and balance of the objects, and he hears the sound of the blocks tapping. 
  3. When he knocks it over he immediately feels the impact,sees the blocks tumble and hears the sounds. The different parts are working together like notes of a choir in harmony.
If a child is given an electric toy he pushes a button and the visual and auditory information are completed unrelated to her movements. Also, electronics stimulate the same areas of the brain over and over, not achieving the whole brain stimulation that is ideal for healthy brain functioning. Have you ever noticed how that electronic whirly, flashy, beeping toys grate on your nerves? It certainly depletes your child's sensory system, too. Your child doesn't have the filters you've developed to weed out sensory information in the environment that you can ignore, which is why they may be compelled to attend to these loud, beeping and flashing objects. Don't mistake this attention grabbing as constructive interest. 

To put it simply, if the toy has batteries, your toddler doesn't need it.

Maria Montessori understood and wrote about this phenomena of healthy whole brain functioning, too. Instead of labeling this healthy brain development, integration, as neuroscientists now do, she called it normalization. She also understood that whole brain intelligence was related to a child's experiences and she designed Practical Life activities to support the development of the child. You'll find more information when reading, "Practical Life and Integration."

I'm not quite ready to let go of this point because I know this idea of technological toys for babies is firmly ingrained in our culture. If you'd like to decide for yourself consider the following Toy Evaluation Checklist: 

If you completed the checklist for the toddler tablet, you'll find the material only offers visual and auditory feedback. The tactile feedback is so limited, it could hardly be called stimulating. The child cannot control the level of stimulation the machine emits from the screen. Lastly, there is a wishlist on the screen for the child to begin shopping for the items he or she would like!  Consumerism is a topic for another day, but it is deeply unsettling to me that our children are experiencing a consumer role at such a young age. Even more appalling, one might even be able to purchase this item at a chain store Buy Buy Baby or Toys R Us.  Really, toys are us? We can do better. 

The wooden toy pictured is from a Montessori catalog, For Small Hands. It is a beautiful and colorful wooden toy that will stimulate every sense. The experience the child has may be as varied as his exploration and may even learn later how to play a game with another child or adult. No matter how much data can be stored on a machine, the experience a child may get from this wooden toy is infinitely richer. I also believe the experience to be much healthier for the developing brain, too. Sensory and movement isn't contained to play with toys, as you well know.  

Understanding the need for sensory exploration and movement may help you keep your sanity when your child insists on jumping off the porch step 1,000 times in a row. You can just tell yourself, "He's insulating his neural connections with a myelin coating to speed neural information, helping his neurons grow dendritic branches like the branches of a healthy tree, and strengthening neural connections between different areas of the brain each time he repeats this task." instead of saying, "My child is bouncing off the walls!" 

Your child does have a need for sensorial exploration and movement, but he still needs clear limits. While your child is interested in movement during this very dynamic time, look for opportunities to model and allow your child to practice how to handle fragile objects, how to safely carry objects, and where it's ok to move vigorously. Try these phrases when talking to your child to help set clear limits about safe and appropriate movement: 

Using positive language helps encourage cooperation, helps your child focus on what you do want, and communicates to your child that he or she is the only one who can control his or her body. Communicating and following through with logical consequences helps your child understand that his actions have consequences. 

When things seem out of sync or your child seems out of sorts, remember to consider: 
  • Has your child experienced very stimulating environments (like a bouncy fun house playdate)?
  • Are novel experiences like holidays, new caregivers, or even a time change draining your child's ability to incorporate a lot of stimulation? 
  • Has your child been outside? 
  • Has your child been sleeping regularly and eating a balanced, whole foods diet? 

If the answer is yes, some things can help:

I hope these guidelines help you make sense of your child's need for movement and sensory exploration. Sometimes, understanding our child's needs helps us respond in a more constructive way.