If you’ve taken a Developmental Movement Play course with us, you’ll know that we talk about reflexes as a crucial bit of our physical development. In fact we talk about them as our best buddies in physical development - little bits of body-brain work which provide the blueprint, the early instruction manual if you like, for the kinds of movement experience we need to build our moving bodies.
We usually only get a small amount of time to talk about them, so for those of you who like more detail, here’s a bit more about the reflexes.
Reflexes are amazing little body processes that are a constant part of our physicality. They are involved in keeping us safe, comfortable and responsive all our lives. They are especially important when we first come into the world - when they do a lot of heavy lifting as we get to know this body we live in.
This is how they work.
A reflex is a ‘sensorimotor arc’ involving neurons, the nerve cells that communicate information throughout the body.
Let's say you've put your hand on something hot, something that would quickly damage your soft tissue if you didn't take it away immediately. Your body takes care of you through a reflex response. It’s a physical process a bit like a relay race:
your hand touches the hot thing - this is the stimulus for something needing to happen in your body. It is an alert. The starting gun, if you like.
a sensory receptor notices the heat and creates an electrical response. The process begins
a sensory neuron sends this message to …
a relay neuron, which is located in your spinal cord, your central nervous system
the relay neuron passes the information on to a motor neuron
which passes it to an effector, which simply means the bit that will create the necessary body response - in this case a muscle to move your hand away
and you move your hand
HOT THING → receptor → sensory neurone → relay neurone → motor neurone → effector → YOU MOVE YOUR HAND AWAY
And all of this without involving conscious thought. It’s a body process.
Reflexes get involved in so many aspects of our physicality. It's a reflex that kicks off shivering if we get too cold, or sweating if we get too hot; that makes our mouth water at the smell of food to invite us to eat; or makes us duck to avoid hitting our heads. In short, our reflexes help us to survive and stay safe.
But they also help us to get to know our body and discover how to make it work … they kickstart the unfolding process through which we learn about, and learn to manage, our body.
In response to a touch or a pressure, they prompt us to move in particular ways and gradually we learn how to do that through choice, without the reflex having to get involved.
And that’s why we look at them in Developmental Movement Play. If we understand the reflexes a bit more, we can see how they constantly prompt babies and children to move in particular ways and how this helps to build strong connected, well-organised bodies.
The firmness of the floor invites a wriggle and a roll. Pressure on a tummy invites a bending knee and toes pushing into the floor. Tipping and tilting invites a trunk to bend in counterbalance. Our babies and children are working in constant relationship with the reflexes in their body to feel their way into their physicality. The reflexes lie right at the heart of movement play.
And when we are older, we can still draw on the reflexes - now within a vastly expanded range of possibilities for how we feel and manage our body - to support our physical wellbeing. They remain best buddies all our lives if we know how to work with them …