Supporting children who seem to be struggling with more complex movement
Meet Mason - I expect you know him well.
Mason (4) is unsteady on his feet. He loves the energy of the playground and wants to be in the swim of things, with the bikers, running with the gang. But things regularly fall apart. He falls over rather more frequently than his chums; he gets shouty, stressed, quickly angry. He just wants to play with the others, but so often it all goes wrong.
His key worker knows that his physical development is cause for concern. She has noticed that he finds steps and stairs especially difficult and she wants him to become easier with them - life is full of stairs and steps - so she plans opportunities to practice. Today, she supports children to play up and down a set of wooden steps that she has put out with Mason in mind.
He’s not so sure.
Everything about his body says he doesn’t want to do this. He repeatedly goes to the back of the queue, happy to be in group, but meaning to avoid going up those steps himself.
When his adult cheerfully holds out a helpful hand and suggests he has a go he reluctantly and awkwardly climbs on to the first step. He is stiff and braced and looks like a disorganised jumble of limbs. More adult encouragement. He tries the second step, now hanging off her hand, then he collapses in on himself and is helped down, sinks to the floor, on his tummy, and watches the others from a safe distance.
This hasn’t gone to plan. How can we be helpful here?
Mason is giving us lots of clues; developmental movement theory backs him up.
Creating complex movement
Watch a child, or an adult for that matter, engaged in a complex movement task (like climbing steps, or running, throwing, sitting, jumping, kicking, mark-making etc) and you are seeing them skilfully combine a range of basic movement patterns, or building blocks, in order to create that complex movement.
Just as we form sentences by combining a number of basic words, we organise complex movement by drawing on a range of movement patterns that we have created earlier.
Mason is giving us lots of prompts to ask whether he has in fact created these earlier. Is this a body trying to make complex movement work without the raw ingredients? That’s hard and could account for lots of the stress he is experiencing.
So what do we adults do here?
Do we create opportunities for him to practise specific complex skills over and over, hoping his body will become more skilled and confident in the process? Or do we create opportunities to return to the foundations, the building blocks, and try to ensure they are as fully in place as possible - then support that body to build back up to the complex movement again? What’s most helpful?
Let’s return to the theory …
Motor development is the process of:
creating the basic movement patterns or building blocks
learning to combine them skilfully and improvise with them freely
and then maintaining, tweaking and refining them over a lifetime - physical development doesn’t stop
The floor - or a firm, inviting surface - is where many of the first building blocks establish themselves and where we return for useful maintenance and refinement later. (Think yoga or pilates.) Our babies and young children, experts in physical development, often seek the floor to move on.
Look again. Is Mason engineering opportunities to be down on the floor? Perhaps he plays with toys lying on his tummy or side. He may want to lie down and wriggle at Circle Time. He may tussle with his friends on the floor quite a bit. Does he love to roll outside - when he can tear himself away from the bikers and runners?
Simply supporting him to get more time there may be developmentally very helpful. Knowing more about the detail of what floor play provides for him could be even more useful. Here are some starting points - lots more in the Floor Play course.
What’s so great about the floor?
Perhaps Mason doesn’t feel his body very accurately - he might not really feel where his feet are and how they connect to the rest of his body. Imagine tackling steps if you don’t feel your feet arriving on the treads really strongly.
On the floor, with that firm surface giving him constant feedback - he can build a feeling of his body. It’s much harder to build that standing up with no sensory feedback. Lying, lolling rolling, slithering, wriggling, pushing his feet into the floor builds important early sensory building blocks.
Mason may feel permanently unsteady, that he will fall at any moment, especially as the motor task becomes more challenging. This is bound to cause him anxiety, triggering protective mechanisms throughout his body - stiffening, bracing, holding - which pull him out of easy alignment and make it even harder for him to balance and stabilise. It’s a vicious circle.
He needs lots of opportunities to explore his moving body in ways that feel entirely safe. To practise where he is comfortable, rather than at full stretch. He can’t fall off the floor. Here he can be unbraced and open and his body can find, and feel, the basic easy alignment and confidence he needs to support more complex movement.
Mason often falls apart when he is managing complex upright movement. Upright, a substantial part of his nervous system is monitoring his balance and body position. We all do this constantly, in the background, without even being aware of it. But if Mason is not balancing well, or he feels he is not balancing well, a lot of his nervous system will be taken up with this. A busy nervous system means he can become easily overloaded, or ‘over excited’ as we so often say about specific children. It simply means his nervous system is too busy to manage everything that’s going on … and things fall apart.
Moving on the floor gives Mason’s nervous system a break - it doesn’t have to be so busy monitoring complex balance and body position, leaving him able to focus on, and take in, more of the sensations and movement that is happening here. (Or the story you are reading.) He can play for longer and more successfully … building positive physical experience as well as the building blocks he needs to balance better in future.
Mason finds it hard to control his limbs with precision. His motor control isn’t as sharp as he wants it to be. Maybe he doesn’t have the basic tools: a sense of his spine at the centre of his body, the ability to rotate around i
t, a neck that operates independently from the rest of his spine, strength in the right places, connection from his centre to edges.
The floor provides the equivalent of trainer wheels. By limiting the options, and constraining the way he moves in particular ways, it helps him to shape his body and his movement in efficient ways and to build and feel the connections between his limbs.
Build them strongly enough and they will remain as strong patterns of movement even when the trainer wheels come off - in complex, upright movement away from the floor.
What Mason teaches us
Mason is telling us all the time, in his body, that something is going on for him. His body is shouting it loud and clear. Instead of practising the very things he finds difficult, it could be hugely helpful to find ways to build stronger foundations.
Plenty of things in his life will encourage him away from doing this developmental work - learning environments and a wider culture that focus sharply on complex movement skills, rather than the basics, all invite him to skimp on foundation building. And his own desire to be up and running with the gang, even when that is difficult and unsuccessful, takes him away from useful developmental play.
We can be helpful by finding ways to bring him back to the basics in ways that he values and enjoys. If we can set aside our focus on the end goal, climbing those steps, and help him to work on putting the basic building blocks in place, it might be more helpful in the long run - with the steps and lots of other movement and life experience as well.
Floor play is hugely valuable.
It needs to be something we notice and support in its own right. And not just in the baby room.