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Why Movement Matters

July 12, 2020

Watching your baby discover their body and its physical capabilities is awesome. My little girl is 7 months old now and I can still remember how proud we were when she discovered her arm for the first time (or body stick as we called it).

child smiling and dancing

If you think about it, all learning as a baby begins with the body. From grabbing a finger, to holding toys, rolling, crawling, standing and walking. Just as soon as one skill starts to unfold so another begins. Nature has created this ongoing cycle where the more your baby moves, the more their brain is stimulated. The more their brain is stimulated the more they want to know. And so they seek to out more sensory experiences which requires more movement capabilities. I’m exhausted just thinking about it!

A variety of sensory experiences is important in early childhood as this is how the brain builds critical neural pathways, which in turn shapes how your baby thinks, learns and who they will become (more on this another week). A huge 90% of these pathways are constructed in the first 5 years of life and movement is key to a child seeking out this sensory input. So much so that the acquisition of movement becomes one of the brain’s top priorities in the first year. Your baby’s brain focuses so much of it’s attention on moving so that they can eventually move in a variety of weird and wonderful ways without having to think about it, freeing them up to concentrate on other things.

When left to develop naturally all of this happens without a problem, but modern society encourages a more sedentary lifestyle and we have a tendency to “containerise” children without consideration of how this might interfere with their physical and cognitive development. In most cases the products that tend to do this are there for safety reasons (not screens though!) and it is easy it to get into the habit of relying too heavily on these and denying babies a good amount of time in their day to explore their body and its physical capabilities.

Another important reason babies need to be free to move as much as possible is because of the need to progress from primitive to postural reflexes. We will go into more detail about reflexes another week but in a nutshell, babies are born with primitive reflexes which assist with survival before, during and after birth. Once the reflexes have served their purpose the body uses movement to release them and the child progresses onto postural reflexes which unlock more complex movement skills. Babies who don’t have good opportunity to wriggle, squirm and roll their way through the day may encounter difficulties with physical, cognitive, social and emotional development later on. More on this another week.

It would be easy to think that once a child has acquired the ability to get from A to B without much thought movement is less important, but this is not the case for a number of reasons.

child smiling and dancing

Movement develops good physical health.

Movement develop strong bones, muscles, ligaments, tendons and so on. It develops good cardiovascular fitness (heart, lungs and blood circulation) and builds neurological systems such as nerve networks and body maps in the brain that manage and control the vast array of movement skills needed for life.


Movement underpins good mental health

Moving releases chemicals in the brain such as dopamine which makes the brain feel alert and energised. Children can also get pleasure from exploring their bodies and seeing what they can do and develop self esteem from feeling capable and acquiring new skills.

child smiling and dancing

It’s sociable

Movement supports personal and social wellbeing as is helps children to interact with others and join in with things their friends are doing.

It aids attention, memory and learning

The brain and the body are completely intertwined and movement gives children a way of physically experiencing concepts they will later understand more intellectually (eg weight, size etc). The production of dopamine also wakes up the brain and makes it ready to receive new sensory information. Stimulation of the proprioceptive system can also act to energise a sluggish mind or calm and overactive one. The production of the hormone BDNF (brain derived neurotropic factor) also generates nerve growth making connections for new learning and strengthens existing nerve connections.

child smiling and dancing


Movement encourages communication and language.

Movement is your baby’s first language. They think with their bodies and communicate through body language much more easily than with verbal language. Moving the body is neurologically linked with the use of voice (they are both located in the motor cortex in the brain) so being active is a strong stimulus for communication. The motor cortex controlling muscles in the fingers are even more closely linked with those controlling the lips and tongue, so articulation of the hand is connected to articulation of words in the mouth.

Movement supports sensory processing

Even before birth babies are in touch with their world through sensory information. Each sensory stream does a lot of work to wire up the neural network but it is also important these systems become accustomed to filter, regulate and control so that the information is useful and not overwhelming. Movement and active play help children to practice this so they can better manage and make use of all the information they are receiving which leads to better understanding and responses.

child smiling and dancing

Movement lays the foundations for healthy lives

Movement rich activities can provide the exercise needed to balance modern lifestyles of high calorie diets. A love of activity and movement also provides emotional benefits throughout life, laying foundations for life as ‘runner beans rather than couch potatoes” (Ouvry, 2003)

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