Why Children love to roll and tumble By Sally Goddard-Blythe

The first of all the senses to develop, is the sense of balance. It is vital for posture, movement and a sense of ‘centre’ in space, time, motion, depth and self. All other sensations pass through the balance mechanism (vestibular system) before it is passed on to its specialised region higher in the brain (see also, the article ‘A balancing act’ in this issue of First Steps).
A newborn baby is not aware that sound and movement, vision and touch are separate sensations because, for him, they all fuse together as a single experience or feeling. Motion is the most important sensation and one that helps with die development of all other skills.

Stimulation of the balance mechanism is a vital part of the embryo’s growth from the moment of conception. Every movement the mother makes is felt in the cushioned environment of the womb, and will continue through a vast repertoire of movement patterns from lying, kicking, rolling and sitting, to crawling and creeping on the hands and knees, walking, running, hopping, skipping, swinging, rolling and tumbling.
It is through movement that further connections are made between the vestibular apparatus and higher centres of the brain. It takes until the age of 7 – 8 years for the balance mechanism and the brain centres to be fully matured, and it is during these years that vestibular stimulation is the natural ingredient in every normal child’s play.

The infant begins with constant repetition of arm and leg movements, practising extension and flexion of the muscles and training hand-eye co-ordination. The 8 month old child who rolls back and forth across the floor with no particular goal in sight, is preparing herself for sitting, standing and eventually walking. As far as she is concerned, when she moves, the world moves with her, and when she stops, the world stands still once more.

Creeping on hands and knees then acts as an important bridge enabling her to combine the use of her balance, vision and other senses together for the first time. Walking not only increases mobility, it allows her to roam with independent use of the hands. These are early building blocks for learning that must be practised and worked together with the other developing skills.

Thus, in the early years, movement is the child’s main vocabulary and his language is body based. By building and broadening movements the body slowly develops voluntary control.
The 3 – 6 year old child who constantly hops, skips and twirls while “walking” down the street is still learning to control her balance, for the most advanced level of balance is the ability to stay still. The action of not moving requires whole body functions and muscle groups to operate together without continuous adjustment, and signifies a mature postural control.

The child who cannot stay still, instinctively knows that her balance still needs practice. The child who cannot stay on the side walk if there is a low wall running alongside it, but who must climb from one level to another and back again, is still teaching herself muscle control. Somersaults and cartwheels further facilitate the separation of motion from the other senses, for it is only when a child has control of movement that she can pay attention to other experiences.

Hyperactivity and Attention Deficit may be two signs of immaturity in vestibular functioning. As parents, teachers and carers, we tend to implore our hyperactive children to “sit still” and to “be quiet”. It has been shown that hyperactive children who are allowed to spin for up 30 seconds in either direction show increased attention span for up to 30 minutes afterwards, suggesting that they need vestibular stimulation to “get their brains into gear”.
If motion is a child’s first language, then sensation is his second. Only when both motion and sensation are working together can the higher language skills of speech, reading and writing develop fluently. Our children who roll and tumble are engaged in their first lesson to become Einsteins of the future.

Sally Goddard Blythe, Director of The Institute for Neuro-Physiological Psychology in Chester, U.K. Sally is the author of ‘The Well Balanced Child’.  


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