The senses, movement and learning from pregnancy to 3 years

By Wendy Muller, WiringKids

Babies and children need to move to develop their brains and experience the world through their senses.

Movement begins very early at about 7½ weeks gestation although it is only felt by mums at around 16 weeks gestation. Fetal movement is necessary for a number of reasons:

  • It helps joints develop properly and remain flexible
  • The amount of movement influences the length of the umbilical cord which in turn either encourages or inhibits movement
  • By opening and closing their mouth their tongue and fluids move against their developing palate helping with the fusion of bone structures between mouth and nose; and
  • Movement develops the nervous system including the nerves that connect muscles and the brain.

Prenatal sensory experiences help shape the development of the brain and nervous system. The senses begin to function in some way even before the sensory structures e.g. nose or eyes, are fully formed and well before the brain is fully wired to process sensory information.

Senses begin to develop one at a time in a specific order.

We are perhaps more familiar with the senses of smell, taste, vision (seeing), auditory (hearing) and touch. We do however have two additional senses called the vestibular and propprioceptive senses. All these senses, once connected, form an important foundation for later intellectual abilities.

The vestibular sense helps our body handle movement and is the main organiser of all sensory input. Receptors in the inner ear give us important information about movement, gravity and vibration. Every time you move your head, crawl, use a swing, jump up and down, run around in circles or roll down a grassy slope for example, your vestibular receptors receive stimulation. The vestibular system helps with numerous tasks and abilities such as bending over to pick something off the floor, walking, maintaining seated posture during class; staying attentive and can influence our emotional states such as finding movement scary versus fun!

Propprioception tells us, over time, where our body parts (e.g. hands and feet) are without having to look at them. This awareness relies on receptors in the various parts of our body such as joints, muscles, and connective tissues. This information enables us to develop an internal map of our body which helps us to complete many different tasks such as reading, writing, buttoning our shirt; be able to sit on a chair without falling off; plan, organise and remember movements.

Movement helps brain function by improving the interconnections between the left and the right side of the brain. The left side of the brain controls the right side of your body, so when you move the opposite arm and leg you are stimulating your brain to develop more neural pathways. Crawling for example improves the left-right brain integration and helps develop balance, strengthen muscle tone and develop eye hand coordination.
The National Physical Activity Recommendations for Children Birth to 5 Years (2013) recommend that:

  • Infants, toddlers and preschoolers should not be sedentary, restrained, or kept inactive, for more than one hour at a time, with the exception of sleeping
  • For healthy development in the first year encourage physical activity – particularly supervised floor-based play in safe environments (tummy time). Strong tummy’s and backs allow good trunk control necessary for sitting upright at a desk or even when sitting on the floor (so you don’t flop or lean over objects or classmates). Providing young babies with supervised tummy time is the start of developing this core strength. Physical endurance is crucial to help children to pay attention for the duration of the school day, rather than tiring out by lunch time. Strong shoulders are vital to provide a solid base from which the arm and hand can perform precision movements (e.g. writing, cutting, and typing)
  • To promote movement in the first year provide colourful and moving mobiles that they can reach and grasp or kick with their feet. Play with your child, on the floor and encourage them to “come and get” toys within crawling or reaching distance.Provide them with opportunities to play with large blocks, stacking toys, nesting cups, textured balls, and squeeze toys
  • Toddlers (1 to 3 years of age) should be physically active every day for at least three hours, spread throughout the day. Physical activities include active play, learning to run, jump and gallop; the development of some stability skills such as balancing and climbing and control skills such as kicking, catching, throwing and rolling
  • Provide toddlers with a variety of movement activities that introduce basic gross motor skills such as striking, kicking, catching, and bouncing balls of different sizes and shapes. Give toddlers a variety of different things they can manipulate such as building blocks, rings, and large puzzles. Encourage toddlers to develop their fine motor skills by encouraging them to scribble and draw with crayons and pencils.

Each child is unique. Children learn best within loving relationships, when they have had adequate nutrition and sleep.

Note: The views and advice expressed on this blog post are those of the author and are not representative of the Pregnancy Babies & Children's Expo.

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