Early childhood educators tell me lots of stories when I keynote or train. And since I’ve been speaking and training for almost four decades (!), you can imagine just how many stories I’ve heard. Obviously, then, there are more than three things that have changed for children during this lengthy period. But lately I keep hearing the same three stories from teachers repeatedly. It’s disturbing – and it needs to be addressed.

So, in this post and the next two, I’m going to tackle each individually, in no particular order. Here’s the first of what teachers are telling me:

More children are unable to cross the midline of the body. Sadly, this isn’t surprising, considering one pediatrician’s contention that infants are spending upward of 60 waking hours a week in things, like car seats, high chairs, and such. One of my colleagues calls this “containerized kids.” Another refers to is as “bucket babies.” Funny names; not so funny situation.

In some ways this goes back to 1994, when the American Academy of Pediatrics created the Back to Sleep campaign, to reduce the incidence of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). Happily, the suggestion that babies be put on their backs to sleep had the desired effect. Unhappily, people seem to forget that the second part of the campaign slogan was “Tummy to Play.” As a result, fewer babies are spending time on their tummies, meaning that, among other things, they’re not developing the muscles necessary for crawling and creeping, cross-lateral movements that promote the ability to cross the body’s midline.

Another factor is the busyness of daily life in our society. Parents are in a hurry, and manufacturers have offered solutions to this problem, including such things as car seats that can be carried from the car to the home and used indoors while moms and dads get dinner and take care of the many other chores that await them at the end of the day. Mostly gone are the days of the playpen, which may have seemed to some to be “cage-like,” but which at least offered the baby freedom of movement! She could roll over, slide on her belly, move on hands and knees, pull herself to standing, and bounce – without the aid of a confining bouncy chair. She could even practice walking while holding on.

The lack of development of motor skills and the inability to cross the midline are no laughing matter. I could write a dissertation on why both are necessary! But I’ll make just three points.

First, because today’s children aren’t spending time on their tummies, or crawling, creeping, and climbing, they’re experiencing a whole lot of low muscle tone, which on its own is problematic. Among other things, it can result in poor posture, a child who tires easily, and a preference for sedentary activities. Given that sedentary behavior is a major cause in the fact that young children are overweight or obese, experiencing arteriosclerosis and hypertension, and dying of sudden cardiopulmonary arrest, we must do everything possible to prevent it!

And that leads to the second point. Even without low muscle tone, a child who isn’t confident in his movement skills – who feels clumsy or klutzy – is a child who won’t take part in physical activity. Even children who didn’t spend their babyhood in “buckets” are experiencing far less physical activity than the recommended minimum of 60 minutes daily. So from where is confidence in their movement abilities to come? So, ditto the above.

Finally, Dr. Marjorie Corso conducted research in which she discovered that there’s a correlation between body-space awareness and paper-space awareness. One example of this is that children unable to cross the midline of the body were sometimes reading and writing down the vertical center of the page. Sometimes they even wrote halfway across the page, turned the paper over, and started again! More evidence that the mind and the body aren’t separate entities.

The question now, of course is: what are we to do about all this?

The answer is simple, really: we let children be children! They’re born with a love of movement. If we give them the time, the space, and the opportunity to move, nature will take its course! It is, after all, what Mother Nature intended.

But we can also be a bit more intentional. We can be sure children elevate their heart rates and practice their motor skills by heading up lively games of Follow the Leader, for example, using plenty of large-muscle movement. We can encourage cross-lateral movement by inviting children to get on the floor and move like kitties, puppies, snakes, seals, and spiders.

Mostly, we can refuse to buy into the myth that the mind and body are separate! What impacts the body’s development impacts the brain’s development, and the sooner we acknowledge that, the better off our children will be.

14 Comments

  1. Totally agreed and experienced when I evaluate development of second graders. I would add: carrying infants and toddlers (and even older than toddlers) in front or back carriers. These provide hardly any opportunity for the two hands to meet–essential for left-right (bilateral) awareness and integration, stimulation of both hemispheres and tactile plus proprioceptive awareness of the hands and fingers–needed for relaxed and efficient grasps on pencils and all other tools of daily life.

    • Thanks so much for contributing your wisdom, Ingun! Such excellent points.

      Unfortunately, yes, even preschoolers are being carried and carted now. I want to cry every time I see one in a stroller — or even in those shopping-cart cars in the grocery store. When do young children get to even walk these days?

      • Hopefully we are at the bottom of the bucket. The only way to refill it is to get back to:
        Allowing babies and toddlers to move and explore in a safe environment;
        Teaching pre-k-elementary physical educators how to teach the fundamental locomotor, manipulative, and nonlocomotive movement skills and schedule daily classes. This age group of children tend to be active only in skills in which they are already comfortable, thus recess can not be counted as a learning environment;
        Stop expecting children to develop fundamental motor skills in after school sports programs because these programs teach only the skills related to that sport.
        Thank you, Rae, for caring on the fight for the awareness to allow children to be children.

        • Marjorie, it’s so wonderful to hear from you! I invoke your name so often. 🙂

          I love recess because it gives kids unstructured time (for a change), and because it is in the outdoors that children are most likely to use large muscles and burn calories. But you’re right about the instruction needed! I say it all the time in my keynotes: without practice and instruction, kids are going to stay at an immature level for performing motor skills…and that’s not going to motivate them to be lifelong movers. Thank you, too, for commenting on sports programs. People mistakenly believe that organized sports teach skills. Too often, children are just expected to jump in and play. Either that or they’re hanging around on the bench or out in right field!

  2. Loved your piece, Rae. I feel adults are just creating mini-me’s of themselves… sedentary, overweight, screen watchers. It is truly a paradigm shift from when I was starting out as a teacher of young children and as a parent of young children. I am so happy I spent all those afternoons with my children (both my preschool children and my own) hiking and exploring, instilling a love for the outdoors that could carry forward into their adulthood. All three of my sons love the outdoors and lead active and healthy lifestyles (they live in Seattle and Denver, so they have wonderful opportunities!). My grandson (7) went to mountain camp this summer and I watched (through daily posted video) his fun adventures climbing, kayaking, and horseback riding. My son asked me one day how many hours I figured I sat at a computer. Yikes, right? I purchased a standing desk that afternoon and find it one of the most wonderful pieces of equipment I own.

    • Thank you, as always, Deb! I’m happy, too, for your children and for all the preschool children you taught. And I know you’re doing everything you can to pass these lessons on to the educators-in-training in your courses.

      Yes, yikes!! I’m guilty of the same. Unfortunately, a standing desk isn’t possible in my office at the moment; but it’s definitely something I intend to have one day. So glad you were able to take advantage of one — and that it’s making a difference for you!

  3. I love this article. I am an infant teacher.
    We use a mix of containers and floor time. Lots of floor time. I spend most of my day crawling and Laing on the floor.
    I noticed in this center we have lots of helmets. Meaning many babies with flat heads before they start with us. We get children usually at about 6 weeks and up.
    We are aggressive with tummy time.

  4. Rae,

    I HOPE your other two issues are as easy to fix a this one! Of course, you are absolutely write about the problem. And the solution lies mainly in that good old idea: Intentional Teaching. I like to give easy, simple hints to teachers, such as: “When you are singing Itsy Bitsy Spider, let one hand be the spider and have it crawl up the opposite (cross-lateral) arm.” Once teachers start thinking about it, they realize there are so many things, from movement moments to daily routines and more, where they can “painlessly” promote this crucial skill.
    I recently had the privilege to help write North Carolina’s new legislatively mandated Kindergarten Entry Assessment, which does NOT assess children to qualify them for entry, but assesses them to find where they are on a series of progressions as they enter kindergarten. One of these progressions is Crossing Midline, and others include Engagement in Self-Selected Activities, and Emotional Literacy. One of the things I love most about these progressions is that no matter what we do, teachers will “teach to the test,” and I can’t imagine anything better than having children learn skills on these progressions. The assessment is observational, so it is also re-awakening their skills as observers. And a lovely (not necessarily unintended) benefit is that it validates for kindergarten teachers the treat work that so many preschool teachers are doing.

    • Joseph, I absolutely love the phrase “intentional teaching.” What a concept, huh? And I love the Itsy Bitsy Spider idea. Thanks for sharing it! And thank you for making such a positive difference for the children of North Carolina. I’m so happy that they reached out to someone who understands young children.

  5. Thank you for this thought provoking article! I teach Kindergarten and have noticed an increase of children writing down the center of the page or off to one side only. I never thought to associate this with midline exercise! It makes complete sense now and I will be able to change up lessons to add in more midline exercises!

    • Brandy, thank you so much for sharing this. Even though I hear and tell these stories over and over again, they still amaze me. I would love to know whether or not you witness any progress as you begin and continue to do midline exercises. You can post any updates here or send them to me at rae@raepica.com. Thanks!

  6. Another fab article Rae, just been adding more mid line crossing to my baby yoga classes. My mums must think I’m obsessed! I’ve shared this on my Facebook page as it is so important to connect the mind and body! Thanks for writing so clearly with such passion.

    • The idea that the mothers think you’re obsessed made me laugh! Keep doing what you do; the mums will be grateful in the long run. And thanks for sharing the piece on your FB page, Rachel!

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