We Wouldn’t Put a Toddler on a Tightrope

This is a variation on my “earlier-is-not-better” theme.

If you’ve been following my work – whether recently or for a while – you know that I’m continually trying to debunk the insidious myth that earlier is better.

It’s become so prevalent in our society! Whether we’re talking about athletics or academics, parents, administrators, policymakers, and even some teachers have come to believe that unless we get children started as early as humanly possible, they will fall behind, dooming them for life.

Yes, that may be a slight exaggeration. But how else to explain the stories I hear, including the one about the Michelin-star-level chef training program for babies six months old? Or four-year-old children being required to write a paragraph about their family? Or the repetitive, negative notes a mother received from her three-year-old son’s early learning center, complaining that he couldn’t grasp a pencil properly or sit still? Or the center requiring their one-year-old children to sit for 20 minutes so they could be force-fed letters and numbers via flashcards?

Let’s just explore the sitting thing.

Unfortunately, there are dual myths at play here: that earlier is better and that sitting equals learning. Although I’m baffled as to the origins of the former belief, I understand the latter. Most of today’s adults experienced school as a seated experience. Active learning was not yet a “thing.” Nor did we have the research we currently possess about how children and the brain learn best. If learning was the intention, being seated was the expectation.

When you put those two beliefs together, you get stories like the couple shared above. The idea is, if children are going to succeed as early as possible academically, then they must learn to sit as early as possible. But neither of these expectations is reasonable for young children.

Veteran teacher and educational psychologist Jane M. Healy once said to me in a podcast, “When you start something before the brain is ready, you’ve got trouble.” Believe it or not, this applies as much to sitting as it does to learning to read or write too early.

How can that be possible? After all, once a baby has acquired the ability to sit up on her or his own, sitting pretty much is a given, isn’t it?

Well, yes. But sitting still and doing so for a given length of time is a whole other ballgame. That’s because being still is an advanced form of balance!

Also, nature put a plan in place to help children be able to sit still and upright. But because today’s adults seem so sure they have a better plan for children than nature did, I’m hearing reports from early childhood professionals about children slumped over their desks and tables because they don’t have enough core strength to hold up their bodies. And then there are the stories about children falling out of their chairs, like so many Weebles trying to stay seated.

What was nature’s plan? I can answer in one word: movement! Children are supposed to climb and swing and hang to build their core strength. And, as I wrote here, to swing and spin and roll to develop their proprioceptive and vestibular senses. All of this is a prerequisite to sitting still and upright!

But today’s children aren’t getting enough – or any – opportunity to do these things! They’re spending hours in front of screens. Parents are afraid to let them go outside to play. And policymakers are eliminating recess in favor of more “instructional time,” which goes against all the research, as well as nature’s plan.

Every child develops at his or her own rate. But, in general, motor development literature tells us that a three-year-old can sit still for only five to 10 minutes at a time, a five-year-old for 15 minutes, and a seven-year-old just 25 minutes. And that’s referring to typically developing children; that is, children who’ve had the movement experiences to prepare them to sit for these lengths of time.

It does not apply to today’s children. In a visit to an elementary school, pediatric occupational therapist Angela Hanscom found only one in 12 children had normal strength and balance.

Yet we expect today’s young children to sit for far longer periods of time than ever before.

We wouldn’t put a toddler on a tightrope! We know instinctively that they don’t yet possess the balance and strength necessary to manage it. For the same reason, we should not expect infants, toddlers, and preschoolers to sit still and upright for more than a few minutes at a time. And even that is best if it’s the child’s own choice.


1 Comment

  • Patti Tatum says:

    Thank you for this information.
    I am teaching a Year 1 class at an English curriculum school in Qatar. This is the equivalent of Kindergarten in the US. I love what you have pointed out in this article because I feel like there are some teachers and parents who cannot get away from the old traditional way of teaching. I am one of the oldest in the department and I am trying to update my processes.
    I had a discussion with a parent about his son constantly lying down while the class was on the carpet for the morning lessons. The father claims that his son complains of his back hurting when he sits too long on the carpet but if he sits in a chair, he can sit all day and his son says he lays down and wants to sleep. The student is 5 years old but he does not sit still and will put his hands on others, pinch them or even hit at them. I do not make the children sit cross-legged while they are on the carpet because I know this is uncomfortable. I also find that many of the children are not able to sit on their bottoms but either on their feet or W-sit. He has a habit of sitting on his feet which means he moves constantly. He has been in the back row so he will not distract the other students. There are no physical issues with this student but I am constantly observing him and notice more sensory type issues.

    I have removed almost all of the tables and chairs out of the room except for two so the students will have open areas to sit and to move around. This flexible seating still has some work but it is to keep from always having the students sit at tables which take up more space int he classroom. During the snack time, the students may sit at a table or on the carpet to eat and they may choose where they want to sit. I want them to have choices especially to be near their friends during this time. I find that the other teachers in the same grade and for those with younger students have to have chairs for each students and they must do their work at a table.

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