Let’s Move Even More: Why Kids Need More Chances to Move, Starting with Infancy

1d6ad82d72a89a0ebc7e6c965b1ebd18I’ll never forget what an elderly woman told me over 40 years ago when I had my first baby and lived in a high rise building on the campus of Michael Reese Hospital in Chicago. Back in those ancient times, there were no slings or Baby Bjorns or car seat carriers, but there was this:

I received it as a gift and used it on top of the kitchen table (yikes!) to “introduce” strained carrots to my 2-month-old son. (Yes, I did nurse him, but I also followed pediatrician’s orders and fed him “solids” at this young age.) I don’t remember why I was carrying him in it as I entered the elevator. Maybe I was also carrying a heavy shopping bag.

active kid cartoon

Cartoon by Marcia Liss

At any rate, the elderly woman said, “Why are you carrying that baby like it’s a thing?” Wow. She was right. After that, I carried him in my arms. I also played with him for hours each day on a blanket on the floor with a few simple toys. There just wasn’t much “stuff” for babies back then. But there were lots of opportunities for my son to wiggle around.

Flash forward to 2014. I’m neither a pediatrician nor an occupational therapist. But being a mother of three kids, an early childhood educator for over 30 years, and the grandmother of eight gives me a bit of street cred. And what I see is a disturbing trend – kids are not allowed to move enough these days.

Being a compulsive baby book person for all of my kids, I can share that they generally turned over by 3 months, sat alone by 5 months, crawled by 6 months, and walked by 1 year. None of this was remarkable. All of my friends’ kids followed similar patterns.

Our grandkids are another story. Turning over may happen at 5-6 months. Sitting alone happens closer to 7-8 months. Most of them don’t crawl until 8-10 months, and some skip it altogether. Walking also typically happens a couple of months after their first birthday. We grandmothers have an unscientific theory: our grandbabies are not allowed to move enough.

First, they have to sleep on their backs now because of fear of SIDS. To keep them in this position, they are swaddled and stuffed into sleep sacks. This keeps them safe but also keeps them from exercising their arm and neck muscles. Add to that the vast number of contraptions for carrying our grandkids. When was the last time you saw a baby carried in her mother’s arms?

This is definitely a good time to become an occupational therapist. So many of our grandkids end up in OT to strengthen their muscles. So with professional help or on their own, our grandkids become toddlers and then preschoolers. Surely they get to move around now? Well, not as much as they should.

Many years ago, one of the wonderful teachers at Cherry Preschool, Anne Donoghue, came back from a conference where she met Dan Hodgins. His presentation called What About Them Boys gave her a novel idea. Why, she wondered, do we care if kids do projects or play at tables sitting down? She found that allowing kids to stand brought many more of them to art, playdoh, puzzles, etc. This was especially true for boys.

We realized that our expectations for preschoolers to sit didn’t always make sense. Yes, we wanted them to be part of group time, but if they couldn’t sit on the floor (criss-cross apple sauce style), what did it matter at age 4 if they sat in an educube chair or wiggled a bit on a teacher’s lap? Wasn’t it more important for them to acquire the skill of listening and participating in the group activities?

I’m afraid most early childhood programs these days would disagree. Under pressure to get the next generation of kindergarten kids ready for formal learning and higher test scores, Illinois has joined many other states in a preschool version of Race to the Top called ExceleRate. This program is designed to implement early learning standards, test preschoolers, and determine the success of their programs (gold, silver, and bronze level) based on these outcomes. So sitting and worksheet learning have come to preschool.

We all know what happens next. I’ve blogged about it many here and here and here. So when I read Why so many kids can’t sit still today by Angela Hanscom in Valerie’s Strauss’s blog on July 8, I sighed. Hanscom, a pediatric OT and founder of TimberNook, echoes what Donoghue shared so many years ago at my preschool – there is just too much sitting as kids are expected to complete too many worksheets these days. The more they sit, the more they squirm. This leads to many kids being misdiagnosed with ADHD when all they really need is the opportunity to move.

Hanscom reminds us that kids need hours of free play time from when they are little to develop healthy sensory systems that will enable their brains to learn. The typical organized sports, structured play gyms, or creative movement classes toddlers and preschoolers do these days (if they are lucky) aren’t nearly enough.

First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign is important. I’m just not sure how to reconcile this vital need for kids with all of the restrictions imposed by modern parenting and schooling that leaves no time for play. Any ideas?

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