Movement: Your Child’s First Language

Jill Taplin

Sally Goddard Blythe’s theme is familiar to all those who are interested in developmentally appropriate care and education. It is best summarised in her own words:

Despite the many advantages of modern life … the needs of the human infant and developing child remain relatively primeval. Effective learning does not just involve teaching from the top down, but also learning from the bottom up; it is a process in which each step along the way informs and secures the basis for later learning.

How does this book differ from past offerings from this author? In this publication, the author has collaborated with a Russian physician and musician, Michael Lazarev. Lazarev, starting from the initial understanding that the movement and voice of the mother prepares the unborn child for birth, has gone on to develop songs and improvised pieces with movement suggestions which will continue to support the healthy development of the young child after birth. This book is accompanied by two CDs, one of ‘nursery rhymes for modern times’ composed by Lazarev, and one with two simple story sequences by the author. In the book the movement sequences are carefully described. These are all intended to support healthy movement as an intrinsic part of development.

Before higher skills can unfold secure foundations must be laid down. Any attempt to leapfrog ahead will have negative consequences. A child’s early sensory experience, especially in the fields of touch, movement and balance, shape neural activity, creating the physical structure of the brain. In this way the child’s opportunity to freely explore movement is a vital precursor to language and cognitive skills and continues to be an important companion to them. Goddard Blythe’s argument is backed up by a considerable body of research still being extended.

In the womb and in very early infancy, the child has various distinct primitive reflexes, which are involuntary movement patterns. These are important for the process of birth and for early survival. However, through free movement opportunities, after birth they must be overcome and extinguished so that movement becomes free and independent of these involuntary impulses. If these primitive reflexes are not overcome, if they are retained, they become a hindrance not only to free movement but also to cognitive development. This may have psychological consequences, for example on a person’s ability to function well in an unknown space. Spatial judgements are impaired and emotional security undermined by the distraction of trying to control involuntary responses. Through the variety of movements that a young child will naturally make in the process of learning to roll, crawl and walk, primitive reflexes are overlaid and replaced by postural reflexes that support voluntary movement for the rest of life. Voluntary skilled movements, such as using both hands and arms independently, develop new neural pathways and are essential for this journey towards freedom to take place.

For young children, if primitive reflexes are retained specific learning difficulties result and these can disrupt their future educational journey. For example, there are primitive reflexes that link movements of the mouth to movements of the hands. If the hands and mouth cannot move freely and independently of each other, then abilities to control the hands, needed for fluent writing, will be restricted. Similarly, arm movements must be free from leg movements and movements on one side of the body from reciprocal movements on the other. In addition, if not overlaid, primitive reflexes which are involuntary responses to touch may prevent a child from sitting still, as a result of a constant impulse to respond to triggers given by the bodily sensation of the chair on the spine. Hindrances such as these will affect a child’s ability to succeed in formal educational settings.

Therefore singing (which needs a series of movements to bring it about) and moving to music are to be encouraged for young children as a way to activate body, voice, ear and brain in developmentally appropriate ways. The book’s first accompanying CD, ‘Wings of Childhood’ contains a series of songs and musical improvisations designed to be both attractive to the young child and to encourage, through guidance and imitation, movements to free the child from any retained primitive reflexes. This is aimed at pre-school and reception year children. The second CD contains simple spoken stories with guidance for specific movements given in the book. These movements are designed to replicate the naturally occurring sequence of movements that an infant would make to achieve free and independent movement. Such movements, regularly repeated, would prepare children aged approximately 3 to 6 years old for more formal learning by giving extra opportunities to overcome primitive reflexes. In a less imaginative and more formal way the same movement sequences are used for older primary school children as remedial exercises, which benefit the whole class.

The link which Goddard Blythe emphasises between the capacities necessary to think and to learn, and a prior foundation of physical development leading to free movement, has been acknowledged by others such as Piaget, Montessori, Steiner and Donald Hebb, a Canadian psychologist. They are among many proposing a pedagogical approach including an environment encouraging strong foundations in pre-linguistic and cognitive skills. There is an army of elements in our fast-paced, electronically-dominated, noisy world which threatens such an environment. Goddard Blythe mentions the problem of keeping young children in buggies or strollers, for safety and convenience, and, in particular, in forward-facing buggies where conversation with an adult is extremely limited. There is plenty of research to substantiate the claim that forward-facing buggies limit valuable opportunities for language development, but still they are much more common that those where the child faces the parent. Who needs to be re-educated here?

Physical and psychological states inter-relate, and the plea here is for an ‘enriched’ environment where the carers’ interest in (or love for) the child promotes sensitive responses to the child’s needs. These can be met with opportunities for free movement, self-initiated play, communication and time in nature.

In the final chapter of the book the author restates an argument, well known to those familiar with the cause for a later start to formal education, such as in Sue Palmer’s book Upstart (2016) and the authors represented in the book Too Much Too Soon by Richard House (2011). The education system in the UK, with its early pressure for academic learning, fails to recognise and accommodate the developmental needs of many children when they start school. The early school-starting age is a problem, particularly, but not exclusively, for boys. The evidence is there in countries outside British influence, where formal schooling does not begin until the age of 6 or 7, that a later start is just as effective for later academic achievements and avoids the danger of undermining the remarkable enthusiasm and curiosity with which most children approach learning. An early start to structured learning brings the possibility of taking away the desire to learn and bringing consequent behavioural difficulties. These difficulties have their roots in developmental difficulties, which might be overcome with more time spent in free movement. Finland is given as a prime example of the high standards that a different approach can give.

But, for those families and those teachers unable to avoid the current system with its early start, what can be done to support children? Goddard Blythe’s advocacy of an environment rich in opportunities for experiences of touch, movement and balance is passionate. When adults are able to respond to the child’s natural wish to be active and to communicate, some degree of protection is offered and remedial possibilities are given.

Teachers, in addition to parents and other carers, will find good resources in this book to inform and encourage them. There are descriptions, for example, of primitive reflexes, which create specific involuntary movements and how the problems of these retained reflexes might show up in later life by inhibiting free movement in ways which impact on physical, emotional and cognitive capacities. Possible symptoms of problems with hearing and vision are given. The CDs are interesting examples of material to support healthy free development of movement and balance. They can be used as they are given or provide inspiration for developing your own material. For example, those working in Steiner kindergartens will already have a wealth of seasonal and imaginative songs, stories and poems and will easily be able to incorporate the movement exercises and sequences described here.

For those involved in Steiner Waldorf education, the work of Goddard Blythe has long provided resources that support this pedagogical approach, to which the author refers on several occasions. According to Steiner, touch, movement and balance are three of the four foundation senses. The fourth is what he calls the life sense, and could be described as one’s sense of one’s own bodily well-being. The life sense tells you whether you are hungry, thirsty or in pain, for example. This sense develops resilience when the caring adult takes an interest in the child, who can, say, walk home up the hill, although a bit tired and hungry, because the trusted adult is holding the child’s hand and telling a story of mountain climbing.

Steiner suggests that these four foundation senses of touch, life, movement and balance, are clearly connected with psychological as well as physical states and that they are transformed, if allowed to develop healthily in the young child, into what he calls the ‘higher’ senses of hearing, word, concept and a sense of the individuality of another person. The connection of each of the four foundation senses in bringing about the transformed ‘higher senses is like this: Touch transforms to a Sense for the individuality of another; Life-sense transforms to a Sense for the concepts behind the words; Movement transforms to a Sense for the structured nature of language; Balance transforms to a Sense of hearing which gives a feeling for the qualities behind the surface appearance.

Without healthy development of the foundation senses, the corresponding higher sense will be compromised (see Our Twelve Senses by Albert Soesman,1990). For example, if we do not received respectful and caring touch, our later capacity to understand the needs of another person is weak. Unless this cycle is interrupted by therapeutic intervention, poor parenting is inherited.

The plea for an environment for the young child rich in activity and language, and accompanied by adults who understand developmental needs, rings out clearly from this book. I can recommend it as a source of valuable information about child development, how to support it and how to become aware of potential hindrances.

Sally Goddard Blythe: Movement: Your child’s First Language, Hawthorn Press, 2018, ISBN: 9781907359859, Pb, 188pp, 2 CDs, £20.00