Movement in Early Childhood:
Developmental Magic? Or Nourishment?
First published Spring 2010
Early childhood is the gateway to healthy development and to a sense of comfort and happiness in one’s own physical body. Much of this is accomplished through play and the freedom of movement that play invites. Not so long ago when childhood was less structured and allowed freer exploration of the world, this important development happened without our awareness. We saw children actively run, play tag, skip, climb, teeter totter, balance, and roller skate. We could witness how these activities developed full body coordination and skill in movement. But what we could not see was that the sensory systems were also becoming integrated through these same activities.
Neurological development and brain integration—essential for the academic and intellectual skills our society so highly values—are formed through movement. Current neurological research confirms that the movements children go through in work and play create important neural pathways and foster brain development. Stated simply, movement builds the brain. The richer in variety and more frequent the movement activities, the better it is for brain development.
Children still do all of the activities described above, but today the mood is different. Fearfulness has invaded the world and a well intentioned gesture of protectiveness restricts childhood activities even more. Testing balance by scrambling onto rocks, climbing trees, or walking along a fence ridge is discouraged if not prohibited because of fear of injury. When a child goes out to play, instead of wishing, “Have fun,” the adult is more likely to say, “Be careful.”
Enchantment with media and computers poses an additional challenge. These keep the child occupied and safe, we reason; in using computers, children develop cognitive intelligence by using educational programs, a seemingly indubitable benefit. Leaving aside the wider questions about how media use negatively affects children, every passive moment children spend in front of a screen robs them of opportunity to move and build themselves physically and neurologically for their own futures.
Playful, exploration-filled movement is a critical heritage that Waldorf early childhood education guards and encourages. This happens daily in Waldorf programs. Abundant free play time, both indoors and out, invites children to move according to their own imaginative scripts, exploring their environments and fine-tuning the movement and coordination of their own bodies. Lively imaginations in daily circle time, obstacle courses, movement adventures, eurythmy, and traditional ring games guide the children into the healthy movements their development craves.
Our own home hours with our children are also critically important. Dance classes, sports, gymnastics, and so on entice us into thinking that they will satisfy this need for movement experience. Yet these generally have a “right” or “wrong” way to move. This can demoralize a young child who is just learning to direct body movement. Moving in directed, prescribed ways also limits the freedom to explore every nook and cranny of muscles and bones, balance and posture, that helps us find our stance in the world. Every chance to run, leap, balance, swing, twirl, lift, skate, slide, roll, start, stop, and then rest is an invitation to a healthy future.