Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Meaning of Play

This post is part of the Attachment Parenting Month blog carnival, hosted by Attachment Parenting International.

For children, play comes naturally.  Children can find play hiding in boxes, under trees, in mud pies, between mom’s never-to-be-worn-again dresses in the closet, and on top of the neighborhood’s tallest hill.  Children need no reason or goal in their play.  They just play because they want to and they can.
For adults, play does not seem to come naturally.  We seem to have lost our innocent desire for play in boxes in the garage that need to be sorted, under the piles of mud-stained laundry, between the bills that need to be paid, and in the desire to ensure that we give our children the absolute best chance for success in life.  In fact, play comes so unnaturally for adults that a researcher (Catherine Garvey of the University of Maryland) has decided to define play.  Apparently, there are five elements to “play”.
1.    Play must be pleasurable and enjoyable.  Easy enough.
2.    Play must have no extrinsic goals.  So, if Junior is “playing” on the computer with the newest Math Busters game to improve his test scores or out hitting some balls to make the Varsity team, it doesn’t count.  Tougher.
3.    Play is spontaneous and voluntary.  Here, if you are making Junior hit balls because it’s your favorite pastime, it doesn’t count.  Also, could be tough.
4.    Play involves active engagement.  So, watching TV is not play.  Watching big brother use the Wii is not play.  Easy enough.
5.    Play involves make believe.  Doable.

What links these elements?  Play should be left to the kids.  On the way home from school, a group of otherwise bored children can come up with an innovative way to use their lunchboxes as radars to help them find their way to the lunar launch site.  (See, it includes all five elements! Unless a trip to the moon is considered an extrinsic goal…)  It seems that adults can inadvertently take all of the fun out of play by providing more structured activities and timing. 
Still, adults shouldn’t step out completely.  Another study has revealed that an infant’s sense of exploration increases directly with the level of responsiveness that a mother shows towards his play activities.  By watching their mothers’ actions during play, infants learn how to play and, ultimately, entertain themselves (infants as young as 2 days old have been observed imitating adults around them!) Children get the most benefit from play (the benefits of play for children are countless- improved abilities to handle emotional difficulties, improved social skills, increased understanding of mathematical concepts, etc.) when adults guide them and provide new challenges or ideas, only when it is obvious that the children are ready to handle these next steps.
So, how can you be a secure base within your child’s play?  Ensure that play activities are child-led.  Take your cues from your children.  And, relax in the knowledge that by guiding, instead of leading his exploration, you are giving your child the best chance at Harvard or the Major Leagues. 

Belsky, J., Goode, M.K., Most, R.K. (1980). Maternal stimulation and infant exploratory competence: Cross-sectional, correlational, and experimental analyses. Child Development, 51(4), 1168-1178
Hirsh-Pasek, K. & Golinkoff, R.R. (2004). Einstein never used flash cards. USA: Rodale.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Beyond Physcial Milestones, Part IV: Direct Perception

            In the late 1970s, American psychologist James Gibson proposed a new way to solve Bernstein’s problem.  Unlike the theory of information processing, Gibson’s direct perception approach argues that knowledge and observations about the environment do need to be organized and stored in the brain in order to be used.  Instead, information can be used directly by the infant, which Gibson refers to as “affordances.”  Affordances describe the environment in which the human is moving.  Humans learn to adapt to affordances; in the Tour de France, a biker will shift weight forward when faced with a large uphill climb, while they will shift back when rushing downhill. 
In this same way, infants learn to adapt their crawl or walk to their environment.  However, they do not create one set of rules that tell them how to move around different obstacles.  Instead, as they directly experience their environments, they decide how to move.  Because babies and young children grow so quickly, their bodies and especially their legs undergo major changes in a quick period of time.  As such, it would only confuse them to learn to scoot with short, chubby legs one week and longer, skinner legs the next.  In addition to the changes they are experiencing in themselves, they are in a constantly changing environment.  One day they might be crawling on soft carpet; the next a hard, slippery tiled floor or an uneven surface like grass. As adults, we adjust to these affordances everyday, most likely without a second thought (unless I am maneuvering these obstacles in heels- then the surface I’m encountering is likely in all of my thoughts.)  Babies are always having to learn to adapt to something new!
Research in the field of ecological psychology has revealed some findings that I find really interesting, funny, or that make me even more amazed in my little one!  Here are some of them:
·         It has been found that baby fat has profound influences on infant locomotion.  All babies are born with the “stepping reflex,” but it was commonly believed to disappear after about 2 months. Researchers have since learned, however, that the reflex exists much longer, but babies legs become too weighed down with fat for their little muscles to respond to the reflex!
·         Babies with about 6 weeks of crawling experience will know to avoid “drop-offs” or cliffs.  These experiments are completed by having infants crawl over raised plexiglass covered surfaces.  The babies start at an end where a brightly colored material is under the plexiglass, so they know they are moving on a solid surface.  Suddenly, the material is removed, but the plexiglass remains, giving the illusion that there is nothing supporting the baby.  Remarkably, the infants know to stop at this point.  Some do explore that space by touch, and will, eventually, trust that they can crawl over the space. 
·         Infants face more hurtles than adults when trying to maintain balance while crawling, standing, or walking.  This is because their shorter, smaller builds fall faster and require quicker reaction times to correct falls and they smaller feet and knees mean that they have a smaller base supporting their bodies. 
·         While we often lure infants across the carpet or around the room with toys, most infant movement is “means-end exploration.”  Many infants may not take the most direct path to get to the toy as they ultimately just want to test their motor skills. 

Hirsch-Pasek, K. & Golinkoff, R.M. (2003). USA:Rodale.
Adolph, K., Bertenthal, B. Boker, S., Goldfield, E., & Gibson, E.J. (1997). Learning in the development of infant locomotion. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 62(3), 1-162

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Beyond Physical Milestones, Part III: Information Processing

The information processing theory explains how the brain processes, stores, and retains information; often comparing the human brain to a computer.  While the theory can be used to study all forms of infant development, for this explanation, the information that will be processed and later retrieved by the brain describes motor control. 
Information or knowledge is first experienced by curious newborns through their senses.  Their growing brains then take this sensory data (how the carpet feels, how far away the toy is, the temperature of mom’s milk, etc.) and store it in their working (or short-term) memory- a temporary storage system (very temporary- usually less than 20 seconds even in adults!) in the brain with very limited capacity.  Some of this information will eventually make it to the babies’ long-term memory which seems to be limitless in its capacity. 
But, here is one of the first differences between young children and adults.  Young children operate as “novices” while adults operate as “experts” (some more than others, however) when it comes to information processing. Novices do not have the skills (namely, attention spans and encoding or storing knowledge for long-term memory) necessary to make the best use of their brain’s operating systems.  Babies have a very short attention span and little control over their attention.  They are often stuck taking in a new sensation and are unable to disengage while their brain processes what is going on; in contrast, they can also be overstimulated and look away from sensations, preventing knowledge from reaching their long-term memory. 
Along these same lines, it can be difficult for infants to build up their knowledge within their long-term memories.  Once knowledge is stored, it must be organized, so it can later be easily retrieved- just like records you keep in your home or office. In the human brain, these records are known as schemas. This process takes practice (even adults complete exercises to improve their memories), but research shows that infants do start to categorize their memories.  By the time they turn one, babies organize knowledge by its function or behavior type. 
Infants, then, develop schemas for muscle control.  According to the closed-loop model, programmed movements are stored as a result of past experiences. Based upon the sensory inputs, the brain will execute certain movements. 

Gredler, M. (2009). Learning and instruction: Theory into practice. Columbus, Ohio: Pearson.
Piek, J. (2006). Infant motor development, volume 10. USA: Sheridan Books.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Beyond Physical Milestones, Part II: Maturation

(Please note, this is an updated version of a previously published post...)
The first major proposed solution to Bernstein’s problem is known as maturation theory or the theory of neural networks.  Here, psychologists and others propose that an infant’s physical milestones occurred in a set sequence that is determined by innate forces (like genes).  Most also believe that these developments are closely linked with the development of the central nervous system. 
In the late 1920s, the German professor and pediatrician Albrecht Peiper conducted a series of neurological observations on newborns. He was not overly interested in the age of the babies- simply the development of neurological activity.  As a result of his research, however, he was able to see patterns in the ages and brain activities of the babies.  Furthermore, he observed that reflexes disappear as brain activity increases.  More specifically, he observed the slow diminishing of the reflexes until they completely disappear.  For example, the Moro or startle reflex morphs into what Peiper referred to as the “parachute reflex” before vanishing.
Child psychologist Arnold Gesell, who was known as the “baby doctor” until the rise of Dr. Spock and is one of the leaders in maturation theory research, believed that human growth should be studied through growth patterns, which followed the increased ability to coordinate different parts of the child’s growing body, largely as a result of the development of the nervous system.  Gesell believed that all children go through a process of maturation in similar, sequenced stages; in fact, many of the milestones commonly mentioned in baby books (lifts head, rolls over, etc.) are based upon the work of Gesell and other researchers with similar theories. 
It should be noted that, given their focus on biological aspects of development, Peiper’s and Gesell’s research supports the “nature” fans in the nature vs. nurture debates.  As such, some challenge that his growth patterns do not recognize the full potential of children who are in learning-rich environments and that children can progress much faster than Gesell’s observed patterns.  Peiper would counter this argument; however, as he believed that motor development was essentially completely dependent upon brain development.  One of his studies mentioned a 6-month old girl who suffered a hip injury and was placed in a full cast until she was 18 months old.  At that time, the full cast was replaced with a half cast.   One day later, she was walking!  Rather fascinating.  Other research (from 1940) that supports the idea that nurture (i.e. the environment) plays little role in the development of motor skills focuses on Hopi Indian babies.  For the first months of life, the Hopi babies were carried on a cradleboard and swaddled so tightly that their movements were largely restricted. Still, they began walking at about the normal time.  For full disclosure, given the very nature of this blog, I believe that the environment in which a child is raised plays an important role in development.
Gesell’s research emphasized the development of the nervous system as children progress through each stage.  For example, infants cannot control the movement of their eyes at birth.  They circle around without focus.  Soon, however, they are able to focus at specific objects, likely human faces.  This shows the development of nerve impulses from the brain to the eye.  Later, infants are able to follow toys that their parents hold in front of them with their eyes and even turn their heads, demonstrating further development of the nervous system to exert control on gross muscle movement.  Next, babies are able to focus on objects they are holding in their own hands- coordinating the nerve impulses to the eyes, head, and hands.  Eventually, babies will be able to pick up items with their fingers (the pincer grasp- using the index finger and thumb is typically not mastered until about 10 months). 
Beyond his study of development in coordination with the development of the nervous system, one specific pattern that Gesell first observed is known as reciprocal interweaving.  The pattern focuses on the theory that opposing forces (either muscles or hands or even personality traits) alternate dominance until the baby masters a movement or achieves a preferred movement.  During the development of walking, reciprocal interweaving takes place between extending the leg muscle and bending the leg muscle.  This pattern is also seen in the development of handedness.  Babies sometimes use their left hand, sometimes their right, and sometimes both.  Eventually, they will develop a preference for one hand, typically at around 2 years.  Gesell even believed that a baby’s personality goes through a process of reciprocal interweaving.  Until about age 5, the child may alternate between introversion and extroversion.  Some shifts may continue between the two until about age 16.  
In relation to child rearing, perhaps Gesell’s most important contribution is the fact that he strongly believed that each child is an individual and should be treated as such.  While, as previously stated, he believed that all humans go through sequenced maturation that is biologically dictated by genes, he believed that the timing of this growth and development varies from child to child, perhaps as a result from differences in a child’s temperament.  Gesell believed that a culture should adapt to meet the needs of each child’s temperament, despite whether the child was ahead of or behind on Gesell’s observed milestones. 
In order to do this, parents should take their cues from their children.  Gesell was a strong supporter of feeding on demand, stating,

The infant is fed when he is hungry; he is allowed to sleep when he is sleepy; he is not roused to be fed; he is changed if he fusses on being wet; he is granted some social play when he craves it. He is not made to live by the clock on the wall, but rather by the internal clock of his fluctuating needs.

Crain, W. (2011). Theories of development: Concepts and applications. New Jersey:      Prentice Hall.
Eliot, L. (1999). What’s going on in there? New York: Bantam Books.
Parmelee, A. (1962). European Neurological Studies of the Newborn. Child Development, 33(1). 169-180.
 Salkind, N. (2004). An introduction to the theories of human development. California: Sage Publications.
 Sporns, O. & Edelman, G.. (1993). Solving Bernstein's problem: A proposal for the development of coordinated movement by selection. Child Development. 64(4). 960-981.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Beyond Physical Milestones: Part I, Introduction

        (Please note, this is an updated version of a previously published post...)
         Typically, when I look at a list of baby milestones for physical development, it reads something like this-
1 Month- Lifts head
2 Months- Holds head up
3 Months- Does mini push-up
            Well, there’s obviously got to be more going on than that.  What inside of baby is suddenly clicking to make this stuff happen? 
            The vast majority of all physical movements in the first three months of life are just reflexes, most with rather obvious evolutionary survival functions.  In fact, human infants appear to have the least developed motor capabilities when compared to other vertebrate animals, making reflexes all the more essential.  The first reflexes that parents are most likely to observe are the rooting and sucking reflexes, necessary for nourishment.  Other reflexes ensure the proximity of the caretaker to the infant- the grasping reflex, the Moro reflex (this happens when baby is startled- he clenches his arms around his chest in an effort to hold on to his caretaker who would be holding him- demonstrating the  evolutionary roots of baby-wearing), and even crying.
            Around month 3, many of these reflexes start to diminish and are replaced by movements initiated by the infant, indicating increased strength and the ability to manage their muscles.  However, these new movements do not only indicate increased strength of the muscle groups employed.  The development of the musculoskeletal system is related to the development of the brain. As explained by the Russian psychologist Nikolai Bernstein in 1967, the movements require coordination. His work explained that the human body- composed of countless joints, muscles, and bones- is unable to control the movement of individual joints and muscles, thus the need for coordination between the separate components. Bernstein called this new field of study “biodynamics.” Beyond the many, many body parts involved in a movement, the central nervous system sends countless signals to initiate movement.  Moreover, more than one signal can initiate the same movement or the same signal can lead to different movements, which Bernstein termed as redundancy.  Given these findings, Bernstein concluded the human body has an infinite number of degrees of freedom, or the movement or rotation of various parts- imagine rotating your arm.   
            So, how does the human body learn to master these movements, given an infant’s starting point is based solely on reflexes?  This question has been coined “Bernstein’s problem.”  Various theories explain how humans develop to overcome Bernstein’s problem.  In this look into infant physical development, I will explore the following major theories:
1.    1.  Maturation (Neural Networks)
2.   2.   Information Processing
3.   3.   Direct Processing
4.    4.  Dynamic Systems Approach
5.    5.  Constraints Model


Crain, William. (2011). Theories of development: Concepts and applications. New Jersey:      Prentice Hall.
 Salkind, Neil. (2004). An introduction to the theories of human development. California: Sage Publications.
 Sporns, Olaf & Gerald Edelman. (1993). Solving Bernstein's problem: A proposal for the development of coordinated movement by selection. Child Development. 64(4). 960-981.
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