Much has changed in the last six decades. Among other things, we have witnessed an unprecedented technological advancement in neuroscience. As a result, an increasing number of scientists started speaking up about body movement and its impact on brain development. However, it seems that decades of research are still unable to deliver enough evidence for school policies to change. Finland is one of few countries that boldly went where no one has gone before, and it is evident that its drastic policy change of the 80s and 90s reaps fantastic results in international student assessment tests (PISA). Most Western countries still turn to an educational system that requires children as young as six to sit behind a desk for hours on end, a system where movement is still restricted to one-hour gym classes, twice a week. While we wait for the political will to implement some long-overdue changes, it is up to parents to get our children moving, not only for the sake of their fitness, but for the sake of their intelligence, as well.
It does not start at school age. The most crucial time for brain development starts at birth.
When I got my first job at The Montessori Institute in Ljubljana, seven years ago, I did not really know that much about infant brain development. Sure, we covered the basic developmental milestones in the teacher training course, when we were given a lecture on the connection between movement and cognitive learning. Most of our knowledge about the importance of movement came from the Montessori Method itself. So much of Montessori pedagogy is based on movement! From the freedom of movement inside the classroom, to specific movements required to manipulate the didactic materials designed by Dr. Maria Montessori, movement is considered an essential trait of her method of education.
After I completed the teacher training, I began to notice articles popping up on my Facebook news feed. More and more pediatricians, neuroscientists and psychologists (last but not least – both hipster and hippy moms) were featured in the media, talking about the importance of movement for early brain development.
I was intrigued, and started to research the connection between motor and cognitive development. I found some very interesting literature, and movement in early childhood became my pet peeve. Suddenly, I found myself reassessing my own childhood, based on my newly-found knowledge. I held it against my mother for allowing too much screen time when I was a kid, for putting me in a play pen, for not encouraging me to pursue any sports.
I gave myself a solemn promise that I would do things differently. And I did. I encouraged my kids to climb trees and rocks, I let them walk barefoot. We ditched the TV set, when we moved to our house, and we minimized the amount of screen time the kids were allowed. I made an improvised floor bed for the youngest, so he could climb in and out of it by himself. I stood my ground against my husband, who did not warm up to the idea of letting the three of them jump on the couch or climb the doorframe. I would feel superior to bewildered passers-by, who commented on my youngest toddling all the way to Grandma’s house, a kilometer away, when he was a little over one-year-old, because I decided to ditch the stroller.
I found like-minded people at the Montessori preschool, where I used to work. Young parents were thrilled that we devoted so much time to their children’s motor development. My coworkers were dedicated to teaching early independence. We took the kids outside every day, for at least an hour, regardless of the weather. We helped children learn to get dressed by themselves, before the age of two. For a while, I was convinced that my generation of parents had found the ultimate answers to encouraging smarter, happier kids.
One day I delivered a self- righteous complaint to my husband about how our entire generation was messed up, because of play pens and television. Then it struck me. I remembered the conversation I had with a family friend, a lady then in her late seventies, which took place before I had had my Montessori training. We were sitting in her living room, having tea, when my one-and-a-half-year-old daughter started to get bored. She walked around the room, until she noticed a vase with a bouquet of dry lavender. Before I could stop her, she grabbed the bouquet, lifted it out of the vase and then carefully slid it in again. She repeated the movement again and again, and she pushed me out of my comfort zone. This is not something you let your child do. She was ruining the bouquet. I told my daughter to stop, but the old lady cut me off. “Let her do it. It’s just a dust trap, it doesn’t matter. When you see a child focusing like that, you should never interfere. Something is going on inside her head.” This was a lady who grew up on a farm, spent her whole life in the same valley, had just an elementary school education, and probably never read anything on early brain development. And here I was, feeling all smug and superior to previous generations of parents.
My generation of parents might feel like we are the best parents ever to have walked the Earth, but the truth may be far from it. It is not that uncommon today to see a three-year old in a stroller, or being fed with a spoon, because the parents do not want him to get soup all over his adorable little designer T-shirt. What is becoming even more common is more and more screen time for kids. Thirty years ago, all we had was a television set and computers were just starting to catch on. Now it is considered normal to see a two-year-old flipping through photos on their parents’ smartphone, a four-year-old throwing a temper tantrum because the iPad battery ran out in the middle of a Peppa Pig cartoon, or a six-year-old who scores better than their parents at whatever is the latest hit game.
We are failing a generation of kids. It is not the previous generation that messed things up. We are messing them up.
I am convinced that parents would let their children move more freely, if they were aware of the implications. Take the Corpus Callosum, for example, a part of the brain connecting the two hemispheres. The development of the Corpus Callosum impacts the ability to use both hemispheres simultaneously, a process needed to learn how to read and write, among other things. Researchers found an increased plasticity and size of the Corpus Callosum in children who had at least 15 months of musical training that began before the age of six. If this was common knowledge among young parents, toddler music classes would explode. And that is just one of many examples of the affects movement has on building better brains.
The fact is that the way kids develop their motor skills profoundly affects the way their brain is built. School systems take decades to pick up on the latest trends in education. Our kids cannot afford to wait for decades. They only get a limited amount of time to build their brain, or at least the majority of it. If we miss the crucial time window at that early age, the brain simply loses the ability to develop in particular ways.
So turn off the television and take your kid for a walk in the woods.