The Genius of Natural Childhood: Secrets of Thriving Children by Sally Goddard Blythe
Almost every day the newspapers carry a new story about changes in children’s development and lifestyle: Studies which have indicated that children’s muscular strength has declined in the last 12 years when hand grip and the ability to support their own body weight was assessed; surveys in which up to 40% of parents admitted they have never read to their child; a study involving more than 18 000 children which revealed that three in ten children grow up in homes with no books and that children with no books are two and a half times more likely to fall below their expected reading level for their age, but 85% of these same children aged 8 – 15 years own a game console. This growing body of evidence combined with findings from our own research, which has indicated that a significant percentage of children enter school with immature motor skills and that there is a link between immature motor skills and lower educational performance, led me to revisit the lullabies, nursery rhymes, stories, games and activities from my childhood and ask the questions, “what did these activities provide for the developing child?” What is the genius of natural childhood?
Growing up in the physical world
The rapid pace of urbanisation and advances taking place in technology means that social and cultural change is beginning to overtake the biological needs of the child. As human beings we are also mammals and mammals have evolved in the context of the physical world, in which physical experience and social interaction have been crucial to development. One example can be seen in the importance of rough and tumble play in the animal kingdom. Mammals that do not engage in rough and tumble play as pups tend to be rejected by the group. Rough and tumble play is important because it develops sensory skills, control, restraint and develops neural circuits involved in creativity and practise of life skills. The young child of today is no exception in this respect as every child must learn to become competent and confident in the use of his or her body to be fully equipped with the tools for learning and for life.
Learning with the Body
Young children learn with their bodies before they learn with their brain. An infant’s first language is one of movement and music. Babies express their wants and needs through a combination of gestures, alteration in posture, facial expression, speed and quality of movements and the tones and rhythms of the sounds they make. Movement is important not only as a form of expression but also the primary medium through which an infant explores its world, learns to integrate information derived from the senses (the basis for perception) and to develop good control of the body through development of muscle tone, balance and posture, which are fundamental to good coordination. While the driving force for the development of these skills is maturation, they are entrained through experience.
The first of the senses to develop is the sense of balance. In place at just 8 – 9 weeks after conception and functioning at 16 weeks, the balance system is fully formed and ready for use at birth. But rather like being given a grand piano as a gift at birth, before it will deliver its potential, the child must learn to play and this can only be done through practice. The balance mechanism is the primary sensor for gravity and it responds to different types of movement, variation in speed of movement and when movement starts and stops. Before birth, the unborn child’s sensation of movement was cushioned and the effect of gravity reduced by the surrounding amniotic fluid and the support of the mother’s body, meaning that movement was experienced as slow and gentle, just like being under water. After birth, movements that mimic this pre-natal experience tend to be soothing and comforting for children. These include slow rocking, swaying from side to side and being carried on the mother’s body – movements which parents use instinctively to soothe a fractious baby.
The first lesson in becoming a master of movement is control of the head and proper alignment of the head in relation to body position. This will provide a basis not only for posture and balance but also the later control of eye movements needed for reading, writing, catching a ball and even driving a car, and it involves the development of extensor muscle tone against gravity. One way of helping this to develop is giving babies plenty of “tummy time” on a clean floor surface when awake. (Research has shown that the incidence of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) is reduced if babies a put to sleep on their backs. This advice has led to many parents becoming afraid to place infants on their tummy when awake, or leaving it until the infant is several months old and protests when placed on the tummy.) Wakeful tummy time is important because it encourages the development of head, neck and upper trunk control which are necessary to support posture for the remainder of life. Examples of this progression can be seen below. Development of extensor tone on the tummy:
Babies placed in a seat for several hours of the day may develop good control of the lower portion of the body through kicking and stretching movements, but the challenge to upper body control is considerably less and they do not to have learnhow to lift the head, to support upper body weight or to learn to sit by themselves. Later on, this can affect the development of posture and upper body control needed to sit up straight and carry out coordinated movements such as writing.
Sensory motor experience also entrains pathways involved in perception (the brain’s interpretation of sensory information). Early reflexes provide one example of how this takes place. In the first days of life, a newborn baby will search or “root” for the breast using the sense of touch. Contact with the area around the mouth will result in the infant turning its head, nuzzling or searching for the breast and when an object is introduced in the mouth, the suck reflex will come into play.
While the visual system is relatively immature at this age, only being able to focus at a distance of some 17centimetres from the face, objects remaining blurred and the eyes being drawn to the periphery of shapes making outlines more significant than the detail contained within, the sense of touch on the other hand, is highly sensitive. Initially, the neonate uses touch and smell to locate the source of nourishment and comfort but within a few weeks, sight of the breast will be sufficient to initiate sucking movements. In other words, the combination of touch, smell and movement lead into visual association, and vision will eventually supersede the more primitive reflex response. While maturation acts as the dynamo for development, it needs the context of physical experience to unfold its potential.
Given the opportunity, babies carry out thousands of seemingly random movements every day. Esther Thelan studied these movements and found that far from being random, movements were rhythmic and stereotyped. What they lack in the early months is cortical direction and control. When analyzed in slow motion, many of the movements and attitudes constitute primitive versions of highly skilled movements used by ballet dancers, acrobats, divers and gymnasts. In this sense, the human infant really does dance before he can walk, and sing before he can talk.
The Language of Music and Mime
Babies communicate using the language of music and mime. Cooing and babbling are essentially musical in nature and the hand movements and gestures made by infants engaged in both listening and vocalising have been compared to the highly trained hand movements of an orchestral conductor. Nearly 150 years ago, Charles Darwin wrote, ‘I have been led to infer that the progenitors of man probably uttered musical tones before they had acquired the powers of articulate speech. Babies can ‘hear’ a restricted range of lower to medium-frequency sounds from the 24th week of pregnancy, sounds which roughly correspond to the range of the human voice and the majority of musical instruments used in classical music. All sounds heard inside the womb are reduced in volume by about 30%, the loudest sound being that of the mother’s heartbeat. Sounds from the outside world are about 35 decibels quieter than sounds generated from the internal environment, the only exception being the sound of the mother’s voice, which is particularly powerful because it resonates internally and externally, her body acting as the sounding board. Vocal speech and singing have a powerful on all physiological processes including cardio-respiratory function, digestion, hormonal secretion, motion, emotion and intelligence. Before and after birth, a mother’s voice provides a connection between respiration, sound and movement – an acoustic link from life and communication before birth – to the brave new world outside the womb.
Russian paediatrician and musician Michael Lazarev described the mother’s voice as being, “the main instrument in his pre-natal education. This is a tuning fork to attune the strings of the soul to vibrations of the outside world, to get into a universe of human culture. These vibrations are the first to form the deepest structures of his personality. Motheris the sculptor who shapes her baby with her voice”.
Music is the natural medium for this creative and connective process, because music is composed of elements which are common to all languages, all forms of communication and can be understood at a physical and emotional level by the very young child. Singing contains all the tonal and rhythmic elements of speech and “motherese” – the sing-song style of speech used by mothers instinctively when talking to their babies – is particularly musical. Singing slows down the sounds of speech, prolonging the time value of “open” vowel sounds, making it easier to hear and reproduce the sounds and contours of words.
Lullabies – traditional songs of the nursery – have characteristic rhythms which mimic the slow swaying movement of the mother’s body, providing gentle stimulation to the balance system while also providing the comfort and reassurance of the mother’s voice. Research has shown that the sound of the mother’s voice has the same effect on emotions as receiving a cuddle, while lullabies and nursery rhymes carry the “signature” melodies and inflections of the mother tongue, preparing the ear, voice and brain for receptive and expressive language.
Live music is particularly important because it involves communication, teaching the ability to “read”, replicate and reproduce all the nuances and subtleties gleaned from another’s body language and spontaneous responses. Stimulation derived from a remote or virtual source does not pay attention to the child’s reactions or listen to what the child has to say. It is essentially an egotistical form of communication which follows its own course without consideration for the listener or the viewer. This medium of stimulation occurs in a pre-programmed, virtual world created by a particular type of mind and constitutes a monologue rather than a dialogue. Children’s response to live music is different from recorded music and babies are particularly responsive when the music comes directly from the parent. It is the human interaction (touch, voice, and eye contact) using a form of language which is attuned to an infant’s level of development which are important, not the individual lullaby itself although all lullabies share a similar range of rhythms and tones – a form of universal language.
The peculiar structure of lullabies where the music is written like a story with a beginning, middle and end appeals to children and this same organisation helps them to learn structure and order and exercise imagination. “The melody and harmony are just intricate enough to stimulate the imagination slightly, yet also send an unspoken message of support and security, in a way no words can describe.”Whether humming, chanting, or singing, anyone can make music and as a parent your child will not judge you on your musical abilities. As far as he or she is concerned, you are the expert.
Nursery rhymes provide a natural sequel to lullabies although they were not originally designed for this purpose. Many reflect events in history and the political and social problems that were prevalent in the time and place where they developed, when outright criticism of authority would have resulted in punishment, but parody was still possible. Many nursery rhymes were originally rather like the political and social commentators, satirists and cartoonists of today.As such, they are an important part of a child’s cultural history and heritage. They are also rich in rhyming words, repetition and alliteration, helping the young child to identify minute differences between words and their meaning.
Sound of the parent’s voice extends from lullabies and nursery rhymes into reading to children. In a survey, carried out in 2010, found that more than half of primary school teachers said that they have seen at least one child with no experience of being told stories at home. In some homes the television or electronic games have become a substitute for books but these do little to nurture a child’s imagination, verbal communication or non-verbal communication. The content of stories is also important. Here again, our modern society seems increasingly at odds with the wisdom of previous generations. For centuries, children used to be reared on wonderful rich fairy tales, like Cinderella, the Frog Prince, and The Tinder Box, or on uplifting parables from the Bible like the Prodigal Son or the Good Samaritan. More treasures came from the ancient fables of the Greek storyteller Aesop or the folk rhymes, like Ring-a-Rosie. Yet all this literary wealth is falling out of fashion, for a variety of reasons. Some think that these age old fairy tales are too scary and therefore would disturb their children. In a recent poll of 3000 parents for the website babywebsite.com almost 20 per cent of adults said they refused to read Hansel and Gretel because the children were abandoned in a forest – and it may give their children nightmares. A fifth did not like to read The Gingerbread Man as he gets eaten by a fox.
Similarly, in our increasingly secular, atheistic world, anything from the Bible is seen as being tainted with the out dated dogma of the Christian faith, no matter how pertinent the message.
Stories for Life
Fairy stories and parables are important precisely because they use “make-believe” to teach fundamental principles of moral behaviour. Stereotypes of good and evil are used to illustrate that goodness endures and bad behaviour will eventually receive its just deserts. Far from demonising the dwarfs, the story of Snow White shows that underlying physical diversity there can be greater kindness and generosity than is found in the stereotypes of beauty and wealth so lauded by celebrity worshipping cultures. In many fairy stories, (Goldilocks for example) it is the smallest and weakest in the group with whom the heroine identifies and in the Emperor’s New Clothes, vanity and pride are revealed as vacuous posturing without substance, which mask stupidity, and obstruct the use of common sense. These stories are not cruel and discriminatory; rather they help children to understand through fantasy firstly, the quirks and weaknesses of human behaviour in general and secondly, to accept many of their own fears and emotions in particular. The modern tendency to protect children from anything unpleasant, that they cannot cope with, does not help them develop the resilience needed to face death, separation, rejection, injury, hardship or conflict in their own lives when they encounter it for the first time. Fantasy and fairy stories can actually strengthen their fibre. They know, when the tale begins, that they are stepping into a fantasy world, for the opening words “Once upon time” are a signal to engage their imaginations. What follows, whether it be witches, or princes, castles or forests, can be shocking or enchanting but it all serves to deepen a child’s thinking processes in a way that TV and computer games never can. Amidst all the heartache before the happy ending, the prime lesson of the story is the courageous virtue of being true to the self.
Earlier this year, my daughter gave birth to my first grandchild. In the course of making preparations for the new arrival, I was reminded how different the expectations and pressures on parents of today are compared to only 25 years ago. Marketing for the baby industry is so slick and successful that many new parents are seduced into believing that babies are born needing an array of equipment, from electronic devices which play lullabies and classical music to bouncing cradles which mimic the motion of a car. While these can be helpful to exhausted parents in soothing a fretful baby to sleep, they cannot replace the experience derived from direct physical interaction with the environment and one-to-one communication with another human being.
Some of the best playgrounds and tools for learning are free: Parental time, involvement, communication; space and freedom to move and explore; song, dance and a love of stories. Two of the greatest gifts that parents and society can give to a child in addition to love, is competence and confidence in use of their body in the physical world and the ability to understand and use language. While we should not reject the many advances and advantages of the modern world, neither should we discard the wisdom of the past. Some of the most successful societies are those that seamlessly weave new developments into the existing fabric of the old, enriching the tapestry for generations in the future.
Sally Goddard Blythe directs the Institute of Neuro-Physiological Psychology. She researches children’s learning difficulties and is an authority on remedial programmes. Her widely translated books include The Well Balanced Child, What Babies and Children Really Need and Reflexes, Learning and Behaviour. The Genius of Natural Childhood: Secrets of Thriving Children was published this year in the UK by Hawthorn Press as part of their “early years series.” It’s available in the US from Steiner Books.