Why physical milestones matter

Yes, I’m guilty of blog neglect. I apologize. I’m also guilty of hating to read post after post about how “I’d like to post more often but life got in the way,” so I’m just going to launch into the topic now:

Sometime last week I commented on a friend’s link on Facebook. It was about babies not getting much tummy time and consequently not meeting physical development milestones “on time.” I enthused about the rate of R’s development compared to that of my other two children and attributed it to her spending all of her playtime (most of her waking hours, in fact) on the floor.

Apparently these days talking about how some parenting decision has worked out really, really well for you is similar to wearing no panties to a bar notorious for its hookup culture. Ill advised, perhaps. Inviting abuse? Surely not. And I didn’t get abused; it was more like a light slap on the wrist.

“Who cares when your kid crawled or rolled over?” One woman commented, “I am so tired of this line of thinking. They’re not going to university not knowing how to sit up! We don’t need to push our children to achieve. They’ll do it in their own time.”

She’s right and wrong at the same time. Montessori philosophy agrees with her that children will learn and develop at their own pace, but there’s a caveat: they have to be given the right environment and the right tools at the right time. In the case of developing physical milestones, if we don’t give them enough spaces and opportunities for free movement, they won’t develop the normal milestones until much, much later.

Which brings me back to the question of why we should care that our children aren’t meeting milestones as early as they used to. In short, it matters because strengthening the muscles takes a lot of time and practice (as anyone who does resistance training can tell you,) and complete proficiency and strength in the basic exercises are a necessary foundation for the activities that come next, at which we do care if our children excel: paying attention, sitting at a desk, writing, reading.

I’ve been reading a blog called Pediatric OT, written by an occupational therapist who works with children who are having difficulty in school. I’ve learned a lot from her blog. One of the more unexpected points she has made is that in the absence of strong neck and spinal muscles, the eye muscles’ fine motor functioning is compromised and as a result, the child will have difficulties with visual perception that may present as difficulty reading, writing, and participating in team sports. And why would a child have weak neck and spinal muscles? It comes, says this therapist, from children being less active as babies and toddlers: when they are constantly supported in a swing, bouncy chair, bumbo, exersaucer, or carseat they don’t have to strengthen their core muscles – they already have a stable base from which to work. When we take that base away, though, their body is not strong enough to remain steady and support the neck and head.

And once again we circle around to the question, “why does it matter whether they crawl/roll over/sit up as young babies?” The answer, finally, is that it matters because rolling over, crawling, and sitting up earlier are indicators that a child has had plenty of time for free movement, and has spent that time strengthening her core muscles… and since she can crawl, she does, thus increasing her strength and endurance. Can you imagine all the hours and hours of exercise and strengthening our children are missing if their physical milestones are delayed by even a couple of months?

You may be thinking that a delay of a couple of months is fine, that it just pushes everything up by a couple of months – but it doesn’t. Our children’s physical strength isn’t developing as soon as it used to, but they’re expected to go to school and learn to read and write at increasingly younger ages. See the problem?

What does this have to do with Montessori, anyway?

A lot, actually. The Montessori curriculum involves a series of exercises, each building on the last, both physically and intellectually. Long before they learn to write, two- and three-year-olds are using a three-fingered grip to manipulate pegged puzzle pieces, use eye droppers and tweezers, and polish metal with a q-tip. This grip is practiced (and the hands and wrists strengthened) in increasingly challenging ways, for many months, before the child holds a pencil to begin writing. Montessori educators understand that in order to be able to write a literary essay in grade seven, the child must first have developed his visual discrimination (identifying different shapes and colours,) visual tracking (being able to move the eyes smoothly so as to keep focusing on a moving object or on text,) pencil grip, wrist strength and control, and so on. Children require a great deal of practice to develop the fundamental skills they need, and Montessori ensures that they get it.

Attacking the other end of the problem, that of children being expected to do academic work before their bodies are physically ready, well, Montessori solves that quite neatly as well: a child simply does not move onto harder work until she has the required knowledge and physical ability to handle it. This means that some (very few) children will learn to write and read at age three, and others will learn it at age five, or maybe even six… just as some babies will learn to crawl at six months, and others at eleven months. They simply need the time and opportunity to develop their muscles in a natural progression.

Neither of her siblings crawled at six months, but then they both spent much more time in "baby containment devices." The plural of anecdote is not data, I know, but it's a fascinating contrast nonetheless.




Looking over this blog last night, I realized how my life might look to readers who don’t know me extremely well: a home brimming with child-sized items and furniture; tasteful wooden toys and plenty of books; children who happily cook, clear the table, dress themselves, and play neatly with one object at a time; a family that sits down every morning to a wholesome breakfast… did I miss anything?

Let’s take a closer look, shall we?

Child-sized items and furniture – check. Tasteful wooden toys and plenty of books – check, although the kids are much more interested in the tiny choking-hazard-sized plastic dinosaurs someone gave them (I’m not naming names, Bubbie!) Children who happily cook, etc – it depends on what your definition of “happily” is. As Montessori Dad would say, screaming and crying can be happy, right? They’re just ignoring us and hiding under the table because they’re so happy about their impending bathtime, right?

Uh, right.

Our home is sometimes peaceful, orderly, playful, and fun. Other times it is full of tears, tantrums, pantsless (even diaperless) children running away from the adults who would dress them, and messes that nobody wants to clean up. It happens. Our discipline is sometimes effective and sometimes not. We don’t always succeed at taking our children’s concerns seriously, as evidenced by our tendency to crack up when one of them says (or does) something completely ridiculous mid-tantrum. One of my kids – guess which one… I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised! – has been known to go a week between baths simply because we don’t have the energy to fight that particular battle (I never get into a battle that I probably can’t win.)

All this is by way of saying that we are just regular parents, and the children are just regular children. They’re not especially gifted or compliant or coordinated. They do do some really neat things, though, and they are rather independent – but that’s not my kids. That’s Montessori.

And that’s the point of this blog. Not to say how competent my kids are (even though I think they are), and not to say what a great parent I am (my standards are pretty low right now; if we all emerge from their childhoods alive and unscathed, that’s a success), but to explain how Montessori philosophy and techniques allow kids to become competent and help create great parents… or at least great parenting moments.

So… if you’ve been thinking that I sound a bit “sanctimommyous” on this blog, please go and read it again with this in mind: Montessori isn’t for gifted children. It’s for all children.

Oh, and also this: I spend my time finding new materials and tools for my kids and then blogging about it… and that’s why there’s unfolded laundry all over the living room.