Physical Development and Walking– Rethinking “Containment”


The human infant has deep, intrinsic motivation to work on physical development– coordinated movement, balance, and fine motor skills–  and finds this work very rewarding.

Babies work hard to reach, grasp, bring things to themselves, and get themselves to places they want to go.  Research now proves that babies reach for things in a different way, depending on their intent.  For example, when reaching for a blanket, their reach and grasp are different depending whether they intend to hold the blanket or they are using it to bring something on top of the blanket closer to them.

Babies are very driven to develop the skills of standing and walking– the ability to move themselves about in the world.  Having an intuitive sense about gravity and speed and distance are all important for coordinated movement.  Infant researchers have demonstrated that even very young babies can use the relative size of objects as an indication of how far away they are. 

Adults can help or hinder babies’ physical development.  One way to help can be to provide lots of opportunities for free movement — because babies learn through practice.  One way we can hinder this development is to keep them contained (in cribs or chairs) and to try to prevent them from touching things.

Rethinking Containment– cribs, playpens, high chairs, bouncy chairs, etc. etc. etc.

Parent’s lives are extraordinarily busy these days and many work very long hours.  We contain our children so that we can keep them safe while we need to get things done.

It is important that we realize, though, that it that, the more we contain them, the more we interfere with their learning and development.  They will still learn to walk, but they may not develop the degree of balance, coordination, perspective, and agency that they could if we let them do more.

When we prioritize containment and clean hands over our child’s development, we frustrate our children’s self-motivated drive to learn and we keep them reliant on us.

Well– it can be nice to be needed!  But, there are some drawbacks, in terms of the baby’s development.

When we discourage them from trying to do things that might result in spills or other mistakes, we keep them more incompetent.  Maybe we also indoctrinate them to anxieties about dirt and mistakes.  These are not the lessons we want to teach them in the formative years, since so much learning in life comes from trying to do things that are a little difficult– and learning from mistakes!

What if we prevent our child from falling every time they try to stand or walk?  Yes, we want to prevent their falling and hitting their head on a glass coffee table. But, we don’t want to prevent every fall.  That’s how they develop their own sense of their bodies and their ability to balance.  (Why DO we have that coffee table now that we have a baby in the house, bumping his head into everything as he is learning to walk?  It would make everyone’s life so much easier if we gave that to someone who doesn’t have a baby in the house!)

As parents, teachers, nannies, or day care providers, let’s take a fresh look at our containment of young children.  Let’s recognize that we are not containing them because they benefit from being kept clean and still—but, rather, because we don’t have time to supervise them.

Let’s guard against allowing child safety concerns to completely trump our brilliant young child’s development.

Have you found that your child can be trusted to do more, and is much easier to get along with, when you contain him less??


Ginny Trierweiler, Ph.D.,, 303-975-6103






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