Children are naturally drawn to test gravity. A lot of development is learning to challenge gravity. Climbing up slides, walking on curbs, climbing trees. This is the ‘work’ of childhood. In very young children, reflexes often support these antigravity movement patterns. Unfortunately, some children experience delayed reflexes or have had negative experiences, and, as a result, learn to avoid those same anti-gravity experiences. These avoidance behaviors lead to missed opportunities to learn valuable movement lessons.
Gravity is a natural force that is always working against us. It challenges us to grow and develop. Early experiences in gravity set us up for foundational experience with balance and coordination and allow us to form mature pathways for future coordination. Studies on astronauts returning from extended missions to space at zero gravity have shown decreased bone density and muscle loss upon return. These studies suggest that weight bearing through our joints with a natural gravitation pull is essential for maintaining muscle tone and bone density. As therapists, we are often working to set up the environment to encourage exploration and provide natural experiences for children to practice using their bodies against gravity.
What can I do as a parent to support my child’s curiosity, exploration and anti-gravity development, you might ask?
For very young children, be thoughtful about how much time you are setting aside for natural exploration. There are so many amazing innovations to physically support infants, but often, children are only given limited time to explore freely on the floor. Spending excessive time in various ‘seats’ doesn’t allow children to learn how to use their muscles against gravity and it can contribute to gross motor delays and have physical implications (e.g., positional plagiocephaly).
For older kiddos, be thoughtful about your cuing and support. Phrases like “be careful” imply there is something they should be worried about. Instead, consider giving cues that help them develop a better sense of body awareness and confidence like “I like how you tested that with your foot before stepping on it,” “think about where your body is” or “what is your plan to make sure you don’t trip?” When it’s safe, give your child the space to explore. Often as well-meaning parents we step in too soon, fearful of injury or failure, when a child may have been able to be successful just given a little more time or space.