There is a little toy car on a spring at the park by my house. It has a seat and a bar for toddlers to hold on to as they rock back and forth. When my now 20-month-old first tried it a couple months ago his rhythm was awful. He’d wobble in a frenzy interrupting the momentum each time he got it started. There was a lot of shaking, but not much rocking. Now he’s mastered the car, but that isn’t the current concern this morning.
He wanted in and I told him to climb. I make him climb everything. Somehow he always seems to find a way. Now he’s sitting in this toy car seat backward, legs pushed straight up in the air, frustrated as he tries to manipulate his body around in a tight space.
I’m sure other parents are horrified as I ignore his grunts and groans encouraging him to figure it out. To be honest, he’s got himself in one hell of a pretzel and I’m starting to wonder if I need to step in. Still, I stay the course and within the next 30 seconds he has figured it out and is rocking furiously.
We come to this park a few days a week and it has been amazing to see his progress. The climbing wall went from impossible, to a journey of a couple minutes, to a 10-second fun path to get to the slide. He runs around trying everything, watching the older kids, falling, getting back up, and trying again.
I’m certainly an arm’s length away when he gets high enough to do real damage and I’m aware of the limitations inherent to a child under two. Still, crazy as it sounds, I want him to fall down. Not to some stupid, unsafe degree, but enough that he is pushing his limits and learning that he is alright. If he’s not falling, he’s falling behind.
Watch a kid play and they’ll inevitably fall, run into other kids or playground equipment, and pinch their finger in one of the many opening and closing toddler contraptions. They are rubber. What would snap your 40-year-old ankle hardly disrupts their run to the next slide. It’s almost as if they are well-adapted to handle the many bumps, bruises, and falls characteristic of their clumsy age.
“Children learn as they play. More importantly, in play children learn how to learn.”
O. Fred Donaldson
The Physicality of Learning
The reality is that at this age almost all learning is physical. Without a capacity for abstract thinking, the toddler reality is immediate and physical. They must use all their senses and learn through trial and error. Each experience informs their body with a better understanding of balanced movement. These are the primary needs that all future learning is built upon. Children don’t learn by sitting still. Play is their greatest feedback mechanism.
The formula for growth is consistent. Child learning is characterized by the same general adaptation syndrome at the heart of a strong immune system, successful training programs, a transformative college course, or any life skill.
We need a stress stimulus and a resistance effort to prompt adaptation. When we sanitize the environment and interrupt every challenge, people remain less capable. Every time you do something for your child that she could figure out herself, you are removing the stimulus for her to become capable of more.
Kyle Maynard was born without arms or legs. Today he is an Espy award-winning competitive mixed martial artist, a motivational speaker, and the first quadruple amputee to climb Mount Kilimanjaro without the aid of prosthetics. He credits his tenacity and ability to overcome obstacles to his grandmother.
When he was young she would ask him to get her a sugar packet out of the jar every day. These would have been easy for her to grab, but Kyle could not fit both arms in the jar. He recounts the frustrating hours he spent trying to balance and manipulate the jar in order to get one out.
As torturous as this sounds, it taught him that he could find a way. He learned not to accept the limits other people had for him and to make his life a bold, impressive adventure. We should all practice a little more Maynard in our lives.
I’m shocked by the parenting norms I often encounter at the park or any childhood venue. There seems to be an illusion that children are a form of glass china with a frustrating tendency to move from their safe perches. Parents follow them around as they play, anticipating every desire, and doing the work for them:
- He wants up on that slide. Let me carry him up there and let him slide down.
- He wants to rock on that toy car. Let me put him in.
- Oh, dangit. He keeps wanting to climb those stairs. “Why don’t you sit here and turn this steering wheel instead. Oh, and see these drums you can bang.”
- And too many times to count I’ve watched the parent sitting on the park bench staring at his phone say, “just stay right here so I can see you.”
The predominant parenting approach today is, see a need and then fill that need. They see a kid pointing, rambling gibberish, or grunting as they try to do something themselves and the adults immediately swoop in to give the child whatever they want. Sure, there are times for this, but we need a different primary approach
My parenting mantra is simple: I won’t do for them what they can do or figure out for themselves. It isn’t always clear to me what those limits are. I watch closely, demonstrate, prompt trials, and if necessary, add more assistance until they can do it. My goal is always to reduce the training wheels until they’re completely free.
I intentionally set kids up for stress, resistance, and adaptation in everything. When my son is climbing on my lap, I don’t pick him up. He’ll climb (often pulling hairs out of my chest—love hurts). When we’re going on a walk and he needs into the BOB stroller, I throw the break down and let him climb up. The world is a kid’s laboratory and its rife with experiments they are eager to try.
Humans Are Made to Move
Modern humans have neglected the necessity of movement. Many were never given the opportunity to experience the joys of play and have lost an entire realm of their being. There is an important concept known as physical literacy. Basically, this is the accumulation of movements in your toolkit and the ability to apply them to more circumstances.
Greater movement literacy promotes a greater variety of activities that are easily accessible when you need them or at least more easily learned. For example, a gymnast might get to a park on the beach and run, do backflips, play on the pull-up bars, and then elect to learn how to surf. She perceives endless possibilities and she’s excited to explore.
This starts at a young age. Every time my son plays, I see a whole new world that has opened up to him. He has access to more activities and he’s excited to try new things. His experiences are enriched by a greater capacity to enjoy interacting in his environment. Because he finds joy and curiosity in movement today, I’m confident he’ll be more active and healthy in his future.
“No man has the right to be an amateur in the matter of physical training. It is a shame for a man to grow old without seeing the beauty and strength of which his body is capable.”
We wouldn’t conclude that someone just can’t read, but over and over people conclude that a child who’s been strapped to chairs his whole childhood just isn’t an active child—they aren’t much of an athlete.
We are all athletes. Not in regards to sport, but in the amazing capabilities of a trained human body. These needs are just as pressing for our development as any other, and it starts with loosening the reigns and letting those toddlers fall.