On the move: The development of movement

Watch this video and notice your reaction…

When a child is first learning a new skill in movement — whether is it learning to walk or climbing a tree — parents often feel nervous they could fall and get hurt. But sometimes it is our own reaction that causes a child to lose his focus and then fall. When our child does fall, he has lost the ground underneath him. If we quickly swoop him up, he loses his relationship to gravity a second time.

I attended the 2nd International Professional Conference, The Dignity of the Small Child, in 2001 which included a presentation of the concept of the small child according to Emmi Pikler. In the 1940s, Pikler, a Hungarian pediatrician, founded a unique orphanage, the Emmi Pikler Institute. Following the conference I had the opportunity to visit the Institute in Budapest, Hungary for the first time.  

This work was brought to the United States by Magda Gerber, a student of Emmi Pikler and infant specialist, who together with Tom Forrest, M.D., a pediatric neurologist, founded Resources for Infant Educarers (RIE). I took the RIE Foundations course to further my understanding of this approach to supporting infant development.


Illustration by Klara Pap from the Pikler Institute

The work of Pikler and Gerber have been a major influence on my work with children both as a teacher and as a parent. One of the guiding principles of Pikler and RIE is that children have an inherent wisdom that allows them to development movement skills from lying on their back to walking. We need only to remove hindrances to allow this natural ability to happen. We can do this by NOT putting our child in a position she can’t get into herself, NOT telling our child how to move and NOT focusing on what age our child should reach specific motor development milestones. Instead we CAN provide space and time for movement, observe the quality of our child’s movement and recognize and celebrate transitional postures.

“Be careful what you are teaching the infants,
it may interfere with what they could be learning.”
— Magda Gerber

Here are some descriptions and ways we can support our children through the development of movement as they go from lying on their backs to walking.


The development of movement begins long before birth. Primitive reflexes emerge in utero and play a vital role in the healthy development of the child. They provide protection, support, and stimulation that allow the child to fully explore the movements of her body. Reflexes cause the child to involuntarily respond to a stimulus and set the foundation for later stages of motor development. A reflex is usually suppressed as a new skill is developed.  In this way the reflex is integrated into the higher skill. By allowing the natural development of free movement we can support this process with our child.

Lying on the back

The baby spends much of her time asleep as she adjusts from life in the womb to life on earth. This is the time to provide warmth and protection and to avoid unnecessary loud noises, intense smells, bright lights and sudden movements.

This is already the time for us to prepare the infant for what is coming through words and action. For example, before picking the child up, we can show the child our hands and say, “I am going to pick you up now.” We can then pick the baby up in a slow and calm way. If this is done in the same way each time, we will begin to feel the baby adjust and prepare in anticipation of being picked up. 

Discover hands

Still lying on the back, the infant begins to develop more control over her movements.  And, one day, she makes a great discovery – her hands. These become her greatest plaything. This is the time for the infant to begin spending more time lying on her back exploring her movements and environment.

It is very important that we not move the child into a position that she cannot get into herself. It is tempting to want to prop our child up using pillows or a contoured chair so she can see out into the world. But when a child is put into a new position that she has not yet mastered, she loses the freedom to control her own movements. Lying on the back is the position of most competency for the infant at this stage of development and allows the opportunity for the infant’s own readiness to evolve.



Illustration by Klara Pap for the Pikler Institute

The infant goes from lying on her back to slowly turning and rolling over onto his belly. This does not happen all at once, but through many practice opportunities. He stretches and flexes his muscles this way and that. He lifts his leg and crosses it over to the other side. Then, one day, he turns himself all the way over. At first, his arm will probably become caught underneath him and it can be very difficult to get out. This can be very frustrating. He will have to return to lying on his back and rest a while before trying again. When he is able to roll over, in his own time, he will have already developed the skills needed to lift his head and move his limbs while lying on his stomach. He may sometimes lift his head and all four limbs at the same time as if he is flying like a bird.

It is important to give the child at this stage of development uninterrupted time and enough space to move. The RIE practice of “wants nothing quality time” can create a mindful moment of observation of the child. This is such a wonderful gift to both the child and parent.


Once the child can roll over and play in the prone position, she begins to develop more control over the movements of her body. She can easily lift and maintain her head and chest off the ground. Her legs have extended and developed more muscle tone. She begins to crawl with her torso on the ground; pulling herself and using her legs the way a lizard moves in the dessert. The child moves from crawling on her stomach to creeping on her hands and knees. And later sometimes on her hands and feet like a bear. Creeping provides important movement patterns that will have far reaching effects on the child’s visual and cognitive skills, as well as her continued development of movement. Infants learn eye-hand coordination skills by watching their hands as they creep across the floor. Eye-hand coordination is part of the foundation for learning to read later in life. Now the child has the ability to move across a room using a wide range of movements.  

down stairs

Photo taken at the Pikler Institute by Marian Reismann

The play space needs to continue to grow and change as the child learns to crawl. Playing outside is a wonderful opportunity for all children. Nature brings with it many interesting play materials such as leaves, dirt, sticks, and rocks. It also brings grass, hills, and logs to climb over and around. Effort should be taken not to restrict movement. This is often the time that parents will consider using walkers or jumpers. Such equipment puts children in developmentally inappropriate positions and takes freedom away from their movements.  It has even been suggested that the use of walkers can lead to delays in motor and mental development. Playtime on the floor to creep, roll, and play lying down allows the child a wide variety of movements so that her motor skills can continue to develop naturally.

“Dr. Pikler reassured the parents that choosing to go
down stairs head first is a smart choice for the young child.
This way the child can see where he or she is going and
use the movement of the hands, arms and elbows to stop themselves.”
~ from Struggle Happens by Eileen Henry of Compassionate Sleep Solutions


A child first learns to sit on his own around the same time as standing up. Lying on his stomach, he is able to first lean on one side with his torso still on the ground. Then, using one of his arms, he is able to lift himself into a half-sitting position. Finally, he is able to sit up without using either arm as a support. With a little more practice he can sit with his legs stretched out and his arms free to explore objects around him. When a child is given the time and space needed to learn to sit on his own, instead of being put into a sitting position before he is ready, he is often times more at ease with his posture.

When the child is ready to start sitting on a stool or chair, it is helpful to provide furniture that allows the child to continue to have ease in movement. One suggestion is to offer a low tray so the chid can begin using a table while sitting on the floor. And then graduate to a small table and chair that allows a child to come and go independently. If you want to have a high chair at a family table, I suggest chairs with both adjustable seat and foot plates such as the Tripp Trapp chair that will grow with your child.

Standing and Walking

The day finally comes when the child stands by herself and takes her first step. In order for the child to walk she must first be able to support her own weight, balance on one foot, and shift her weight from one side to the other. This is no easy task, but she has been practicing hard for it for a long time, through all the previous stages of motor development. We can support the child by not distracting her so she can concentrate on the task at hand. It is important to focus on the quality of each stage of development instead of worrying about how quickly a child learns to walk. Babies always do what they can do and what they are ready for.

“The most important thing has not been mentioned:
Namely that an infant’s own movement, the development of these movements
And every detail of this development are a constant source of joy to him.”
~ Emmi Pikler, M.D.

Thank you to all the participants who attended my talk today at the Birth and Baby Fair in Oak Harbor on the development of movement. It was a pleasure sharing this information with you and seeing your babies move.


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