It’s fun and exciting to watch childhood development milestones unfold right before your very eyes! But paying attention to the smaller pieces and patterns of development that happen between the milestones can be equally interesting!
Look! He rolled over!
Aw, she’s sitting up by herself now!
He’s on the move! Look how fast he can crawl!
Look out – someone’s starting to walk!
As new parents and as therapists and teachers, we take developmental milestones very seriously – and with good reason. These milestones can be signs that a child is on the path toward healthy, typical childhood development. And when these milestones are not in place, it may be a red flag for us to look a little bit closer or even to mention to a pediatrician or therapist.
Because we know that we have these developmental markers to look forward to, we often watch and wait for them. It’s fun and exciting to see what’s going to come next! We may even compare our kids to others’ kids, getting into a little developmental milestone competition.
Often, we become so intently focused on those milestones that we may miss out on some of the other beautiful and fascinating aspects of development that are happening along the way.
And that’s why we’re here today. To celebrate and notice some of the amazing little pieces and patterns of development that happen between the milestones.
What to look for between the milestones of childhood development
The next time your little one, or the little ones in your classroom or therapy practice, achieve a new milestone like sitting up by themselves or learning to walk – don’t be so quick to rush to the next thing. Instead, pause for a bit to notice what happens between the milestones.
1 || Notice how they use their newfound skill.
Once babies gain a new skill, watch to see how they use it. How do they explore the new position? How does it change the way they interact with their surroundings? What kind of movement experience are they getting from the skill that will provide a foundation of balance, strength, and coordination for the next developing skill?
For example, once babies get comfortable in a quadruped position, they’ll start to rock back and forth. They’re using this new position to explore weight shifting and balance and they’re getting important vestibular stimulation too – all building blocks for learning to crawl!
2 || Watch for repetition of the movement or skill.
Some of the most memorable baby milestones are the ones that you’ll see repeated over and over – banging two objects together, clapping hands, waving hello or goodbye, dumping out the toy box, throwing toys, rocking back and forth on hands and knees, rolling.
When a baby repeats an action, notice what purpose this repetition may be serving. Is she getting sensory input telling her about the position of her arms (e.g. Banging two objects together)? Is she getting a social and cognitive benefit from the action (e.g. Waving elicits a “Hello!” from every stranger in the grocery store)? Is she getting practice with the coordination of a new motor skill?
While some repetitive motor behaviors are associated with typical childhood development, stereotypical, repetitive behaviors that cause a child to withdraw from his environment or rigid, repetitive behaviors that interfere with social interactions and daily routines are cause for concern and should be addressed with a medical professional.
3|| Look for variety and experimentation in movement and positioning.
Even though you may see some repetition of actions or movements, it’s also amazing to watch the tiny variations in how babies use new skills and how they move their bodies from one play session to another.
Watch as they invent new ways to transition into or out of positions. Watch as they use already-mastered skills in new ways. For example, maybe they can get themselves into a sitting position to play with a toy using both hands on one occasion. The next day, they may begin to use this sitting position as a base to reach for objects on higher surfaces.
4 || Observe how (and whether) they’re able to transition into and out of positions.
Tummy time, sitting up, standing up – they’re all such exciting milestones. But guess what? Eventually, babies have to learn how to get into them and out of them independently!
So rather than just placing your baby in the position, sit back and observe. Can they roll onto their tummies to play and then back onto their backs? Can they push up into a sitting position and then get back onto their tummies or into quadruped? Can they pull up to stand and then lower back to the floor?
5 || Notice perseverance and independence.
And, as you’re watching them move into and out of all of these new positions, watch them struggle a little bit before they finally get what they’re reaching for. Rather than swooping in and saving baby from every little mishap, try to hold back and act more as a spotter, softening the fall rather than preventing it. Babies are built to fall and get right back up again – and if we step back a little bit – they will! Read more about child development and perseverance.
6 || Observe what other skills are developing alongside motor milestones and how one skill influences another.
Research has shown that motor skill development is linked to the development of other skills – including language. It’s fascinating to watch other skills like babbling and following simple directions unfold right alongside motor milestones. And it’s even more fascinating to consider how these skills and the different systems of the body impact each other.
For example, when a baby learns to sit up, his vantage point and field of vision changes, impacting the development of the visual system and visual skills. Now he can see and reach for toys even more efficiently. He can also look around the room in this new upright position to notice parents, siblings, and caregivers – paving the way for the development of social skills like waving and greeting others.
The social emotional interaction that happens as babies perform new skills is another fascinating aspect of development. Social interaction is often an automatic result when a baby performs a new developmental skill. Babies look to parents or caregivers for approval, reassurance, or praise as they push out of their comfort zone and perform new skills. Watch as babies perform skills again and again because of the reaction they get!
7 || Watch how the environment shapes and changes the performance of skills.
The way the environment is set up and the objects that are present in the environment can have a heavy impact on which skills kids demonstrate and how they demonstrate them.
Specifically – the size, social aspects, and sensory features of a space can impact how kids move and play and even whether they move at all! The familiarity of the play space and play materials, as well as the complexity and variety of toys and materials are also important considerations. So, depending on where you are, observe as kids show off different skills based on the features of the environment.
For example, moveable gross motor manipulatives in open spaces, such as balls, beanbags, streamers, hula hoops, and stepping stones tend to create more flexible and varied movement play and promote more physical activity than anchored play equipment.
So what do you think? Will looking at these smaller pieces and patterns of childhood development impact the way you think about developmental milestones? Are there other smaller pieces of childhood development that you like to hone in on when you’re observing milestones and development?
Share your thoughts in the comments below!