The revelations in recent years about the risks of baby walkers ought to be a wake-up call for those parents eagerly buying educational software for their children. The revelations concern those cute little mobile seats with wheels that allow infants to move around in an upright position, with their feet touching the ground, so that they can propel themselves with their own legs. There may be perfectly good reasons for employing such devices in particular situations, and infants seem to delight in them. But my concern now is with the satisfaction many parents take in seeing their little ones "develop strong, well-coordinated legs for early walking." The general thinking seems to run like this: "The child must sooner or later learn to walk; if we put him in a walker so he can practice using his legs, maybe he'll learn faster, and surely this would be good."
Not so and the reasons ought not to surprise us. Here's how the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics summarized one study:
Walker-experienced infants sat, crawled, and walked later than no-walker controls, and they scored lower on Bayley scales of mental and motor development. (Seigel and Burton 1999)
Another study, this one published in the British Medical Journal (Garrett et al. 2002), found "strong associations between the amount of baby walker use and the extent of developmental delay." Children who spend time in walkers tend to be slower in "achieving normal locomotor milestones."
The decisive point here ought to be shouted from the rooftops: Devices intended to speed up development of a child's legs and improve locomotor performance can turn out to have exactly the opposite effect. In a society obsessed with giving its children a head start, this truth flies directly and rudely in our faces.
But the baby walker research interests me less than certain questions one might be prompted to ask just on the surface of things. These turn out to be questions we could easily re-phrase and apply to the growing library of software designed to jump-start little kids:
Why would we ever assume that exploring the world on hands and knees is less important to an eight-month-old than exploring the world on feet is to an eighteen-month-old? What possible grounds are there for trying to speed the transition from one stage to the next? What essential experiences are we denying to the eight-month-old if we do speed things up?
If the aim really is to give the kid stronger, more coordinated legs, why would we assume that the way to do it is to encourage premature walking that is, to get the legs working in a way those legs were not designed to work? Isn't it fairly obvious that this might just as well hinder future development as help it? Might it not be some wholly "unrelated" activity we should encourage in order to reach our goal?
Even if the walker, contrary to the evidence now presented, turns out to help children walk sooner, why should we assume without further inquiry that this has no adverse effects on other capacities, including mental ones? The complex developmental processes of the human being are a unity far beyond our current understanding, and about the only thing we can say for sure is that a change induced in one aspect of development is almost certain to produce ripple effects elsewhere. It is well-established, for example, that the young child's use of his hands is related to the development of intellectual capacities.
In sum, if a child normally learns to walk at a particular stage of his development, and if this walking relates one way or another to everything else in the child from the use of other limbs to the structuring of nerve connections in the brain, then why should we expect good to come of throwing a wrench into the complex developmental sequence? It is sheer craziness to force a use of the legs before the muscles, bones, and nervous system have prepared themselves for it. Far better to find ways to encourage the fullest expression of the urge to crawl so long as that urge prevails. The child has no difficulty letting us know when he is ready for fundamentally new developments such as walking.
It is only misguided adults who find cause for prideful joy in "early development." The child knows nothing of such joy; he is delighted to discover whatever properly belongs to each moment. What the child needs is not that each phase of his development should be hurried up and brought out of sequence, but that it be deepened in the time and place where it belongs. We then work with the developmental process rather than against it. It is amazing, in a society that makes such a song and dance of "evolution" and "development," that the anti-developmental, "earlier is better" notion could have taken such root.
It is also remarkable that, after trying to force the development of the infant's muscles and legs before they are ready, we turn around and set the growing boy and girl who now desperately need vigorous movement and active play in front of video screens where they remain nearly immobile for countless hours. And in this we contribute further to an epidemic of obesity.
There is probably no tool that offers a wider variety of ways to distort and "force" the normal processes of growing up than the computer. Despite the fact that the young child thinks with his body long before he learns to think with the adult's detached mind, a great deal of computer-based education is premised on the idea that we can safely constrain, alter, or ignore that bodily expression in the interest of speeding up the development of certain abstract mental processes that are more or less alien to the child.
"We may think . . . that we need to get children to memorize the idea that a straight line is the shortest distance between two points," John Alexandra writes in Mephistopheles' Anvil: Forging a More Human Future (1996). "But even one-year-old children already know this: when frightened, they will run to their parents in the straightest of straight lines." Alexandra goes on:
At that age, however, they know it only in their legs, where this knowledge is unconscious, asleep. The mathematics teacher's task is to draw out and make conscious what children already know unconsciously, rather than to push concepts into their memories. Teaching through movement and art does not reduce the accuracy of the resulting intellectual concept. It enhances the concept so it can be experienced through the whole human being. (p. 156)
The transformative wisdom at work in the child's organism is far beyond our current understanding. We have no business trying to reduce it to the terms of our adult notions of cause and effect.