The first time I heard that cross crawling was an important developmental milestone I was an undergraduate student. I had not yet experienced parenthood nor had I spent much time teaching fast growing preteens and young adolescents. Fast forward twenty-five years. Today, my youngest child (pictured here as an infant) is now 17 years old, I have more than a decade of experience teaching in elementary and middle school classrooms, and I have studied and observed child development from a few different perspectives. This experience and study along with a few anecdotal cases have convinced me that indeed cross crawling or cross lateral movement is vitally important to healthy brain functioning for the purposes of learning to read, write, and understand the written word. So imagine my outrage when I read these words from author Nicholas Day, "Among the most pernicious and persistent is the idea that crawling matters. If your baby does not crawl, this theory suggests, she will be damaged in some way" (Day, Just Relax About Whether Your Baby Is Crawling, 2013). In an article for Slate Magazine, Day suggests that the importance of crawling is a myth. I was enraged at this obviously cockamamie suggestion so I did the only thing I could do; I picked up a copy of his book, Baby Meets World Suck, Smile, Touch, Toddle: A Journey Through Infancy.
Much to my surprise I found the book to be well researched, clearly written, and quite an enjoyable read, but back to my question; where does he get the idea that cross crawling doesn’t matter; that it is one of many “myths” of healthy infant development? Day states that the history of claims about crawling being an important developmental milestone is relatively recent. In fact, in most cultures, including our own American culture, prior to the early 20th century crawling was discouraged. No good parent in his right mind would allow a tiny infant to get down in the dirt and crawl; it was subhuman. Even today, in 2015, there are cultures in the world where parents do not allow their babies to crawl on all fours. This idea that crawling is a stage of normal development on the path to walking came into being with a pediatrician and psychologist of the early 20th century named Arnold Gesell (Day, Baby Meets World suck, smilie, touch, toddle: A Journey Through Infancy, 2013).
Whew! Relief washed over me. Day is not suggesting that cross lateral motion is not important for learning how to read, write, and understand the written word. He is simply saying that crawling on all fours has not traditionally been touted as vital to learning to walk, and that babies come to uprightness and walking in their own time in many varied ways. I concur, however from my experience as a dancer, movement educator, and teacher crawling develops the core strength needed for upright walking as well as clearly demonstrating that an infant is integrating the left and right halves of her brain for coordination and learning. But, Day is right, some babies never crawl; they scoot, drag their legs behind military style using only their arms to propel them, roll, or some combination of these. Eventually all of these babies walk, and most of them talk and learn without any problems. So what is it about cross crawling that lights a fire in many child development experts and occupational therapists?
As a teacher I have had the pleasure of working with many children with ADHD, Dyslexia, Autism Spectrum behaviors, and other specific learning challenges. A couple of these children stand out to me as clear cases of challenges with cross lateral motion and subsequent challenges with reading, writing, speaking, and understanding the written word.
In one case, I initially became aware of movement related challenges when the child was unable to jump rope. Jumping rope requires a lot of coordination. Turning the rope is an activity independent of jumping the rope. Additionally there is a clear rhythm to skipping rope. For some children this is tantamount to asking them to pat their head and rub their tummy at the same time; asking the hands to do two independent tasks rather than work together. I was surprised that this child struggled to jump rope because she was an extraordinarily active child who loved to run, jump, climb trees or rocks, and seemed to have a high level of physical coordination. She was 11 years old and in 6th grade at the time, and showed clear difficulty in simultaneously coordinating the activities required for jumping rope. She could turn the rope or jump it and struggled to find the rhythm that would allow her to do the whole thing smoothly. So I broke it down into all of its parts and we practiced. After a week she could skip 50 times continuously and relatively smoothly.
However for a class routine the kids wanted to do a trick called “Crossies.” This jump rope trick involves crossing the arms over the chest while turning the rope and jumping at the same time. The jumper has to cross the sagittal midline that divides the body into right and left halves. My challenged jumper was back to ground zero. She could not manage it. So again I broke it down and we worked on it, slowly at first then gradually with increasing speed until she was up to full speed and rhythm with the others. The whole process took about three weeks. Then the wonderful surprise came. This child had been diagnosed with fairly severe dyslexia and was reading at a 3rd grade level. She also struggled with sitting still in class, attending to the lesson, copying notes from the board or even from a page on her desk, and when asked to write a paragraph could only manage two or three coherent sentences. Once she mastered the “crossies” skill, her reading tutor reported a leap in ability of one full level almost overnight. All of the sudden she was reading at a 4th grade level. I noticed that her ability to copy a whole page of notes dramatically improved as well; a task that once took many hours was suddenly completed within 20 minutes. Her handwriting became more uniform, her attention span increased, and she could write a 5 sentence paragraph with relative ease. All of these academic challenges that this child had been struggling with for years showed dramatic improvements within a week of mastering the jump rope skills especially the “crossies.”
It is clear to me at least anecdotally that developing coordinated cross lateral motion is essential to healthy brain development for learning. So back to Mr. Day’s assertion that perhaps crawling really doesn’t matter in the big picture. It leaves me with more questions. Crawling is one of the first signs that the infant is developing whole body coordination bilaterally; that the right half and left half of the brain are communicating. It also develops healthy core muscles needed for upright walking, sitting at a desk, and balance. I have seen the effects of not having developed healthy cross lateral movement and core strength in preteens and young adolescents. When I work with students directly on correcting these movement patterns I see improvements in reading, writing, attention, and organization in their movement. So if babies don’t crawl what do they do naturally to develop healthy cross lateral motion and core strength? Is it that cross crawling is the most efficient path to this necessary coordination for healthy brain development? What other movement developments can we look to as healthy development for brain integration and communication for learning?