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Perceptual and Motor Development Domain

California Infant/Toddler Learning & Development Foundations.



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Perception refers to the process of taking in, organizing, and interpreting sensory information. Perception is multimodal, with multiple sensory inputs contributing to motor responses (Bertenthal 1996). An infant’s turning his head in response to the visual and auditory cues of the sight of a face and the sound of a voice exemplifies this type of perception. Intersensory redundancy, “the fact that the senses provide overlapping information . . . is a cornerstone of perceptual development” (Bahrick, Lickliter, and Flom 2004).

“Motor development refers to changes in children’s ability to control their body’s movements, from infants’ first spontaneous waving and kicking movements to the adaptive control of reaching, locomotion, and complex sport skills” (Adolph, Weise, and Marin 2003, 134). The term motor behavior describes all movements of the body, including movements of the eyes (as in the gaze), and the infant’s developing control of the head. Gross motor actions include the movement of large limbs or the whole body, as in walking. Fine motor behaviors include the use of fingers to grasp and manipulate objects. Motor behaviors such as reaching, touching, and grasping are forms of exploratory activity (Adolph 1997).

As infants develop increasing motor competence, they use perceptual information to inform their choices about which motor actions to take (Adolph and Joh 2007). For example, they may adjust their crawling or walking in response to the rigidity, slipperiness, or slant of surfaces (Adolph 1997). Motor movements, including movements of the eyes, arms, legs, and hands, provide most of the perceptual information infants receive (Adolph and Berger 2006). Young children’s bodies undergo remarkable changes in the early childhood years. In describing this development, Adolph and Avolio (2000, 1148) state, “Newborns are extremely top-heavy with large heads and torsos and short, weak legs. As infants grow, their body fat and muscle mass are redistributed. In contrast to newborns, toddlers’ bodies have a more cylindrical shape, and they have a larger ratio of muscle mass to body fat, especially in the legs.” These changes in weight, size, percentage of body fat, and muscle strength provide perceptual/motor challenges to infants as they practice a variety of actions (Adolph and Berger 2006). This dramatic physical development occurs within the broad context of overall development. As infants master each challenge, their perceptual and motor behavior reflects their ever-present interpersonal orientation and social environment.

The extent and variety of infant perceptual and motor behavior are remarkable. Infants and toddlers spend a significant part of their days engaged in motor behavior of one type or another. By three and a half months of age, infants have made between three and six million eye movements during their waking hours (Haith, Hazen, and Goodman 1988). Infants who crawl and walk have been found to spend roughly half of their waking hours involved in motor behavior, approximately five to six hours per day (Adolph and Joh 2007, 11). On a daily basis infants who are walking “. . . take more than 9,000 steps and travel the distance of more than 29 football fields. They travel over nearly a dozen different indoor and outdoor surfaces varying in friction, rigidity and texture. They visit nearly every room in their homes and they engage in balance and locomotion in the context of varied activities” (Adolph and Berger 2006, 181).

Early research in motor development involved detailed observational studies that documented the progression of infant motor skills and presented an understanding of infant motor behavior as a sequence of universal, biologically programmed steps (Adolph and Berger 2006; Bertenthal and Boker 1997; Bushnell and Boudreau 1993; Pick 1989). In comparison, current research in motor development often emphasizes action in the context of behavior and development in the perceptual, cognitive, and social domains (Pick 1989). In particular, contemporary accounts of infant motor development address (1) the strong relationship between perception and action (Bertenthal 1996; Gibson 1988; Thelen 1995), (2) the relationship between actions and the environment (Gibson 1988; Thelen 1995), and (3) the importance of motives in motor behavior, notably social and explorative motives (von Hofsten 2007). Although historical approaches may encourage professionals to focus on the relationship between growing perceptual/motor skills and the child’s increasingly sophisticated manipulation and understanding of objects, contemporary understanding suggests the value of observation of this progression. How these developing behaviors and abilities play a role in the social/emotional aspects of the child’s life and functioning, such as forming early relationships and building an understanding of others, may be noteworthy.

The contemporary view suggests that thinking about perceptual/motor development can be inclusive of infants and toddlers with disabilities or other special needs. Children whose disabilities affect their perceptual or motor development still want to explore and interact with the people and environment around them. Although the perceptual and motor development of children with disabilities or other special needs may follow a pathway that differs from typical developmental trajectories, sensitive and responsive caregivers can provide alternative ways in which to engage children’s drive to explore, building on their interests and strengths and supporting their overall physical and psychological health.

Pioneering researchers in infant motor development used novel and painstaking methods to study the progression of infant skill acquisition (Adolph and Berger 2005; Adolph 2008). Their findings were presented for both professionals and the public in the form of milestone charts that depicted motor skill acquisition as a clear progression through a series of predictable stages related to chronological age (Adolph 2008; Adolph, Weise, and Marin 2003). More recent research in the area of perceptual and motor development has indicated substantial variability between children in the pathways to acquiring major motor milestones such as sitting and walking (Adolph 1997; Adolph 2008). Each child may take a unique developmental pathway toward attainment of major motor milestones (Adolph and Joh 2007). Crawling, for example, is not a universal stage. Research clearly shows that not all children crawl before they walk (Adolph 2008). Although most children walk independently around age one, the normal range for acquisition of this behavior in western cultures is very broad, between 9 and 17 months of age (Adolph 2008). Age has traditionally been treated as the primary predictor of when landmark motor behaviors occur, but studies now indicate that experience may be a stronger predictor than age is in the emergence of both crawling (Adolph and Joh 2007) and walking (Adolph, Vereijken, and Shrout 2003).

It is important to recognize that, though developmental charts may show motor development unfolding in the form of a smooth upward progression toward mastery, the development of individual children often does not follow a smooth upward trajectory. In fact, “detours” and steps backward are common as development unfolds (Adolph and Berger 2006, 173). Infant motor development can be understood as a process in which change occurs as the infant actively adapts to varying circumstances and new tasks (Thelen 1995). Thelen (1994) demonstrated this experimentally in her well-known study in which three-month-old babies, still too young to coordinate their movements to be able to sit, reach, or crawl, learned to coordinate their kicks in order to engage in the novel task of making a mobile move. Cultural and historical factors, including caregivers’ behavior, also affect the ways in which infants engage in motor behaviors. For example, Adolph and Berger (2005) observed that mothers in Jamaica and Mali “train” infants to sit by propping up three- to four-month-old infants with pillows in a special hole in the ground designed to provide back support.

For years, researchers, educators, and early childhood professionals have emphasized the interrelatedness of the developmental domains. The current research supports an even greater appreciation of the profound role of interrelatedness and interdependence of factors, domains, and processes in development (Diamond 2007). The developmental domains are linked not only with one another, but also with factors such as culture, social relationships, experience, physical health, mental health, and brain functioning (Diamond 2007). In the case of perceptual and motor behavior, Diamond (2007) has observed that perception, motor behavior, and cognition occur in the context of culture, emotion, social relationships, and experience, which in turn influence physical and mental health as well as overall brain functioning. Bertenthal (1996) has proposed that perception and motor action are interrelated rather than autonomous processes. They may be best viewed as different components of an action system. Common behaviors such as reaching and turning the head for visual tracking illustrate the interrelatedness of the motor, perceptual, cognitive, and social-emotional domains in infant development. Even as very young infants, children are highly motivated to explore, gain information, attend, and engage their physical and social environments (Gibson 1987). As Gibson (1988, 5) explains: “We don’t simply see, we look.” Research by Berthier (1996, 811) indicates that “infant reaching is not simply a neural program that is triggered by the presence of a goal object, but that infants match the kinematics of their reaches to the task and their goals.”

Perception and motor action play a key role in children’s experiences and psychological processes (Thelen 1995). They also contribute to human psychological development in general, since ultimately “behavior is movement” (Adolph and Berger 2005, 223), and psychology can be defined as the study of human behavior. It has been proposed that infants’ use of social information to guide their motor behavior in physically challenging or unfamiliar situations provides an excellent means to study infant social cognition (Tamis-LeMonda and Adolph 2005).

Perceptual Development

Infants’ perceptual skills are at work during every waking moment. For example, those skills can be observed when an infant gazes into a caregiver’s eyes or distinguishes between familiar and unfamiliar people. Infants use perception to distinguish features of the environment, such as height, depth, and color. “The human infant is recognized today as ‘perceptually competent’; determining just how the senses function in infancy helps to specify the perceptual world of babies” (Bornstein 2005, 284). The ability to perceive commonalities and differences between objects is related to the cognitive domain foundation of classification. Infants explore objects differently depending upon object features such as weight, texture, sound, or rigidity (Palmer 1989). Parents and professionals may have observed young children exploring a slope, such as a slide, by touching it with their hands or feet before they decide whether to slide down it or not. Research by Adolph, Eppler, and Gibson (1993) suggests that learning plays a part in young children’s decision making in physically risky situations, such as navigating slopes, and that exploratory behavior may be a means to this learning. Perception is also strongly related to the social-emotional domain, such as when young children perceive the differences between various facial expressions and come to understand what they may mean.

Foundation: Perceptual Development

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Gross Motor Development

Gross motor development includes the attainment of skills such as rolling over, sitting up, crawling, walking, and running. Gross motor behavior enables infants to move and thereby attain different and varied perspectives on the environment. Behaviors such as pulling to stand and climbing present children with new learning opportunities. When infants push a toy stroller or shopping cart, they are also engaging in processes related to cognitive development, such as imitation. The gross motor behaviors involved in active outdoor play with other children are related to children’s development of social skills and an understanding of social rules.

Foundation: Gross Motor

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Fine Motor Development

Through touching, grasping, and manual manipulation, infants experience a sense of agency and learn about the features of people, objects, and the environment. Fine motor development is related to the ability to draw, write, and participate in routines such as eating and dressing. Common early childhood learning materials, such as pegboards, stacking rings, stringing beads, and puzzles, offer opportunities for infants to practice their fine motor skills. Fine motor movements of the hands are coordinated with perceptual information provided through movements of the eyes, as when seven- to nine-month-old infants use visual information to orient their hands as they reach for an object (McCarty and others 2001).

Foundation: Fine Motor

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Last Reviewed: Friday, March 17, 2017
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