By Dr Jo-Marie vdM Bothma
BabyGym® has a science-based curriculum where babies are supported and assisted to reach each of their developmental milestones in sequence. Rolling over comes to mind when we talk about ‘left’ and ‘right’, as this milestone in particularly stimulates the left and right brain hemispheres (De Jager, 2011:172). But, BabyGym®’s input into the awareness of left and right is not limited to the milestone of rolling over. BabyGym® plays an important role in helping a baby knowing his left from his right, long before they are even ready to roll over.
A young baby has no cortical influence over movement and planned action. As the months go by a baby’s brain slowly starts to inhibit primitive reflexes and thus gains more cortical control, additional brain structures develop and the functioning of various areas in the brain increases. This progression is seen in an infants’ gradual ability to differentiate between and move parts of their body independently. This ability to differentiate between different body parts eventually leads to lateralisation.
Lateralisation refers to the awareness of the two sides of the body. Being able to control and coordinate the two sides of the body together involves being able to cross the body’s midline. Once midline crossing becomes automatic, the brain is able to share information over the ‘neurological midline’, namely, the corpus collossum. This allows for interhemispheric integration (Van der Westhuizen, 2007:116-117). The activities in the Firm Foundation and subsequent BabyGym® 3 curriculums tap into all of these areas of development. BabyGym® plays a very important role in helping a baby to differentiate between different body parts.
In earlier literature, a definition of differentiation in child developmental terms referred to the sorting out or the separation of body parts from each other in a cephalocaudal and proximodistal direction (Heiniger & Randolph, 1981:162; Randolph & Heiniger, 1994:104).
Cephalocaudal refers to development from the head downwards, and proximodistal refers to development from the centre outwards. That is why a baby’s neck needs to strengthen to carry its head long before the baby can walk, and why hands always tend to be more sensitive and skilled than feet. It also explains why a baby first has more control over the trunk of the body before control over the fingers (De Jager, 2011:17-18).
In a more comprehensive discussion, Randolph and Heiniger (1994:171-172) write that body awareness involves three elements: body schema, body image and body concept.
Body schema begins to develop with prenatal movement patterns. As the child grows, sensation, motor generalisations and perceptual-motor matching help to provide increasing control of the body. By moving, children develop the body schema that includes an innate understanding of their centre of gravity, the position of their body in space, how much space their body takes up and how much space is needed for their body parts.
The BabyGym® programme in entirety helps the baby to build an accurate body schema as the firm belief is that movement is vital for healthy brain and central nervous system development. The wonderful thing about the BabyGym® programme is that this is all done through easy and interactive activities in a playful manner.
Cheatum and Hammond (2000:98) and De Jager (2011:14) refer to this as a process of developing a map of one’s own body and later, developing a map of the world around one. This map starts to develop in a foetal brain around the 9th or 12th week of pregnancy and depends upon sensation received through activities involving the muscles, joints, skin, and soft tissue (Cheatum & Hammond, 2000:96). Maps are created every time that each of the senses sends information to specific parts of the brain to create rich and multi-sensory maps of the body and the world (Cheatum & Hammond, 2000:97; De Jager, 2011:15).
The BabyGym® massage during week 1 is a great starting point to fill in the gaps in this body map. One of BabyGym®’s other focus areas is to awaken the senses and these activities contribute to the correct formation of the body map. This eventually will lead to the ability to identify and name the parts of the body. This knowledge of body parts usually follows the developmental trend of cephalocaudal to proximodistal (Cheatum & Hammond, 2000:85). Cheatum and Hammond (2000:92) found that children with average and above average learning ability were more successful in identifying body parts than were those considered to have learning disabilities or learning problems.
Body image is how the body appears to us, while body concept is defined by our evaluation of our body. Randolph and Heiniger (1994:172) explain body concept as being more cognitive than body image and body schema: it is our thought process for understanding, planning, and evaluating the functions of our bodies. In brief, it is our conscious understanding of who we are and how our bodies work.
BabyGym® also assists with the developing of a baby’s body concept. During the sessions activities are carefully chosen to help a baby to come to understand, plan and evaluate the functions of their tiny bodies. Cheatum and Hammond (2000:85) differ from other theorists in that they use the term body image to refer to a child’s self-image and the feelings a child has about himself or herself. Regardless of semantic differences, it is clear that children’s evaluation of their body, whether termed image or concept, is positively enhanced by the successful experience of moving and controlling their bodies in the environment. This cannot be achieved without encouraging free movement without the interference of contraption.
Children with schema problems have trouble with coordination. Again, it was found that students experiencing learning difficulties also had body schema problems (Cheatum & Hammond, 2000:98). De Jager (2011:15) clarifies that inaccurate maps and difficulty in using these maps can lead to babies experiencing developmental delays and children having learning difficulties later in life.
These views not only emphasise the significance of body awareness but also link closely with Zillmer, Spiers and Culbertson’s (2008:117) assertion that brain differentiation and growth depends on environmental stimulation.
Differentiation is the precursor to the development of lateralisation. And lateralisation is the understanding that there are two sides to one’s body and the later cognitive knowing of which side is the left and which side is the right.
BabyGym® forms part of the environmental stimulation that can help a baby to differentiate and to develop lateralisation.
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Zillmer, E.A., Spiers, M.V. & Culbertson, W.C. 2008. Principles of neuropsychology. 2nd ed. Belmont, CA: Thomson Learning.