Mechanics of learning vs Learning Skills

From Nappy to Potty – A Developmental View
February 7, 2022
What does School Readiness have to do with Grade 12 results?
March 16, 2022

by Dr. Melodie De Jager

Learning is not confined to books and the classroom. Learning is the ability to adapt and the ability to change. It is the ability to respond to the environment – people, situations, pollution, freshly baked bread, beauty, relocating to a new place, making friends, etc. Learning is also what happens when a relationship has gone pear shaped or a job/business venture has not quite panned out the way you have expected and you have to move on.

The ability to change your behavior = your ability to learn.

The ability to adapt and change your behavior equals your ability to learn, is true for:

  • A two year old who learns that biting is not the best way to communicate
  • a four year old who learns that there is a difference between fantasy and reality
  • a six year old who learns that sitting still and listening is what is needed to develop a good pencil grip
  • a seven year old who learns that a b and a d face in opposite directions
  • a fourth grader who learns that the way I learn easily is not necessarily the way learning in school works
  • a teenager who learns that sometimes going-with-the-flow means I behave different to the way I have been brought up
  • a student that needs to learn to function without the daily ready-made meals, constant flow of clean clothes and the comfort of privacy
  • newly wed to learn that a tube of toothpaste can be used in more than one way;
  • a pregnant mom who learns what to eat to avoid nausea
  • a fresh dad who learns what taking responsibility means
  • a person who has been diagnosed with a debilitating disease and
  • a granny or grandpa whose grandchildren have emigrated.

Learning to read and write or to make sums or to study to write an exam is an important part of learning, but it is not all of learning. To be able to learn, adapt and change, is a skill and skills are acquired – a child is not born with these skills. A child is born with basic tools to adapt to the world outside the womb, because without the ability to adapt to self-breathing; to self-feeding; to self-moving instead of being plugged into mom and moving with mom, baby simply won’t be able to survive. Nature never leaves a child destitute. It always supports life with a gift: an instinctive unfolding according to design.


Instinct is predetermined, inherited, motivated behavior (Marais, 1939). Nature instinctively sustains itself by not relying on the right books being published; or that all scientists or teachers are inspirational speakers who guide mankind with knowledge, passion and integrity.

Instinct is something that only works step by step.

If you destroy or omit one step of it, the whole thing collapses.

Eugene Marais

Even a white ant instinctively unfolds according to plan. Nature wishes the white ant to spread; therefor they receive wings and must fly. Nature wishes humans to bond; therefor they receive a challenging birth process to bond. The force we call instinct commands: you must pass through every stage, you must take every step, or you are doomed (Marais, 1939).

Humans also unfold according to plan. Nature wishes humans to learn, love and laugh, therefor they receive reflexes:

  • some simple reflexes so the heart beats, the lungs breathe, the eyes blink, etc. without thinking about any of it
  • some reflexes that are only active in utero to effect cell division, cell migration, prompt growth and development
  • some primitive reflexes that start in utero to support birthing, survival and development in the first few month of life
  • some bridging reflexes to pull the body into a standing position and
  • some postural reactions to remain upright and provide a stable base.

Google image: Accessed 1 April 2013


Reflexes are instinctive, automatic and stereotyped movements performed without thinking (Goddard, 2002). Reflexes act as a second but unseen parent (De Jager, 2011) to protect and develop a baby till baby has developed the mechanics and skills he needs to physically survive without help. The reflexes that start in utero and actively prompt baby to:

  • move while in the womb;
  • turn and move down the birth canal;
  • move instinctively during the first few months of life;

are mapping the brain and body and developing the mechanics that are needed for all later skills.

In life these reflexes prompt the baby to move instinctively by turning his mouth towards the nipple to feed; yell and fling his arms and legs apart when he gets a fright or his senses are overloaded; close its hand around your finger to be comforted; and later by turning his head to look for dad when he hears his voice or the car keys.

Each reflex is responsible for a very specific task –   

to wire a specific part of the brain.











When a baby is lying flat on its back and plays unhampered with a toy, he is wiring his brain and body to skillfully stand on one leg; or read number of dots; or knocks the skittles over 6 years later. Each instinctive movement a baby makes is laying the foundation for all later skills. Instinct demands that a child must go through every stage of the wiring process in a predetermined sequence to unfold according to plan. The unseen parent does its part, but the baby needs his real parents to do their part too. Their part is to touch and hold; to massage and rock; and to explore things and people and places; and talk about all of it as if he understands every word they say. Their part is also to avoid crowded, noisy places and toys or contraptions that support baby to sit, stand or walk before baby is ready for it. When is baby ready? Baby is ready when his brain and body have been mapped and wired enough to tickle his curiosity to move onto the next developmental phase.     

The key to learning is unhampered, reflexive movement 

the first year of life.


Developmental milestones are some of the first beacons that show that a child is progressing according to plan. The following diagram has been adapted from an unknown source and gives an estimated time frame to reach each milestone.

Each developmental milestone is not only about what you are seeing – a stronger neck or rolling over – developmental milestones are showing that the brain is developing. Every developmental milestone reached means another part of the brain has developed.  Milestones must be reached in a step-by-step sequence to map and wire the brain properly. Research at the BabyGym® and Mind Moves® Institutes internationally and the work of Ayres (1994), Blomberg (2011), Cheatum & Hammond (2000), and Goddard (2002) has shown us that if a baby walks before crawling on hands and both knees, it can scramble the wiring process and lead to learning and behaviour problems later.


The primitive reflexes that support birthing, survival and development in the first few months of life have a limited life time – they map and wire their part of the brain and then the next one expands on the previous mapping and wiring. This process continues until the brain and body work so well together, that the reflex can go to rest. A primitive reflex can only go to rest if it’s mapping and wiring is done. Every milestone confirms that the mapping and wiring is unfolding according to nature’s plan.

If the mapping and wiring process has been interrupted for whatever reason (genetics, stress, trauma, infection, illness, malnutrition, the use of contraptions, confined space, lack of stimulation, etc.), the primitive reflexes will continue their job, but progress can be marked by difficulties with feeding; delayed milestones; fussy eating; poor speech; low muscle tone; sensory integration difficulties, problems with attention and concentration; hyperactivity, anxiety, etc. When a child’s primitive reflexes continue past their sell-by-date (when they should have gone to rest) a child tends to behave immature for his age and words like ‘tactile defensive’, ‘he is a loner’, ‘finds it difficult to share or wait’, ‘poor fine motor control’ (which means his painting, drawing and cutting is not as developed as it should be for his age) may appear on the school report.

 Reflexes are not enemies;

they are helpers that map, wire and develop mechanics.


The mechanics of learning are the senses, muscles, brain and connecting wiring (Central Nervous System). The senses of touch, smell, taste, hearing and sight fill the brain with sensations, and make it grow. Before the senses can fill the brain with pictures, sounds and sensations, the senses need to develop. This is where the primitive reflexes come into the picture. The primitive reflexes use a step-by-step approach to develop a sense and then to plug that sense into the brain. The senses of touch, smell and taste are more simple senses and they develop and plug into the brain long before the senses of hearing and sight plug into the brain. As a matter of fact, hearing and sight can only develop properly once the sense of touch, smell and taste are fully developed. It is because touch, smell and taste develop first that small babies are so sensitive to touch, smells and any new kind of tastes. It is also why babies stick everything into their mouths – they first ‘see’ with their hands and mouths and much later with their eyes. It is the wiring and mapping of the skin through movement, touch and pressure that the brain develop a map of the body.

The sense of movement is the less known sense and the root of many developmental and learning problems. The sense of movement is often called the inside senses – proprioception, vestibular system and kinesis (De Jager, 2011). The inside senses combine the sensations from all the senses before sending it on to the brain; and the inside senses interpret the message from the brain and combine it with a sense of direction and muscle strength needed before going over into action (Goddard, 2002).

The most unknown sense is often the most underdeveloped sense.

Sensation from the senses and movement of the muscles are responsible for brain growth and development.

Without a map, you get lost.

 It is only once the body map is complete that the brain can take charge of the body and a baby can become more skilled to reach each movement milestone in sequence. Brain growth is not only due to the developing senses, the developing muscles also grow more wiring in the brain and improve the body map (De Jager, 2011). 



A brief overview of the sequence of sensory development linked to the associated primitive reflex and learning skills. The focus is on sensory and skills development, not on ‘getting rid’ of the reflexes. The reflexes will go to rest as soon as the brain- and body wiring and mapping are complete. Until the wiring and mapping is complete, the following skills may be compromised:


The mechanics of learning (senses, brain, muscles & wiring) are at the heart of the learning process. As long as the mechanics are still reflexively being developed, skills are compromised. At the BabyGym Institute we develop the mechanics of learning to prevent behavior and learning problems later. At the Mind Moves Institute we address developmental cracks that occurred earlier and cause barriers to learning.




  1. Ayers, J. 1994. Sensory integration and the Child. Los Angeles: Western Psychological Services.
  2. Blomberg, H. 2011. Movements that heal. Australia: Book Pal.
  3. Cheatum, B.A. & Hammond, A.A. 2000. Physical activities for improving children’s learning and behaviour. Illinois; Human Kinetics.
  4. De Jager, M. 2011. Brain development MILESTONES & learning. Johannesburg; Mind Moves Institute.
  5. Goddard, S. 2002. Reflexes, learning and behaviour. Oregon: Fern Ridge Press.
  6. Marais, E. 1939. The soul of the white ant. London: Methuen & Co. LTD.


Lost your password?