How Babies Learn Through Movement

Transcript of this week's interview with Ania Witkowska, a somatic movement educator and therapist. Our discussion focuses on Ania's philosophy, the way she works with families, and some tips and strategies (along with favorite "props"). 

Ayelet: Today, I have a special guest to welcome to Strength In Words, Ania Witkowska, a somatic movement educator, who is based in Berlin, Germany. Welcome, Ania!

Ania: Thank you, Ayelet. It’s lovely to be here.

Ayelet: It’s great to have you! So, I think people would love to know exactly what a somatic movement educator is! What is somatic movement, what do you do?

Ania: Woah – it’s a big one! ‘Somatic movement educator’ is a very general term, so it encompasses a lot of different ways of working with the body. Some of the modalities people might be familiar with are something like Alexander Technique or Feldenkrais, Continuum Movement, various types of yoga might be termed “somatic movement,” Body Mind Centering is an American form of somatic movement and education, and Integrative Body Work and Movement Therapy is the training that I finished up with. What all of these forms have in common is that you’re not just working with the body as a physical entity, but you’re also encompassing in your work the quality that the body houses – the mind is part of the body, and they’re all one thing. There’s a lovely quote that I wrote down and brought with me because I wanted to get it correct. It’s by Bonnie Bainbridge-Cohen who’s the founder of Body Mind Centering, and she said, “The mind is like the wind, and the body like the sand. If you want to know how the wind is blowing, you can just look at the sand.” And so that, this kind of ethos that you’re not just working with some kind of physical education, but you’re working with the whole person, is key to all these different ways of working.

So, how does it happen in the world? Some people will work with performers, some people will work with people with disabilities or special needs, a lot of people are working with kids with ADHD and Attention Deficit Disorder. People are working in rehab, post-operative rehab, working with people with chronic pain, stress injuries, that kind of issue, chronic health issues… and I choose to apply the work to children, to parents, to babies. That was my interest and my passion, really.

Ayelet: So, I’d love to have you describe some of the types of workshops and classes that you run, and the types of activities that you find helpful to bring that “connection” that I know you do out between a baby and a parent or a caregiver.

I think the essence of my work, in all the different kinds of workshops that I do, is to help parents, actually, find this sense of embodiment. By embodiment, I mean that physical, felt sense of connection with yourself. An understanding of your body – not an intellectual one – but one that overrides that. It’s kind of an ability to express, communicate and see that physical connection in your child, the observation.
— Ania Witkowska

Ania: Yeah, I think the essence of my work, in all the different kinds of workshops that I do, is to help parents, actually, find this sense of embodiment. By embodiment, I mean that physical, felt sense of connection with yourself. An understanding of your body – not an intellectual one – but one that overrides that. It’s kind of an ability to express, communicate and see that physical connection in your child, the observation. And the tools that I give them, the information that I try to pass over is, number one, the fact that our children develop through movement and touch. That’s sort of a key way. So this first year is a beautiful dance of development, and we call it the “developmental movement sequence.” Parents often know it as the movement milestones. Already, this sets up an opposition between the way I work, and the way the world sees movement. So, the world is saying, “can your baby roll? If they can’t roll by 5 months, oh dear, we’ve got to see a specialist. Or, can your baby sit up?” All these stages. Whereas, for me, it’s the process of this movement development that is interesting and important! We all take a different kind of timeframe to learn different things, there’s a psychological connection to how we progress through this pattern.

So, if parents know what they’re looking at, know how this progression is going to work, it not only gives them very important information as kind of an essential – they can see the essential need of their child – without being told what to do. You can say, “well, my baby needs to have this, because that’s just a physical need at this point. I can see it, I can see it in their body. How would I choose to give that to them?” So it kind of empowers you to make your own decisions about your parenting, and I think that’s vital because that’s the fun of it! It’s one of the most creative we have in most of our lives, you know, we have office jobs, we have maybe jobs we love, but actually, the real creation of our lives is creating that family – making it the place where we feel happy, that we love to be in, that we spread joy and happiness in the world. So, it should be fun! I know it’s stressful, I know it’s hard, I know it brings you against, you know, these problematic issues about yourself, and all this kind of stuff, but at the heart of it, you want to have a nice time in your life, we all do!

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Ayelet: Yes. I think you’ve hit upon something really important, which is that I think a lot of us as parents, and as adults in general… it’s much easier to listen to the resources that are out there that say, “your child should be sitting up,” for instance, “by this age, look! Here’s a product you can buy to help him do that!” Instead of, let’s look at what your child is doing, let’s move into these positions, let’s play in this way that gives him support or supports him to learn how to move in a certain way to get himself into that. And you also said something earlier about how it really is the process of movement that helps children learn, instead of us putting them in positions.

Ania: Yes, exactly. It’s very, very important. For example, sitting up, is one of the classics, I see it all the time. People are trying to sit their babies up… now, they’re reading a desire from their child. You know, a child wants to be vertical like everyone else around them, of course! They know that that’s the first thing, that’s they’re mission in life! They want to walk, they want to sit up – and you’re not saying, “don’t do that” – of course you want to support them to do that! But, I suppose, there’s an element of, if you put someone into a position before they can put themselves into it, then you’re telling them in some kind of way that they’re not able to. They’re not able to look after themselves. So, when you put a child in “sitting up,” not only is their spine not ready to take their weight physically, so number one, from a very basic physical perspective, you’re not doing their spine a lot of good. Number two, because the back muscles are much more ready to take the strain, and are much more developed than the abdominal musculature at this age, the baby stage, what happens is that you’re setting up an imbalance between the muscles at the front, the abdomen, and the back. So the back muscles start to get stronger and stronger, because they’re trying to hold the child, without the right equivalent amount of support from the abdominals because they’re just not ready to do it. So, you set up an imbalance that in later life can create problems with lower back pain. But apart from anything else, the reflexes, the protective reflexes of putting your hands out in front if you’re going to fall down, or to the side if you’re going to fall to the side, or to the back if you’re going to fall to the back, are not there. So if I fall forward, I can’t look after myself – I’m going to fall flat on my face! So, of course, your parent is not going to let you fall flat on your face, but there’s something very elemental here! Your parent is saying, you know, “you have to have me around to keep you safe.” Interestingly, a baby can get into sitting up by themselves around the same time they can crawl on hands and knees. So it’s much later!

Ayelet: Which, of course, has a much more variable spectrum than we think of!

Ania: Exactly. And so, it is a very difficult negotiation that parents need to make with their child about when, how, how often, how long for, they sit up. So, how do we negotiate that? It very much depends on your child’s personality! And so, as a parent, if you have all this information, you’re really best placed to make those decisions. Number one, because it’s your family and you have to do it, and number two because you know your child and their personality! So there are a variety of ways you can address this issues. But it’s really, when you have all the tools, and then the skills of observation to really see what’s going on, then the ball’s in your court and you can confidently make those decisions, rather than listen to instructions.

When you have all the tools, and then the skills of observation to really see what’s going on, then the ball’s in your court and you can confidently make those decisions, rather than listen to instructions.
— Ania Witkowska

Ayelet: So let’s hear about, because we’ve talked about how there are so many tools on the market that take advantage of families to “help your child into these movement milestones” and “help them develop.” What are your sort of top three props or play materials, or ways that people can interact with these things in their homes?

Ania: Well, the number one best, all-time favorite is: your parent’s body. You know, we learn through relationship. And the more physically connected the parent is, the more comfortable or the more accepted a baby feels in their presence. So, being happy to really allow your baby to lie on you in different positions, taking their weight through you. One of the basic principles I work with is this concept of “yielding,” being able to yield your weight to gravity, whether it’s directly to gravity on the floor, or through your parent’s body that is also yielding, giving their weight to gravity – is one of the primary ways we learn our movement: we yield, we push, we reach, we pull, and therefore, we locomote.

The number one best, all-time favorite [play material] is: your parent’s body. You know, we learn through relationship. And the more physically connected the parent is, the more comfortable or the more accepted a baby feels in their presence.
— Ania Witkowska

Ayelet: Right, and I think actually – I’m sure, in fact, that a lot of occupational therapists and physical therapists would certainly agree with you about the fact, for instance, I think we’ve taken this a bit far, about that specific movement of sitting up. If you’re sitting up and using your parent’s body to support you back and your abdominal muscles as well, that’s a nice way for the baby to feel the sensation of sitting up, but not actually be supporting himself, necessarily.

Ania: Yes, exactly, and there’s very many ways on your body you can do that. You can have your feet on the floor, your knees up, and lie your baby on the thighs looking at you, you can be sitting on the sofa like I am right now and have them in the crook of your legs, you can just sit supported with a cushion behind you slightly on a slope and have them supported on your back – there’s a load of ways you can do that!

Ayelet: And tummy time is a wonderful thing to do on a parent’s body.

Ania: Exactly, it’s a great thing for dads to do. With moms, you know, if the baby’s breastfeeding, it can be like an invitation to have a good feed, or it gets a little bit messy! But it’s a great way with dads – especially if they’ve got hairy chests! I mean, what a lovely opportunity for texture! That’s very nice! So, yeah, number one, parent’s body. And a parent who feels free with their body on the same level as their child, down on the floor, rolling down, being comfortable on the floor, making sure as a parent you have enough cushions, rugs around, so you can always support your body and you can actually relax in that position and it’s not something that feels strained… because that communicates to your child immediately – if you’re not happy, they’re not happy!

In terms of general props, very simple things! So a piece of fabric I would use is organza. Chiffon is the natural fabric, organza is a synthetic fabric that’s transparent, that comes in very beautiful colors. I think I use about a 2-meter length. That’s a hammock, that’s a snuggle, that’s a “let’s roll up and cuddle together” activity. That’s also really useful when baby is happy on their tummy and they’re getting to that stage where they really want to move forward on their belly, reach out and grab the toy whether it’s around the corner so they’d go around in a circle, or straight ahead of them… but they’re not quite managing the coordination or the effort to do it, and there’s moments when they get really, really frustrated. If they’re playing on an organza, you can just pull the organza – as long as they’re on their front (they have to be on their tummy so that their hands protect their heads). But if you pull it along, they actually move forward and it can be a bit of light release, break a cycle of frustration for them, let them have a little breather, let them have a little experience, and they can go back to trying again. So that’s very useful, and for all ages of children. That’s very lovely.

A lot of my groups, when I’m working with older kids, I like to give parents a lot of ideas for how they can have a lot of rough and tumble play without so much risk. Many of us, you see those dads, you know, mums as well, throw their babies up in the air and catch them. And I was always in awe of these people, but I never had the guts to do it myself! I thought, “oh my god, no!” But actually, that kind of play that challenges balance, that challenges direction your whole physical self in space changes, rotates and moves forward and down, is really good! It’s really important for coordination and visual acuity so your eyes can read better, it’s important for balance development, that kind of thing. But there’s a lot of nice ways you can do that safely on your body, a lot of these techniques are taken from a dance field called contact improvisation, it’s about taking weight on your legs or on different parts of your body. So, things like this organza, you can use it for a lot of rough and tumble play! You can swing your child, bounce your child, there’s two adults, they’re firmly on the fabric (the fabric’s not going to break, it’s very synthetic) it’s a lovely thing, but it can also be calm. Also, because you’re controlling it, it’s not some kind of toy that you press a button and it goes off. You have the ability to regulate it in time with your child. So if your child is feeling incredibly hyper and is very worked up, you start off with them at their level of excitement, and then you can gradually bring it down. And when you’re rocking them in something from fast, eventually to slow, maybe the music changes if you’ve got some music on or you’re singing along (if you have a beautiful voice like yourself!), I’d bring the pace down and the melody softer… You can help them calm down, you can support their nervous system to find that parasympathetic rhythm that they’re looking for, that they still are not so expert at finding. God knows, as adults we’re not great at finding it sometimes when we need it.

Ayelet: Right, but we know that infants and toddlers are really working to self-regulate.

Ania: Yeah, this is the primary thing they need to learn from us. Not to over-stimulate – not to stimulate! It’s not about stimulating a young baby. There’s enough in the world, and they’re completely pre-programmed to be stimulated – they’re looking for that all the time! They’re excited by the feeling of their food being digested. They’re excited by the corner of a white wall where it goes into shadow. They get hypnotized, you know, their senses are being bombarded – they’re all linked up! – they smell things, they see, they feel the rhythm of something physically, it’s all this kind of sensorama world! And what we need to do is help them, you know, there’s ‘sensorama,’ but when we’re tired, we need to kind of have some time to digest all this information we’ve taken in and that comes with calming down, finding that space of release and relaxation. So, when you’re using props rather than toys, you as an adult take that responsibility on to kind of tune into your child’s level of excitement, and play! And play is a conversation, that’s it. Sometimes we take the upper hand, and sometimes you’re the one who’s getting them excited!

It’s not about stimulating a young baby. There’s enough in the world, and they’re completely pre-programmed to be stimulated – they’re looking for that all the time! They’re excited by the feeling of their food being digested. They’re excited by the corner of a white wall where it goes into shadow. They get hypnotized, you know, their senses are being bombarded – they’re all linked up! – they smell things, they see, they feel the rhythm of something physically, it’s all this kind of sensorama world!
— Ania Witkowska

Ayelet: Exactly. But I love what you said about how you are reading your child, and it becomes an interactive moment, instead of what happens when we put our child in, say, a bouncer, that has lovely pre-programmed settings, but is not going to respond to specifically what you see your child doing or needing – YOU can do that.

Ania: Yes, exactly. And that is what creates the bond. That’s what brings out these moments of communication. So I would just have some kind of prop, some kind of idea in the space, and we watch the children, and then we take our cue from the children. So we pick out, “oh somebody’s doing this, somebody’s interested in this.” And, rather than kind of second-guessing what their intention is, what I like to bring people to notice, or what I’ll invite people to notice, is “what is a physical action here?” So often, we – it’s the same as the movement milestones – we look at the milestone, the thing we’re trying to achieve rather than how we’re trying to achieve it.

Ayelet: And I think it’s funny because it can be difficult for families to find even groups of other families or classes for children and caregivers that are not highly structured… where everyone needs to be doing the same thing, at the same time. But I love your classes because actually, it’s a lot of “ok, here’s a prop,” and it’s sort of, “ok, let’s see what everybody does with it.”

Ania: And what you find is that, ok, there’s a lot of interest in the props, there are nice little developments between parent and child, and then at some point (depending on the age, of course), the babies start to interact with each other, and the parents can sit back, and we watch! Without judgment, with total respect, just see what’s happening. And it gives parents an opportunity to see their child in relation to other children, to see their child with a distanced – there’s a term I take from a discipline called “Authentic Movement” – as a witness. You’re witnessing what’s happening, and just appreciating your child for who they are. You kind of see their personality more clearly, rather than their personality in relationship to you, in relationship to that emotional connection – which, of course, is really important. But as the day-to-day, run-of-the-mill of parenting, it’s always emotional! And often, you know, you get stuck in these things, because, “oh, they’re doing this because they know I have to rush out of the house right now, and they’re just so interested in these bloody pebbles! I need to get out!” Of course, it’s nothing to do with that, they’re just really interested – these pebbles are amazing! – and if you actually had the time, or could take the time at that moment, to get on your knees, too, you’d see them in a different light! It might change your world! It might blow you away! Now you can’t do that day to day, but if you’re in a class, and you sit back and you see what your baby is doing with… maybe not pebbles (that’s kind of, maybe a bit risky to introduce!) but, you know, with a big expanse of fabric, or with the big physio balls, or a feather – now a feather! – then you get a different appreciation! So, shall I talk about feathers?

Ayelet: Oh, let’s hear it!

Ania: Ok, everybody, marabou feathers, at least… it’s hard to find a good length, but you need at least six inches, I’d say, and you need to get a proportion of the stalk of the feather, of the stem (kind of the bit that’s running through the middle), has to be quite thin, and the fluffy bits have to be quite big, because that means they fall slowly and very beautifully. And that’s why maribou feathers rather than chicken feathers.

A feather. You’ve got so much. So the props I use are for all age groups. For a tiny baby, it’s tickling, it’s texture, it’s sensation – it’s watching the general movement and the quality of movement, and the quality of how you might touch each other’s skin, the softness of it. With an older child, it’s how the feather responds. So blowing the feather, blowing it along the floor, blowing it off someone’s hand – where is it going to land? It’s the perfect way to teach babies to catch! You drop the feather, they stand there with both their hands together, looking at where it’s going to fall. For children, you can encourage them to bring softness into their bodies – it brings softness into adults’ bodies – you give a group of parents and 2- and 3-year olds to play with, and suddenly, the parents are going from, “ow, ow, ow, it’s hard to get on my knees…” to like, “ooooh, I’m just rolling here – isn’t this lovely!” Because they look at the feather and their bodies just kind of take on this characteristic.

Magical things happen when we get in touch with our physical selves, and we stop thinking about it, and just let our intuition, that physical sense that we seem to forget in our lives… it’s not supported! – when we reconnect with that, it speaks to us and it reminds us of the joy of being human.
— Ania Witkowska

So, magical things happen when we get in touch with our physical selves, and we stop thinking about it, and just let our intuition, that physical sense that we seem to forget in our lives… it’s not supported! – when we reconnect with that, it speaks to us and it reminds us of the joy of being human, and being a physical body, and I think it’s a gift that we can pass on, and that people can interpret however they wish in their family. But I think it’s a treasure.

Ayelet: Oh my gosh, absolutely. Ania, thank you so much. It’s bringing these kind of experiences into the home, into the interaction, with you as the parent and your small child. And we don’t need fancy toys, as we know and as I always am pounding into my listeners’ skulls every week on Strength In Words! I look forward to hearing about how people have used these props and how it’s inspired you to engage with your child.

So Ania, thank you so much – it’s been great to have you.

Ania: Oh, thank you very much for having me, it’s been lovely to speak to you, Ayelet.

Ania Witkowska is a Somatic Movement Educator and Therapist with over 20 years experience of working with babies, young children and their parents. Through her courses, workshops and individual consultations she helps parents and professionals see more clearly how children learn and express themselves through movement. Her creative and practical approach supports adults to connect to their own instinctual and embodied presence enriching their understanding and resourcing their own communication skills. You can find more about her work at www.witkowska.com, or connect on Facebook.

Ania Witkowska, Somatic Movement Educator & Therapist

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Ayelet Marinovich, M.A. CCC-SLP

Ayelet Marinovich, M.A. CCC-SLP, is a pediatric speech-language pathologist specializing in work with pre-verbal infants, toddlers, non-verbal children, and their families. The Strength In Words podcast and blog were created as an additional resource for families of young children with infants & toddlers of all developmental levels. It is not intended to be a substitute for speech and language therapy.