TWENTY years ago, kids in preschool, kindergarten and even first and second grade spent much of their time playing: building with blocks, drawing or creating imaginary worlds, in their own heads or with classmates. But increasingly, these activities are being abandoned for the teacher-led, didactic instruction typically used in higher grades. In many schools, formal education now starts at age 4 or 5. Without this early start, the thinking goes, kids risk falling behind in crucial subjects such as reading and math, and may never catch up.

The idea seems obvious: Starting sooner means learning more; the early bird catches the worm.

In today’s day and age, we are more technologically advanced. We have better gadgets and can get places faster BUT we physically move less in doing so.

As a child (for most people 30 years and older) I’m sure that summers were filled with being outside playing until the street lights came on. We would walk or ride our bikes down the street, or across a few streets, to see if friends were home. Today, we have structured “Play Dates” and would not even think about letting kids play in their front yards.

The decline in our willingness to move outside has prompted us to move less and less in the real world. With this, we have also seen a huge decline in the number of today’s kids playing multiple sports. We push them to specialize in one sport, with the hopes that they will be the next Tiger Woods, Alex Morgan, or some other sports icon at earlier and earlier ages than before.

However, moving or playing outdoors serves a functional purpose. Kids develop stronger immune systems as a result of playing outdoors, as well as boost their levels of vitamin D, according to the U.S. government’s Head Start program. Kids have an amazing way of being able to play and not get injured (although the age of this group is getting younger). I am always talking about how kids have this remarkable way of not having to “warm up” or “stretch” before they jump into play (from ages 1-5; at 5 years old we teach our kids to sit in kindergarten). Why is this easy for them and yet we seem to pull a hammy or blow our backs out if we don’t stretch or give ourselves that ample time of what we think is an acceptable warm up or stretching routine that has not changed in 5 years?

Movement, or the standardization of movement, starts at such a young age. We want our kids to roll over sooner, crawl sooner, walk sooner and then run. If these feats are met, then it is commonly portrayed as some sort of a race to prove genetic supremacy (especially on social media). The truth is, the onset of motor capabilities in children including rolling, crawling, walking, running, climbing, etc, can occur over a vast timeline in normal development. If your child gets up and walks early, this in no way will translate into superhero capabilities in the future (sorry, but it’s true).

Similarly, if your child never gets up on all fours to crawl, but instead finds an alternative way to ambulate (the ‘butt scoot’ is a common one), this by no means indicates that your child’s motor development is abnormal. So long as children are meeting their milestones, there are a wide variety of movements that their little nervous systems can utilize in order to achieve the same goals.

In light of this, parents should be careful not to try to force the issue by, for example, insisting that their child walk as soon as they are able to stand. This would include the all too common act of holding their hands as they clumsily put one foot in front of the other in some sort of fake walking motion.

Many musculoskeletal experts agree that there is great importance in the steps taken when progressing from rolling, to crawling, to bipedal posture. For example, the act of crawling (or other types of ground based locomotion) is thought to help in the development of normal spinal curvatures; the lack of which can arguably lead to biomechanical problems later in life. Further, it can be argued that the act of crawling may train/improve the function of the sense receptors in the shoulders, arms, and hands.

Therefore, as long as milestones are being met, let your child’s nervous system figure it out on its own time.