Cultural Variability in Developmental Movement

From Tom Myers:

Thank to David Lesondak for pointing me to this article on Science News: Culture helps shape when babies learn to walk

We are familiar with swaddling (as was done with Jesus in the manger) or a Native American baby strapped into a papoose, or an African baby slung in a kikoi on the back or side. The cradle-like and obviously highly efficient gahvoras are another version with which I was unfamiliar.

Babies and toddlers throughout Central Asia spend long stretches restrained inside cradles known as gahvoras (one shown in Tajikistan). Researchers are studying Tajik children to understand the interplay between this cultural practice and motor development.

More to the point with this article was the ‘somatic colonialism’ represented in the developmental timelines and charts in wide use that were all based on white Western babies and childrearing practices. Childhood development of motor skills has proven to be remarkably resilient without being strictly programmed. There is, linguists aver, a window in which a child can learn language, outside of which it becomes difficult to develop even a mother tongue.

But children all seem to learn to walk no matter what child-rearing practices are foisted upon them – and my soapbox of ills would include diapers, walkers, jumpy seats, rigid shoes, and car seats – but the route and the rate they traverse the road varies across cultures, and of course across individuals.

I am reminded of one of my favourite stories, told to me by Moshe Feldenkrais, who was not the most reliable narrator of his own exploits, but true or not, it should be:

One evening at a New York dinner party Moshe was sat next to the dean of the new American anthropologists, Margaret Meade. Meade said, “Oh yes, Feldenkrais, the movement man, I’ve been wanting to meet you. I’m working now in Bali, and I have noticed that I cannot teach the Balinese to hop from one foot to the other. They dance, they ride bicycles, they walk everywhere, but for some reason – can you think of why? – they just cannot seem to muster jumping from foot to foot.”

Moshe shrugged, “I can’t tell without looking, but it sound as if they are missing the stage of creeping”

Meade slapped her forehead – “Of course, the Balinese mothers will not let a baby touch the ground for the first seven months (the first ‘rice year’) for fear they will become an animal.”

Creeping – crawling on your belly on the floor, try it, it’s fun – involves shifting form hip to hip in a way that would be a ‘pre-skill’ for hopping from one foot to the other. It would be great to catalogue childhood movement with adult abilities, and see who has the most overall adaptability.

Glad to see our cultural blindness pointed out, for sure.