Connie Helms, M.Ed. works in private practice as a therapeutic educator, an education consultant, a parent educator, and a developmental specialist through Balance in Childhood and Adolescence, her business in Williston and Montpelier. Her thirty plus years in education include working as a special education teacher in VT and NH schools and creating a lens to understand the underlying developmental causes of many learning challenges. From working with clients age 4 through adult, she has become an avid supporter of the Extra Lesson® remedial work for individuals and classes. Connie is a consultant to independent schools in the eastern U.S. She is co-director of a remedial training program sponsored by the Association for a Healing Education. Connie holds a Waldorf teacher certification from Antioch University New England (2000), a Waldorf Remedial certification from AHE, a Masters in Special Education from Lesley University (1981) and a B.A. in psychology from Connecticut College (1977).
Early Development on the Horizontal Plane
Just as it is critical for babies to be firmly swaddled to feel emotionally and physically secure, it is equally important for children’s cognitive and physical development to provide opportunities for them to spend time on the horizontal plane—be it on the floor, in a playpen or play yard, or on the grass. Time spent in the horizontal plane supports:
- the initial development of balance and vision skills needed for reading and writing
- the development of crawling
- the ability to sit at a desk
learning about the directions of space:
• one side versus the other side (left and right)
• front and behind (forward and back)
(It is not until we freely stand on our own that we fully experience the third dimensional polarity of above and below.)
Floor Time Builds Spatial Awareness
Experiencing floor time allows us to build our internal map of our environment by forming brain connections that will be reinforced again and again. On the floor as babies, we build this internal map by learning where we are in space—under the table, on the step, next to my teddy bear. The real world teaches this best. When orientation is experienced first-hand, and reinforced in children’s picture books and daily life, babies and toddlers acquire a solid internal map of where they are in relation to their world.
A strong mental map helps a preschool aged child have considerably less confusion about where she is in space, feel competent navigating the playground, and enjoy play that involves large movements, like running and jumping.
By the time that child reaches school age, successful practice of directional skills through floor time helps the child more easily learn the correct orientation of letters, words and numbers on a page—that they go from left to right, top to bottom and front to back.
It is normal for kindergarteners and younger first graders to write letters and numbers upside-down or reversed, or to write letters in a word in reversed order. This should be a short-lived stage showing a child has learned the visual shapes of letters and numbers and can remember a sequence. But in order to understand that letters and numbers go in a specific direction, a child needs to have a well developed internal GPS system.
Tummy Time Builds Muscles and Motivation
Spending time on their tummies is also very important for babies. With tummy time, a baby responds to a pushing reflex, pushing against the floor with his hands to lift his head, eventually roll over and move forward, backwards or sideways. This opportunity supports development of the will (the drive to do, to plan and to take action).
Tummy time also promotes muscle strengthening and development of the reflexes, including holding the head up. As a baby pushes off the floor with his hands, he is strengthening his hands for using tools later on—including pencils. Children who struggle physically with writing often have weak hands and necks. Pushing against the floor builds neck and hand strength.
The Impacts of Insufficient Floor Time
Insufficient floor time can lead to skipping the crawling stage. This compromises eye tracking and the ability to hold the head up easily, making school work a huge struggle. Lack of crawling can result in less integration of the left and right sides of the brain, which compromises hand development and fine motor skills—like zipping, buttoning and tying shoelaces.
It’s important to note that some children get floor time yet have an incredible drive to stand and walk; they may naturally skip crawling. Even for these children, playing crawling games with them still promotes better brain integration. Ideally, a child should crawl for a good three months and the hands should be flat—no curved fingers. The more the child crawls, the more the hand position self-corrects.
How Adults Can Support Floor & Tummy Time
Place infants and babies on their backs and tummies several times a day for at least 5 to 10 minutes. A baby may cry because she doesn’t like it, but this is her work. A five- year-old whines about bedtime, a twelve-year-old complains about chores, yet it’s important. In the same vein, a baby’s work is learning how to use her body, first while horizontal. It is fun to get on the baby’s level, using eye contact, smiling, and speaking (or singing a song). Just let them do their work.
- Use playpens. Leaving children for long periods in infant seats is detrimental to motor development and vision skills. These seats restrict full head movement from side to side, negatively affecting peripheral vision, eye tracking and neck reflexes. Playpens and play yards however, allow a child to practice turning and lifting the head and become upright on their own, without artificially pushing them upright too early.
By not propping up babies in seats, against cushions and in walkers, we give them a chance to develop motivation, learn spatial awareness and strengthen muscles. Best, of all, floor time helps children learn to do things on their own—which build self-esteem! Time spent on the horizontal plan is an essential foundational stage for a child's later success when vertical.