Every time I turn around these days, Leif is standing on top of a table, grinning broadly. At sixteen months old, my son is a stealth mover, quick and quiet. If I simply look away for an instant, he pulls out a chair whose seat is as high as his chest and levers himself onto its flat expanse, using a dip of his shoulders and head to haul up his legs. He then lifts one leg to the side to bridge the span from chair seat to table top, and pulls up to standing.
Why? He’s not usually after any object in particular–he is not even tall enough to see what is up there–though once there he inevitable notices his brother’s glass of milk or an uncapped marker. He climbs spontaneously, almost instinctively, whenever a chair enters his field of perception. Or a couch; the toy box; a flight of stairs. A parental leg, or a sister’s back.
What motivates him, it seems, is less any retrievable object than the doing of the movement itself–the sheer joy of its accomplishment. He is in a phase where this urge to climb is his movement pattern of choice for connecting with his world and discovering what it has to offer him: what new sights and sensations will this chair-climbing, table-scaling move generate in me?
Leif’s play reminds me: movement matters. Moving our bodily selves is not just about strengthening our muscles so that we can hold up our heads. How we move is about how we play. How we play is about how we learn. And what we are born to learn is how to love.
I have been watching Leif move since before he was born, and seen a progression not only in the kinds of movements he has made, but in the focus of his play with those movements. At each stage, he is learning and making new movements, for sure, but he is also exploring different qualities of bodily movement itself, motivated, in every case, by an impulse to discover and connect with whatever will provide him with the nourishing nurture he needs to thrive.
At first, Leif’s movements seemed random and purposeless. His arms and legs fluttered and flailed. Any patterns were as chaotic as any current, with his physiological makeup banking the flow. The one exception was the movement he made to connect with the stream of sustenance coming from me. That move had purpose.
Yet it was soon evident that Leif’s seemingly random movements were giving him all kinds of information about himself and his world. Every movement was a hook, pulling in impressions about how it felt to move that way and what happened when he did. Every movement yielded some new sensation of weight, force, and gravity; space, time, and causality; temperature, pressure, pleasure, and pain. His random movement was both pure play and systematic research at a sensory level about his self and world.
Some of the movements he was making connected him with a range of sensory pleasures that felt good–a nourishing flow, a warm embrace, a facial grin. These movements began to make him. He learned from them, repeated them, and as he did, the locus of his play began to shift. No longer was he playing with movement simply at the level of sensation, he began playing with movement patterns themselves. Aware of the pleasure that mouthing for milk provided, he was soon experimenting with what else he could put in his mouth. Would sucking on it yield the same nourishing connection?
There were other preferred patterns too. The same movement pattern that pulled his knees to his chest could curl him into his dad’s arms, roll him over, and help him hold himself up.
His play with these movement patterns, again, began to open new registers of knowledge and new dimensions of play. Suddenly he was using his movement to play with objects, but not because the objects themselves were interesting. What he wanted to know was what his preferred movement patterns could do with whatever new item he could hold in his hand. If I bend my arm at the elbow and hurl my hand forward, what will happen to this ball? Or a sock, a piece of toast, or my brother’s truck?
Soon enough, Leif was honing in on particular objects and exploring the different movement patterns he could make and with what results. That spoon could get apple sauce to his mouth. It could also leave a broad smear of it across his chest, make a clanging sound when hit against his cup, and when dropped from the high chair, verify that gravity indeed works.
Suddenly a ball was really exciting, because of all of the different movement patterns it enabled him to make. He could throw it, kick it, sit on it, play toss with it, and put it into his wagon.
This object-oriented play is what we typically mean by the term “play.” When we think of play, we think of toys–objects specifically designed to elicit developmentally appropriate patterns of movement.
Even then, however, as most parents know, the best “toys” are found and not made. Leif can spend long minutes with a plain cardboard box, climbing into it and back out again, putting on the lid and taking it off, turning it upside down and sideways, loading it up with other toys, and taking them out again. The box is so exciting precisely because it doesn’t preprogram his play. It requires, or enables, him to play at the levels of sensation, movement patterns, and patterns of relating. The possibilities are infinite.
The same is true for table tops. What can’t you do on them?
The play with the sensory and patterning potentials of movement that I see in Leif is never over. We humans are ever and again mobilizing the movement patterns we know in relation to new contexts, objects, and persons, looking for connections that will yield the sensations of pleasure we associate with nourish and nurture. The sensations of pleasure we associate with love.
The objects with which we play, of course, evolve. As we grow, we move to emotions and sounds, words and imaginary realms, books and songs and dances and cultural forms of all kinds, in an increasingly complicated network of movement patterns. Yet in every realm, we play–making movements we know in order to open us to what we do not. We move to connect in life-enabling ways with what our movement is constantly revealing to us.
Yet, this observation also yields a withering critique of our culture’s chronic and characteristic ills. Our realms of play have dwindled to such an extent that we rarely if ever play at a sensory level, or even the level of pattern making. We no longer know what to do with boxes or spoons, a blank sheet of paper or a blank hour. We prefer toys that will tell us which moves to make, and games that remove us to a finite world of someone else’s making. We play with objects designed to exercise and reinforce particular sensory and kinetic options–not open new ones. We play with ideas, with information, and with plans for the future, but not with our sensory, movement-making selves. Even when we move, we want to learn someone else’s forms, to “play” by someone else’s rules.
We claim that we have no time for play, but time is not the issue. The issue is that we have forgotten why movement matters. We no longer value the ability to make new movements, to find our own movements, from within the infinite range of our sensory potential–movements that will connect us in life-enabling ways to the places and persons who matter most.
We have forgotten that the ability and the willingness to discover new sensory moves is very skill that enables us to learn to move with another, dance with another, in a word, learn to love.
When was the last time you climbed onto a table?