Principles of Development

The process of motor development depends heavily on the maturation of the central nervous system and the muscular system. As these systems develop, an infant's ability to move progresses. The sequence of motor development follows an apparently orderly pattern. Arnold Gesell, a noted researcher in the field of child development, indicated through his studies that development does not proceed in a straight line. Instead, it swings back and forth between periods of rapid and slower maturation. Gesell and his colleagues also discovered from their infant observations made in the 1930s and 1940s that infant growth does indeed follow distinct developmental directions: cephalocaudal, proximal-distal, and general to specific.

Cephalocaudal Principle

First, most children develop from head to toe, or cephalocaudal. Initially, the head is disproportionately larger than the other parts of the infant's body. The cephalocaudal theory states that muscular control develops from the head downward: first the neck, then the upper body and the arms, then the lower trunk and the legs. Motor development from birth to six months of age includes initial head and neck control, then hand movements and eye-hand coordination, followed by preliminary upper body control. The subsequent six months of life include important stages in learning to control the trunk, arms, and legs for skills such as sitting, crawling, standing, and walking.

Proximal-Distal Principle

Second, children develop their motor skills from the center of their bodies outward, near to far or proximal-distal. This principle asserts that the head and trunk develop before the arms and legs, and the arms and legs before the fingers and toes. Babies learn to master control of upper arms and upper legs, then forearms and legs, then their hands and feet, and finally fingers and toes. An example of this is an infant's need to control the arm against gravity before being able to reach for a toy.

General to Specific Principle

Lastly, the general to specific development pattern is the progression from the entire use of the body to the use of specific body parts. This pattern can be best seen through the learned process of grasping. Initially, infants can grossly hold a bottle with both hands at about four months of age. After practice and time, twelve-month-old infants can hold smaller toys or food in each hand using a pincher grasp. This finger and thumb grasp is more precise than the grasping skill of an infant at four months. Just as the child develops a more precise grasp with time and experience, many other motor skills are achieved simultaneously throughout motor development. Each important skill mastered by an infant is considered a motor milestone.

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