A Whole New World
Crawling doesn't merely boost physical skills. As your baby learns to move independently, she will become more aware of her surroundings and better able to navigate them, says Lise Eliot, PhD, assistant professor of neuroscience at the Chicago Medical School and author of What's Going On in There? How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life (Bantam). There's a big difference between being carried around and getting somewhere yourself. Crawling helps kids learn to keep track of locations and use landmarks to orient themselves, e.g., she gets to her basket of toys by looping around the coffee table and heading toward the kitchen. "It's like the difference between driving the car and just riding along. Babies learn to solve problems by doing things for themselves. It's not calculus, but it's a definite cognitive advance," says Eliot.
Adjusting to Her Environment
Of course, just when she's learned to get to the coffee table for the remote, someone goes and leaves it on the chair! A shifting environment isn't the only learning curve baby has to negotiate. The very act of balancing in different positions takes place in the context of her own rapidly changing body. Her arms and legs might actually be longer from one month to the next, and she may weigh more. Further complicating the mix, as baby's skills become more advanced, her abilities change. In one of her studies, Adolph gathered a group of 9-month-olds who had been sitting up for a while but had only just started to crawl. In the first scenario, the babies were placed on a platform in view of a bright red ball 2 feet below. In their excited pursuit of the ball, the babies would have fallen off the platform if no one had caught them. Yet when they were seated with their legs dangling over the edge of the platform, the babies gazed at the tempting red ball but didn't reach for it because they knew they would fall.
Why were babies more cautious in the second instance? The 9-month-old babies, with several months' of sitting experience, knew what they could and couldn't do from that position. On the other hand, as novice crawlers they lacked both the depth perception and eye-hand coordination to judge their own abilities correctly during the precarious new activity.
In short, every new motor milestone for babies involves learning how to balance and move in a different way, requiring constant fine-tuning of their bodies and movements as they try new tasks.