Practicing Motor Skills

In fact, babies do improve their motor skills much as adults do—as a result of diligent practice. New skills, such as walking independently, don't suddenly emerge out of nowhere but gradually build out of prior, simpler abilities—kicking, standing, and walking with support—after weeks or months of trying. The only difference between infant and adult motor learning (aside from the fact that infants seem to crave the exercise more than most of us) is that babies can train themselves in a particular skill only when their brains are maturationally ready. In other words, practice is essential, provided it's done at the right time. Done too early, the necessary circuits simply aren't there to benefit from it. (Indeed, some researchers believe that premature practice can actually interfere with the acquisition of certain skills, either because it ends up training the wrong neural pathways or because the baby grows frustrated with trying to do something he has no hope of mastering at the time.)

Once again, it all comes down to understanding how the brain becomes wired up to perform certain tasks. Like each of the sensory systems, motor pathways are initially specified by genes—by innate signals that direct axons from the motor cortex, for instance, to grow down into the spinal cord, then stop at the appropriate level to innervate, say, the cervical motor neurons that control the hand. Though fairly specific, these initial connections are not precise enough to control all the skilled and elaborate movements of which Ethan will eventually be capable. Rather, motor pathways go through another stage of development in which they are refined through use; the more a particular pathway is activated during consistent, purposeful action, the likelier it is to be stabilized.

Even in adults, motor pathways can be modified with training. Recent brain-imaging studies have shown that when a person becomes skilled at a certain motor task, like a set sequence of finger movements, a larger area of the motor cortex is activated during the sequence than before it was well practiced. At the same time, repeated practice is also known to decrease the degree to which the cerebellum is activated during a task; although the cerebellum is critical during motor learning, it drops out once a skill is so well practiced as to require little concentration.

These kinds of imaging studies can't be performed in babies, but there is little doubt that the same sorts of changes take place in Ethan's brain as he masters each new motor skill. Motor learning involves a process of neural selection. The same movement can be accomplished by many different pathways and patterns of activity, but only some of these will be the most efficient. What practice does is to find, by trial and error, the few most efficient patterns and to strengthen and stabilize them, so that each time Ethan attempts a particular movement, he is increasingly likely to use the fastest, smoothest route.


By practicing a motor skill, adults and infants allow their brain to find the most efficient neurological pathways for performing the task.

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 What's Going on in There? : How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life
Books, Brochures, and Chapters>Book:  Eliot , Lise (2000-10-03), What's Going on in There? : How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life, Bantam, Retrieved on 2011-07-18
Folksonomies: parenting babies development infants physiology