Infants Learn to Walk by Learning to Fall

When a baby starts to fall, our natural instincts tell us to protect them and quickly catch them.  In general, parents’ instincts are to catch their children before they “fall” in many aspects in life.  But, as with many things that require you to fail before you can succeed, infants need to learn to fall before they can learn how to walk.  Researchers at New York University directed by Dr. Karen Adolph have conducted research just recently published in Psychological Science that demonstrates this important pattern of learning (Adolph et al., 2012).

Adolph and her colleagues set out to try to answer the fundamental question: why do experienced crawlers walk?  If an infant is an excellent crawler and can get around perfectly well from a stable four-prong position, why then would the infant take a risk to start locomoting by using such an unstable, risky, and unknown method such as walking?  This is actually a familiar pattern with many developments through infancy and childhood- many times, children will adopt new strategies for executing something that is initially more difficult than their current strategy.  As of now, there is no unified theory about why children might be motivated to make these changes.

Videos of 12-14 month old novice walkers and crawlers playing with caregivers were collected and analyzed to try to uncover more information about the way children learn to walk beyond what is artificially measured by unnatural laboratory “tasks”.  Researchers analyzed the video by taking note of how much time they spent crawling or walking, how much they were falling, and the distance that they traveled.  The results showed that, overall, novice walkers fell more per hour than expert crawlers.


Importantly, however, the walkers actually moved more and spent more time moving than the crawlers.  So, when this was taken into account, the difference in the amount of falls normalized by distance traveled for crawlers compared to walkers disappears.  Both crawlers and walkers fall after traveling about the same distance, about the same amount of time, and after about the same amount of steps.  Looking at just the walkers, more experience walking was highly correlated with better walking overall; they took more steps, traveled further, and fell less frequently than walkers with very little experience.


So why do infants move from crawling to walking? At least the start of the answer is that crawling is no better than novice walking.  Crawlers fell just as often as novice walkers (when amount of travel and time traveled is equated between walkers and crawlers).  Additionally, walkers could move more than crawlers could.  So, if you are falling about the same amount (proportionally) but you can do much more by walking it seems like walking is just a better way to get around.


Another interesting characteristic of infant’s natural walking habits is that they seem to have periods of walking coupled with longer periods of rest and immobilization. That is, they seem to have interleaved rather than massed practice of their walking.   We know that in general, interleaved practice is better for long-term learning because it allows time for consolidation, reflection and renewed motivation.  It also allows for broader transfer in learning because of the probability that the different practice sessions will be in varied contexts and usually require different movements or constraints.  This has been shown in several other domains of learning such as in category induction and memory studies.


In all, though it seems like infants who start to walk are falling more often, it is really not any more risky than crawling when you take into account the amount and distance of travel being done by walking compared to crawling.  Thus, infants learn to walk with accompanying increases in falls but not overall increases in falling rates.  So, its not a bad thing if the baby falls, it is just a normal progression from crawling to walking.  And, as novice walkers become more experienced, their falling rate declines.


Walking is accompanied by more frequent falling, but as they learn the ins and outs of walking and falling, babies will fall less.  If your baby has the need for speed and likes to explore, let him or her fall and walk and his or her sense of adventure will be fulfilled.


To read the original article published in Psychological Science, please click here.


To find out more information about Dr. Karen Adolph and other research that her team has done on infant locomotion please click here.