Free Play – Just What the Doctor Ordered

Just as children must learn to crawl, then walk before they begin to run, this same pattern continues throughout life with each milestone becoming a foundation for the next.  Therefore, it is important that we offer our children the best opportunity to grow up and develop in a healthy manner.  The good news is that much of this is a natural process.  It’s less that we must create the situation and rather that we must not hinder the process.

When Dr. Emmi Pikler was studying medicine in Vienna in the 1920’s, she had two influential professors who stressed the importance of treating a child as a whole person and putting focus on the overall health rather than a specific illness.  During her studies, she noticed a trend in accident statistics.  Children from families with lower socioeconomic status had fewer fractures and concussions than children from families with high socioeconomic status.  Upon investigation, the children from lower socioeconomic status families played outside of the home, and experienced more time to freely roam, run and play.  These children were “more alert, more physically capable, and were able to fall without hurting themselves.”  On the other hand, children from high socioeconomic status families were often kept inside with play closely supervised.  These children had more limited movements and did not seem to “know their own physical capabilities or limits”.

Dr. Pikler researched this more and found that both sets of children were being “helped” in learning to sit, stand, walk, etc. regardless of socioeconomic status.  However, high socioeconomic families were likely to spend more time exercising an infant’s limbs to encourage physical development.  

With additional observation and research, she developed a hypothesis that when a child is given space and time for independent play and allowed to explore at his/her own pace, the child will learn to “stand, walk, speak and think better than the child who is encouraged to reach prescribed developmental stages.”  Dr. Pikler moved to Hungary and started a private pediatric practice in Budapest where she taught these concepts to over 100 families, and became highly regarded in her field.

In her first book, Dr. Pikler wrote about the stages of physical development, including:

  • Birth
  • Laying on their Back
  • Turning the Head and Discovering the Hands
  • Turning to the Side
  • Turning on the Belly and Back Again
  • Tummy time
  • Stretching
  • Rolling
  • From Creeping to Crawling
  • Getting up into the vertical
  • Sitting
  • Walking on their Own

She observed that children tended to have poor posture, tire easily, suffer fall injuries, and that this was worse in cities.  Additionally, she connected this to adults who fatigue quickly after walking or have difficulty moving after sitting for a few hours because the musculoskeletal system becomes stiff.  She states: “That is not at all natural, however.  If one sits correctly, sitting is not tiring.  If one stands correctly, standing is possible for much longer than we can imagine…”

She compares this to the animal kingdom and points out that even large, awkward shaped animals can move with grace.  She suggests that it is the hinderances we, as humans, place on ourselves and our children that prevent us from doing the same thing.  If ample space and opportunity to move freely is provided to a child, then they too can learn to move in a natural, graceful way.  While each person is different in size and shape.  When the body is allowed to develop to its natural potential, the person’s abilities are maximized.

When a child is learning to roll onto the belly, crawl, sit, stand and other motor movements, a child is also learning how to learn.  The child learns to take notice of something, try different things and do something without assistance.  At the same time, the child is laying a groundwork for future health and life.  Research suggests that physical exercise is not only safe for children, but it may play a role in the “ideal shaping of bone and muscle tissues, ensuring possible beneficial effects throughout life.”

Proper spinal alignment helps the body function at its optimal level at any age.  Chiropractic care for children helps maintain healthy alignment as the child progresses through the various milestones, promoting natural growth and movement and reducing musculoskeletal impediments to development. Talk to your chiropractor about how gentle, effective chiropractic care can be part of your children’s foundation for a healthy life.


Pikler, Emmi. The Development of Movement – Stages.  Sensory Awareness Foundation publication BULLETIN (Number 14/Winter 1994). an excerpt from PEACEFUL BABIES – CONTENTED MOTHERS. accessed 2/2/2023

Caro, Clare. “The Genius of Emmi Pikler” The Pikler Collection accessed 2/2/2023

Alves JGB, Alves GV. Effects of physical activity on children’s growth. J Pediatr (Rio J). 2019 Mar-Apr;95 Suppl 1:72-78. doi: 10.1016/j.jped.2018.11.003. Epub 2018 Dec 26. PMID: 30593790.