Learning to Move in a Changing Body in a Changing World

Whitney G. Cole, Karen E. Adolph

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Synopsis Infants of all species learn to move in the midst of tremendous variability and rapid developmental change. Traditionally, researchers consider variability to be a problem for development and skill acquisition. Here, we argue for a reconsideration of variability in early life, taking a developmental, ecological, systems approach. Using the development of walking in human infants as an example, we argue that the rich, variable experiences of infancy form the foundation for flexible, adaptive behavior in adulthood. From their first steps, infants must cope with changes in their bodies, skills, and environments. Rapid growth spurts and a continually expanding environment of surfaces, elevations, and obstacles alter the biomechanical constraints on balance and locomotion from day to day and moment to moment. Moreover, infants spontaneously generate a variable practice regimen for learning to walk. Self-initiated locomotion during everyday activity consists of immense amounts of variable, time-distributed, error-filled practice. From infants’ first steps and continuing unabated over the next year, infants walk in short bursts of activity (not continual steps), follow curved (not straight) paths, and take steps in every direction (not only forward)—all the while, accompanied by frequent falls as infants push their limits (rather than a steady decrease in errors) and explore their environments. Thus, development ensures tremendous variability—some imposed by physical growth, caregivers, and a changing environment outside infants’ control, and some self-generated by infants’ spontaneous behavior. The end result of such massive variability is a perceptual-motor system adept at change. Thus, infants do not learn fixed facts about their bodies or environments or their level of walking skill. Instead, they learn how to learn—how to gauge possibilities for action, modify ongoing movements, and generate new movements on the fly from step to step. Simply put, variability in early development is a feature, not a bug. It provides a natural training regimen for successfully navigating complex, ever-changing environments throughout the lifespan. Moreover, observations of infants’ natural behavior in natural, cluttered environments—rather than eliciting adult-like behaviors under artificial, controlled conditions—yield very different pictures of what infants of any species do and learn. Over-reliance on traditional tasks that artificially constrain variability therefore risks distorting researchers’ understanding of the origins of adaptive behavior.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)653-663
Number of pages11
JournalIntegrative and Comparative Biology
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 1 2023

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Animal Science and Zoology
  • Plant Science


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