“Learning to Take Those First Steps: To Push or Not to Push?”

Baby Learning to Walk

“Learning to Take Those First Steps: To Push or Not to Push?”

This is a story about when you are teaching a little one to walk, and you’re wondering “Do I push? Do I not push? How hard is too hard?” It’s a situation I find myself in often as a Special Instructor in Early Intervention, but I imagine every parent has found themselves wondering the same thing, maybe not even about learning to walk. 

Little Pumpkin’s Debut

Last year our family had a foster baby we called Little Pumpkin. She came to us a little behind in her gross motor development, so naturally, I made it my commitment to help her catch up. We gave her lots and lots of time on the floor. It wasn’t long before she could sit up. Once she could sit, she was happy to sit; sit; sit. When we introduced her to standing at the couch, she LOVED that. She loved to stand; stand; stand. Early Intervention!

Kit, Future Early Interventionist

In order to get Little Pumpkin more comfortable with moving, we practiced weight shifting in standing and rocking on all fours. I showed my 9 year old daughter Kit how to do this. She has potential to be a great early interventionist when she grows up. Once Little Pumpkin mastered weight shifting, we moved to guiding her to take steps. I showed Kit how to give Lil’ Pumpkin hip support with her hands and lean her gently from side to side and encourage Little Pumpkin to take her sweet little baby girl steps. Kit was a proud big sister and future early interventionist. 

Little Pumpkin was naturally curious as she explored the environment that we set up, which included opportunities to pull to kneel and pull to stand. She was happy to stand, but when she tried to take steps, it threw her off balance, and she fell. We knew we had to be gentle and patient.   

“If she falls when you do it for her, she learns to be afraid; but if she falls when she does it herself, she learns how to try again.” – This mama.

Kit got eager; a little too eager. She started pushing her rather than gently guiding. She started holding her by the hand tugging her to try to get her to walk. There were some close calls. There were a few tumbles.  After one of these tumbles, exasperated, and comforting a baby’s bruised ego, I stammered, “If she falls when you do it for her, she learns to be afraid of falling; but if she falls when she does it herself, she learns how to try again.”

Ooooh That’s Good Stuff

As soon as I said it I thought “Ooooh that’s good stuff. What I meant to say to Kit was that she was pushing her too far. You need to let her learn to do it on her own. When a baby learns to walk, she is going to fall from time to time. If she falls because you pushed her too far, she’ll fall and she’ll learn to be afraid of falling. If you let her do it on her own, even if she falls, she will learn to try differently next time because those falls are the results of her trial and error learning process. 

A Metaphor to Apply to All of Education


This is Little Pumpkin learning to walk scenario can be a metaphor to apply to all education. When children learn, they are bound to fail from time to time. If we push children too far too fast and children fail, they learn to be afraid of failing, but if we set it up for them to learn on their own, and guide them to the next step that they are ready for, they will learn from their failures!

Learning to Walk in the Zone of Proximal Development

Nerd Alert….

According to the learning theory of Lev Vygotsky, learning happens between social interactions between the child and teacher within the zone of proximal development. The zone of proximal development includes the skills they cannot do alone, but they can do with help from a teacher. 

In Little Pumpkin’s journey to learn how to walk, taking steps with proper support was within her zone of proximal development. Being pushed to take steps being dragged by arms was beyond her zone of proximal development.

When we push her past her zone of proximal development, she is in the danger zone. Danger of being afraid or frustrated.  

Falling when she was feeling safe in that zone with a helper holding onto her hips was a non event. She plopped on her bottom or caught herself with her arms, landing in crawling position or sometimes she’d regain her balance on her own. Falling when she was dragged by her arms (not in a forceful or rough way– I promise) led to crying; plopping on her butt and crying or landing on her face and crying. Falling was a scary experience and created some fear. When we push her past her zone of proximal development, she is in the danger zone. Danger of being afraid or frustrated.  

Learning to Walk: Experimenting with the Environment

Jean Piaget’s learning theory says that learning takes place when children spend time interacting with their environments. During infancy, the sensorimotor stage, movement and sensory experiences help children develop to the next stage.

Here is an excerpt from www.everydayhealth.com where they explain Piaget’s learning theory during the stage of infancy when learning to walk typically takes place.


“Three new skills become evident. One is the repeated reaching for an object. The second is a secondary repeating motion respecting an external object, such as dropping a rattle repeatedly. Lastly, an awareness of distinguishing methods and means of accomplishing a task.

d) What Piaget believed to be the seeds of intelligence, or the coordination between means and ends, starts the fourth substage. Goal orientation reveals a baby’s primitive planning to reach desired results.

e) The tertiary reactions phase in the fifth substage is established between 12 months and 18 months. The child learns to explore the world and conduct small experiments to learn how things work”.

 For Little Pumpkin to learn to walk she interacted with her environment by conducting little experiments of her actions, then learning from the consequences:  pulling herself up on the couch, taking those steps with confidence when someone had her back, catching her balance, bouncing to the music while standing on her feet, rocking on all fours, face planting from too much rocking, tipping over, plopping on her bum.  These are examples of the results she had with her experiments on her path to learning to walk.

Learning to Walk: Scaffolding within the Zone of Proximal Development AND Exploring the Environment through Trial and Error

For Little Pumpkin to walk, she had the opportunity to both interact with her environment performing experiments and interact with her people scaffolding her learning new skills within her zone of proximal development. This article  vygotsky and piaget explains how Vygotsky’s and Piaget’s Learning Theories are different, but I see them working hand in hand when we taught Little Pumpkin to walk. This revealed itself to me so beautifully in this learning to walk example, but it can be applied to how children learn lots of things.  

The writers at notjustcute.com explain scaffolding this way,


“In order to properly scaffold a child, you must come to the child’s level and then build from there.  Just as a mason would carefully lay brick, row by row, as he climbs the scaffolding, we must build children gradually as we scaffold.  Simply jumping in and expecting a child to perform at mastery level is like climbing to the top of the scaffolding and dropping bricks down into place at the bottom! When we don’t properly scaffold our children, and hold them to standards above their ZPD, they feel as though every one of those bricks is landing on their heads!”

To push or not to push? When it’s not just about learning to walk


“We all want what’s best for our children. But our idea of what is best for them might not always jibe with theirs. Often parents will give a nudge towards the decision they think is correct, trying to find that delicate balance between encouraging and pushing too hard.”

“Pushing your child to do something doesn’t mean throwing them into the deep end of a pool and hoping they swim. There are ways parents preview, scaffold and support to help ensure that their kids are successful in their endeavors.”

“Of course, there is such a thing as pushing your child too hard. “If a kid becomes too distressed or shows dysfunction, you’ve gone too far,” says Dr. Koplewicz. Maybe it’s age-related. Maybe he’s not in the right developmental stage.”

To push or not to push? Extracurricular Activities


“In order to spark the imagination within your child in regards to what they can become, who they can be and the kind of things that they can achieve, they have to be provided with opportunity; opportunity to do things that they love, opportunity to find new hidden talents; opportunity to see what the world has to offer; to find their passion. Allow your child to try all kinds of sports, classes and extra-curricular activities that they’re interested in, and to encourage them to also try new things that they may not have thought about previously.  Doing so will allow them to find the things that they truly love to do and will open their mind to their endless possibilities that are within their reach. However, be sure to never bombard your child with too many activities all at once as this can become a stressful and overwhelming situation as opposed to an enjoyable one, and can encourage them to be a quitter as opposed to an achiever.”

To push or not to push? What are your thoughts? Let’s see it in the comments.

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