Infant intentions: the role of agency in learning with affectionate companions

Jonathan Delafield-Butt, Colwyn Trevarthen

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A young child moves with her own agency or initiative, using a dexterous body to create experiences she enjoys and learns, enabling early development of a 'sensorimotor intelligence' for her own benefit. She is also born with 'affectionate social intelligence', wanting to share discoveries of experience and to build their meaning with parents and playmates as companions. This learning is evident in the fine control of movements before birth, in the gestures and expressions of the mid-gestation foetus that demonstrate an awareness and a curious interest in the world, and that respond to behaviours of the mother and other persons they can sense near them. They are especially receptive to rhythms of other persons' locomotion, speech and dance or music, and they learn to recognise and prefer their mother's voice. Innate movements, guided by anticipations of their future effects, are adapted to gain benefits from the world in cooperation with other persons' interests and responses. Infant movements, even if they are simple and discrete, are formed as the actions of a person, an intentional social agent from the start who is seeking to share cultural habits and skills.
Self-generated movements develop in reach and capacity from early single actions with immediate proximal goals, to the complex serial ordering of actions that construct projects extended through space and time. They become described in abstract, culturally learned, and conceptually-backed stories as the infant builds knowledge and becomes a lively and curious toddler. High-precision analysis of movement at birth can detect risk of a developmental disorder that may affect all stages of learning. Children who develop with autism exhibit a subtle, but significant disruption to self-generated movement that appears evident from birth, thwarting its success, creating distress for the child and anxiety for their care-givers. Early motor experience is a fundamental adventure of the young child that expands into social collaboration and the ability to make sense of the world with others' assistance. The enterprise of the human spirit from early and simple actions to later complex projects of serially-ordered actions confirms the existence of a primary form of intentionality that is a driver for learning and its education at all ages.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationEncyclopedia of Teacher Education
EditorsMichael A. Peter
Place of PublicationSingapore
Number of pages8
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 5 Apr 2020


  • sensory-motor intelligence
  • early motor functions
  • movement analysis


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