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Mind your step : learning to walk in complex environments.

Mowbray, Rachel and Cowie, Dorothy (2020) 'Mind your step : learning to walk in complex environments.', Experimental brain research., 238 (6). pp. 1455-1465.


In everyday contexts, children must respond to both self-related constraints (their own skills and abilities) and environmental constraints (external obstacles and goals). How do young children simultaneously accommodate these to support skilled and flexible behaviour? We used walking in a complex environment as a testbed for two hypotheses. Hypothesis 1: children will accommodate the self-related constraint of high foot placement variability via dynamic scaling. Hypothesis 2: children will plan ahead, even in complex environments. In our task, 3- to 5-year-olds and adults walked over obstacle sequences of varying complexity. We measured foot placement around the first obstacle in the sequence. Hypothesis 1 was partially supported. In simple, single obstacle environments, children engaged in dynamic scaling like adults. Those with more variable foot placement left greater margins of error between the feet and the obstacle. However, in complex, multiple obstacle settings, children employed large, un-tailored margins of error. This parallels other multisensory tasks in which children do not rely on the relative variability of sensory inputs. Hypothesis 2 was supported. Like adults, children planned ahead for environmental constraints. Children adjusted foot placement around the first obstacle depending on the upcoming obstacle sequence. In doing so, they demonstrate surprisingly sophisticated planning. We, therefore, show that in the motor domain, even very young children simultaneously control both self-related and environmental constraints. This allows flexible, safe and efficient behaviour.

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Publisher statement:This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which permits use, sharing, adaptation, distribution and reproduction in any medium or format, as long as you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons licence, and indicate if changes were made. The images or other third party material in this article are included in the article's Creative Commons licence, unless indicated otherwise in a credit line to the material. If material is not included in the article's Creative Commons licence and your intended use is not permitted by statutory regulation or exceeds the permitted use, you will need to obtain permission directly from the copyright holder. To view a copy of this licence, visit
Date accepted:23 April 2020
Date deposited:13 May 2020
Date of first online publication:13 May 2020
Date first made open access:13 May 2020

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