Motivation as instinct

Want to know about instinct? Observe a toddler.

Motivational drives are noticeably inherent in a child. Typical toddler behaviours can tell us a lot about our own natural, instinctual, genetically determined drives: We can all learn a lot by observing a toddler.

In this post, I provide an overview of motivational drives that seem genetically determined (instinctive drives of homo sapiens). We take a deeper look at number 1: Movement. In following posts I will discuss the others, one by one.

A toddler will:

  1. Move just for the sake of moving. Running away from you can be great fun. (So can hiding.) The outdoors seem to be made for this. Toddlers lóve climbing: Stairs, couches, tables, chairs. It is the motivation to express oneself physically, and to physically explore the interaction between self and environment. It is the joy of being out there. Physical expression & interaction.
  2. If another child puts out a pleading hand for something that your toddler has, s/he will pull it closer to their body, stating firmly, “Mine.” The drive towards ownership. The demarkation of boundaries- mine vs. yours.
  3. Pull themselves up on furniture to see what is there, and then pull whatever it is, over to their side for inspection (if it disappoints they will simply drop it on the floor). Curiosity & Exploration & Discernment.
  4. They will pull out the drawers and see what they can do with the stuff inside (pull over a head, bang against each other, pile on top of each other. How many parents have not said, “I buy all these expensive toys, and then they prefer the kitchen drawers?) Curiosity & Experimentation.
  5. If you show them something novel, they will look on, fascinated. A hand is then stretched out to take hold of it, wherafter they will try to mimic your actions. The fascination of Novelty & the innate drive towards Imitation.
  6. If another child has something they fancy, they will grab it, and hold fast despite the other one’s protest. If you take what was not theirs away from them, they will protest loudly. Wanting what others have, Possession & Envy.
  7. Given sand or water (combining both is even better), and maybe some basic equipment, they will become immersed in play, oblivious to cold and wet clothes. The capacity for Flow. Sensory attraction.
  8. There will be a favourite toy that gets played with again and again. It can seem quite random what this toy will be. Numbers 7+8: The capacity for being in flow. Of feeling integrated and at peace. Of Sustaining Attention.
  9. Other children attract and hold their attention. They will toddle over to a strange child and stand in front of them and look, and then attempt some interaction. If the other child rebuffs them, they will seem quite put out, and often will try to persist, with one baulking and one keen – just as you are about to leave, the two will suddenly, inexplicably , decide to play together beautifully. The Attraction of Peers. An innate propensity (hunger?) for peer friendships.
  10. “Self.” ” Did it myself. ” “No, self do it”. The drive towards Autonomy & Competence.
  11. They will bring you stuff to look at. The need for appreciation and interaction. For shared experiences of wonder and joy and appreciation.
  12. At the base of it all: A SECURE HOME. A SAFE BASE that allows you to explore, to express yourself, and to return to when in need. A toddler will explore wildly, and as soon as it gets a fright or gets hurt, it will run to a trusted caregiver, expecting to be picked up, to be soothed. We all need this person.
  13. Power. I leave this one for last, as it probably needs more than one chapter. It is best captured by the single word, “No”, or “Won’t “. It is easily seen in the mere (but very firm) turning sideways of a head.

Here’s a list:

  1. A strong bodily/motor drive, also for mastery.
  2. The motivation to explore.
  3. Fascination with novelty.
  4. A natural tendency to imitate.
  5. A sense of adventure/humour (they think it is very funny if they run away or hide from you).
  6. The drive towards connection with same age peers.
  7. An inherent tendency to reach out for (want) what someone else has.
  8. A built-in, powerful attitude towards ownership (“mine” ).
  9. A connection to natural elements – sand, water, space…children naturally expand in a forest, suddenly their bodies and their ideas react; without prompting they will build bridges and shelters and want to climb onto rocks and pull branches behind them.
  10. Somewhere there is a space : “This is me”. It gets expressed in the toys that they naturally gravitate towards, in the games that they want play over and again, in the repeated story a child they seemingly never gets tired of.
  11. A strong urge towards autonomy (“Did it myself”).
  12. The need to share experiences, and to be acknowledged.
  13. The drive for power.

s this true only for toddlers? How about you?

Can you take your own measure on this one, point by point, and see where you are blocked, and where your energy still flows?

Motivation is Energy. It is a pro-life force. It is what makes life worth living.

In my opinion there are 6 major life forces:

  • Physical expression
  • Exploration
  • Flow
  • Mastery
  • Connection
  • Safe haven
  1. Movement

Physical exploration is an inherent features of homo sapiens. We love to explore with our bodies – after all how did we get to migrate all over the world?

In young children: If we can allow this in our children, and not stop them in their tracks too often, if we can ensure that as, they develop over time, they have age-appropriate opportunities to express and to explore with their bodies, AND if we can use this instinctive drive, and channel it towards constructive activities, then we should have lively children, with lively motivational drives marked by curiosity and energy.

A note of warning: A toddler who is regularly stopped from expressing this instinctual, natural drive, will (naturally) throw tantrums. Will become difficult and obstreperous: It is a natural drive being blocked -what else do you expect? Children without constructive opportunities will use destructive ones or even worse, become lethargic and numb out this drive in front of an electronic device until the brain patterns connected with bodily exploration shut down.

 “From a functionalist perspective, anger is conceptualized as a response to a blocked goal and is associated with approach behaviors to remove the block and achieve the goal, while sadness occurs in response to a loss and is more associated with withdrawal and abandonment of the goal ” (Carver, 2004)

Carver, C. S. (2004). Self-regulation of action and affect. In R.F.Baumeister & K. D. Vohs (Eds.), Handbook of self-regulation: Research, theory, and applications (pp. 13–39). New York, NY:Guilford Press.

A word of warning to parents with small children who are in daycare: Many daycare settings limit physical exploration for practical and safety reasons: Ensure that there is enough space for your toddler to move about, and that they allow children to do so. Take your child out regularly to places that naturally evoke the drive towards physical exploration, e.g. swimming pools, the beach, parks and forests. And yes, too much structure can kill off spontaneity too. If you observe children during lessons (karate, ball games, etc), you will notice that much kidding about erupts as naturally as a spring of water. Children love constructing shelters from blankets and cushions. The fun is in the making, so don’t spoil their fun by making it for them- it is the physicality of it that matters. Which is why the best tree houses are those made by the children themselves.

Older children love speed and making fires and night marches. Horse-riding, experimenting during skiing or cycling, marshall arts – the exhilaration of testing the body under slightly ‘dangerous’ and provocative circumstances. It is a precursor of adolescence. Depriving young children of physical adventures will lead to general dysphoria. If you ask a primary school child what they did over the weekend, and they reply “watch tv, go to the movies, play video games with my friends”, or even worse, “nothing”, you will know that this child is being deprived of life-giving forces. If they reply, “played tennis with my friends, went to swim in my friend’s pool, went hiking with my parents and some friends, went to the skate-board park, baked cookies, made a fancy dress costume for a party with my grandmother, etc., you will know that this child is being nourished from the outside in.

Adolescence: This drive now ups the game. Real physical testing can be taken to its limits. How much can one drink, how fast can you drive, skiing on black slopes, diving into water from dangerously high rocks, how little can you eat, etc.

Adolescence is the time of fertility, both metaphysical and real. Music and dance are the natural expressions of the teenage body, also experiences of divine ecstasy. (The innate markers of music & dance exist in the toddler> Play some music by abba, and observe the toddler. Here now, in adolescence, it erupts). Physical and creative expression provides vitality. It is the beginning of the play with life and death. Poetry, including rap, experimentation with the look of the body – tatoo’s, clothes, hair, jewellery – is part of an acute bodily phase.

On the negative side are all the bodily disorders; distress arising in the body in response to the personal and the social environment. Eating disorders, cutting, and/or gender dysmorphia are interactions between a disturbed (read unbalanced) personal environment that combines with a disturbed (read overly challenging, unnatural) social environments. This leads to great distress in the transition. It leads to negation of the body, or disassociation from the body, from revenge on the body to hatred of the body. As the body becomes unloved, depression and sadness sets in. The current riptide of gender confusion will sow havoc in this group, as this is an acutely bodily sensitive stage.

Positive expression can be magnificent though, as the young body is usually supple and elastic. Sport, dance, music, rock-climbing, animal interactions (dogs and horses are great at this age) can all add to the natural expression of the body. Ice-skating, roller-blading, surfing… Water is an amazing element to interact with at this stage at it can provide both sensory stimulation and adventure.

Without adequate sources for expression alcohol and drug abuse, internet addiction as well as indiscriminate sex, can quickly fill this space.

For the body to thrive – for the body to express itself – which it desperately wants to do at this stage – it is begging for an outlet.


Adulthood can be roughly categorised into tasks:

  • Mating
  • Child bearing and rearing
  • Career building
  • Community belonging
  • Integration of identity
  • Restoration

But, first a reminder from the toddlers

The major life forces: Physical expression – Exploration -Flow -Mastery -Connection -Safe haven

Although I am discussing the forces separately, they function best when they interconnected. The more elements we combine, the more meaningful our experience will be. When I was young, I loved skiing in the mountains. The best times were with my brother. We were both equally agile, and would intersperse flowing without words with active exploration, experiencing all of the above .

We may think that adulthood is about remaining fit and healthy. And of course, there are many reasons why this matters.

Physical activity has a huge potential to enhance our wellbeing. Even a short burst of 10 minutes’ brisk walking increases our mental alertness, energy and positive mood. Participation in regular physical activity can increase our self-esteem and can reduce stress and anxiety. It also plays a role in preventing the development of mental health problems and in improving the quality of life of people experiencing mental health problems.

From a website that is worth looking at:

I suspect that we all know this. What I suspect that we tend to forget is, that to feel truly alive, we need to move as much as toddlers do: Explorations in nature, the physical accomplishments of extending ourselves, building activities (changing our furniture around, building a shack, painting a wall, gardening, etc), making music and dancing – to regularly engage in activities that are joyously physical.

After a close family member died, and I had coped for everyone, I fell into darkness. One Sunday my daughter said, “I know what you need”. She drove me to the nearest beach for a surfing lesson. As it was a glorious day, the beach was packed. My daughter would urge me onto her surfboard, and when a wave came, she would push me and shout, “Go, mother go!” Soon there was a chorus from a family sitting on the shore, “Go mother go!” I laughed so much, I mostly fell off the board. But hey, I was out of the darkness, back into life.

We are sensorial beings. Hear, smell, taste, feel. Being physical is being able to experience all of these: The feel of the breeze, the smell of the forest, the taste of the water, the sound of the wind. It is innate. As I wrote in the beginning: It is the motivation to express oneself physically, and to physically explore the interaction between self and environment. It is the joy of being out there.