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During the Covid-19 pandemic, life had changed dramatically for our little people.
Playground equipment was off limits. Until recently, we could only head out for 1 hour of activity outside the home. Nurseries, child-care facilities and activity events shut their doors for the time being.
The focus shifted to the home setting for all the play, activity, learning and fun.
It was certainly a challenge for parents and children to adjust to this ‘new normal’
The aim of this blog is to give you a few suggestions of activities that can be done at home or in any green space around your local area to boost one very important sensory area for your child.
We are all familiar with the 5 senses of sight, sound, hearing, smell and taste. But this 6th sense sometimes called The Movement Sense, is equally as important. It is vital that this system be developed within the early years of a child’s life as co-ordinated movement is fundamental for all life’s activities.
This Movement Sense involves the Vestibular System and proprioception. The Vestibular System is a sensory system that is responsible for providing our brain with information about motion, head position, and helping to know where our body is in space. It’s actually one of the oldest of the sensory systems, thought to have evolved about 0.6 billion years ago! The sensing ‘machinery’ is found in the inner ear and is essential for normal movement and balance.
Here’s a 2 minute clip that tells you more about this Vestibular System if you’re interested.
Balance is not something we automatically have; it is something that we do. And it needs practice, lots of it! This means that our vestibular systems needs regular stimulation to build up those neural pathways which help our children in their day to day lives.
Sadly, children sitting still for long periods of time without moving their heads in a range of movements does nothing to stimulate this vital sensory system.
The vestibular machinery in the inner ear responds to three different types of movement and it’s vital to allow your children to do activities that stimulate all three types.
Activities like spinning on a roundabout or spinner at a local playground are perfect for simulating this part of the inner ear.
Log rolling down a gentle grassy slope is another fun easy activity for this. You can do it on a flat surface too, but it’s a little harder that way. Just make sure you check the grassy area for any unwanted items before they roll along the area.
Want to make it more challenging? Can they roll one way, then back the way they came? Or can they roll with their arms stretched out high above their heads, making a peak with their hands together. I call these ‘rocket ship arms’.
Of course, if your child loves dancing, spinning round during a dance routine is a perfect motion to practice this movement too
Activities like rocking and swinging give this part of the inner ear a fabulous workout.
Initially, the passive gentle rocking of a cradle or being rocked in a parent’s arms helps to stimulate this system.
As the child develops, and when there is a level of muscle strength and postural control, rocking toys can feature in the play mix.
Or a swing. This snap is of our Solvej Baby and Toddler swings that can be set up inside the house or outside on a verandah or under a tree. What child doesn’t love to spend hours swinging backward and forwards – it’s a gorgeous feeling!
This is the least stimulated vestibular movement in everyday life. When a boat tilts in a strong wind or seas or an aeroplane banks from side to side, this part of the inner ear is stimulated.
Wobble Boards are the perfect toy to practice this movement safely. First they can sit, cross legged on the board and wobble side to side. When they get better with balancing, they can try to stand up.
If you don’t want to buy a wobble board, you can easily make something at home that practices the same movement. I’ve created one here with a short plank of wood, sitting on a half round log from the log pile. Make sure that the wood is smooth as you don’t want to get splinters in feet.
Want to make it more challenging?
Use a larger log underneath or use a completely round log which will have much less stability.
You’ll notice that young children don’t get dizzy doing any of these movements where adults certainly do! I go weak at the knees at the thought of getting on a Waltzer these days! This is just because the connections between balance and other centres are still being formed in our children.
With any of these activities, it’s essential that you fully supervise your child when at play.
So, the tiny Vestibular System, tucked away in the inner ear, is a vital cog in the heathy development of your child.
Not only is it king in developing your child’s balance and co-ordinated movement. This system has also been shown to have a profound effect on emotions, and is essential in higher cognitive skills such as reading and writing, which require directional awareness coupled with the improved integration with the other sensory systems and benefits in stabilising eye movements.
I’m a child of the seventies and remember, with the nostalgic fuzziness of time, learning to ride a two wheel bike. A rite of passage that most children go through which offers, once mastered, a sense of divine freedom to explore the neighbourhood. Not to mention the amazing array of gross motor skill development that goes with it!
Mix that memory with a good dollop of stress on both the child and parents’ part, plenty of bruises and scabs from frequent tumbles, many months of trying, a gradually building back problem for the parent and you are close to reality!
Learning to ride a bike the old fashioned way was never easy…..and here’s why!
Stabilisers (or training wheels as they are known in some countries) were developed to solve the very real problem that it is hard to balance on a two wheeled bike. And being able to ride a bike is such a great skill to have in life. It offers a sense of independence for your child as well as the development of so many gross motor skills. Leg, arm and core strength, balance and endurance to name a few.
It gives an opportunity to stimulate their senses, improving sensory processing, and gets your child outdoors which improves mood and reduces stress levels. It’s a cheap method of transport, and is environmentally green.
Yes, you could argue that they start to build up some of those skills by riding a bike on stabilisers but dynamic balance is a vital skill. There is a complex set of brain activity going on using many of the sensory and motor control systems. Plus, riding with training wheels forever is not cool!
So, at some stage, out comes the tool box and the stabilisers have to go. Then come the tears!
To balance a bike requires two main strategies: steering and body movement relative to the bike. The centre of mass of the person needs to be over the frame of the bike. Suprisingly it is the steering strategy that is absolutely necessary to balance a bicycle, whereas body movements are not so vital.
And the steering alterations necessary to keep the bicycle upright do not follow common sense. Check out the video below for the science stuff:
If your 2 wheel bike wobbles and leans to the left, you have to turn the handle bars to that same direction to allow the bike to steady itself. It’s totally counter intuitive so no wonder we have a hard time learning to balance on a moving bike. A child on stabilisers never experiences the lean so never learns the correct strategy.
Turning Left? With stabilisers on, your child will learn to turn the handle bars left to go left. Common sense right? That’s what they do on any 3 or 4 wheeled ride-on toy that they may have already experienced. So, what’s the problem? If they do that, the 2 wheel bike will right itself and stop the turn. Your child will be learning something that they will have to then unlearn.
If you want to steer your bike to the left, you have to counter steer to the right first, then steer to the left and your bike will go left. Science is weird sometimes! You and I won’t even notice that we do this because it is a subconscious action, but your child will have to learn this concept the hard way once the stabilisers come off. This is often the reason that it can take months and sometimes up to a year of stress for your child to master it.
Learning to balance is a hard skill, not to mention learning to balance on a moving object. It’s so much easier to balance first, then learn to turn the pedals afterwards than learn to pedal first then try to figure out how to balance and steer. Balancing a moving object is a much harder concept to grasp than turning pedals.
Balance Bikes have been around for a couple of decades but are becoming increasingly popular for a very good reason. I absolutely love them as a concept! They are basically a bike frame without any pedals or chain and allow your child to figure out how to balance literally step by step. No stress, no tears, no anxiety.
A child can learn to balance a two wheel bike in as little as a few hours. Their feet comfortably touch the ground and initially, it looks like they are just taking their bikes for a walk. They use their feet to propel themselves forward and little by little, increase the time that both feet are off the ground until they are essentially balancing.
Give them a few weeks and they’ll be confidently scooting along having figured out the whole counter intuitive steering/balancing issues. Kids on balance bikes can travel so much faster than on a heavier bike with training wheels, so they can join in with family bike trips, or ride alongside the jogging or walking parent with ease.
Once they are confident on the balance bike, they can progress to their first pedal bike with no dramas. My son was up to speed by 3 1/2 years and it took just two goes before he set off on his new Trek pedal bike. His grandparents stood by looking sceptical until they saw him zipping around. They are now total converts to my balance bike mantra!
There are so many choices out there in the market at the moment. You can choose a wooden, steel, aluminium alloy or synthetic frame. The bikes can have air or foam filled tyres. And there are plenty of cool accessories to personalise their ride. Some people question the cost and value for money. Fair comment, most aren’t cheap. But, if you took the cost of a tricycle and a 12″ pedal bike with stabilisers, I reckon that you would have spent more than the cost of one balance bike.
That’s all from me for this time. Stay active!