By Liz Senior of Clamber Club
What is balance?
Balance is the ability to maintain your equilibrium in relation to the force of gravity. This could be when you are in a static position, or when you are moving. We need balance for everything we do, and tend to take it for granted! Balance is essentially maintained by the vestibular system, which is located in the inner ear. It contains:
• The Semicircular canals – These canals are sensitive to rotary movement, fast movement and motion, acceleration and deceleration. For example, spinning on a merry go round, swinging on a swing or riding on a scooter. This is why most children love to spin and swing – they are nourishing their brains!
• The Gravity Receptors – These tell us whether we are upside down or not, how far we are leaning over and whether our head is upside down. It generally responds to the many gravitational forces exerted on us in everything we do.
This vestibular system communicates and co-ordinates with information from the skin, the muscles and the joints as well as the visual system to provide you with movement information and postural guidance. It even keeps your visual field steady, so that when you are on a moving surface what you see does not flutter!
• If you lean over to pick something up, it tells you how far you can lean before you will fall over. Imagine tilting to one side – as you do this your vestibular system communicates with your other senses and sends the important message to your brain: `You’re tipping over, now come back to the middle or you will fall over!’
• If your child is riding on his bicycle, it senses the pull of gravity and the movements of his body, so that whenever he moves off centre and begins to fall, his brain with the vestibular system integrates the sensation of falling and tell him to move back to his centre. (Those are his gravity receptors telling him to get back to the centre of gravity before he goes flying!)
• When your child swings, the vestibular system enables his body to move in response to the sensations of gravity and movement.
• If you push or pull with your hands, it tells your trunk and legs to adjust themselves so that your arms can do their job efficiently.
Each of the senses that provide information to the brain need to be processing information very precisely. It is therefore very important to provide your child with experiences that can stimulate these sensory systems!
Why is balance important?
Not only does balance assist us in all our daily living activities, it can also have a profound effect on your child’s ability to learn, and on how your child may cope at school.
On a physical level your child needs balance for:
• Walking on irregular surfaces, over stones, up a slope or down a slope.
• Righting himself if another child pushes him over. He will need to be able to shift his weight to regain balance.
• To manipulate any object he will need to stabilise the body effectively before doing so.
• And many more!
In the classroom your child needs balance to:
• Sit comfortably, and still at a desk.
• Bend over and get something out of a suitcase.
• Play sociably and confidently on the playground.
• Change position and move from one place to another with ease.
• Develop laterality, an internal awareness of left and right. This in turn influences the ability to understand `direction’. Such as up, down turning to the left and right, starting to write at the top of your page, writing from left to right.
According to Piaget, a well known Psychologist, “If a child has not achieved balance, he may have difficulty orienting himself in space and may continually need to adjust his postural set. This constant readjustment is stressful and lowers his efficiency in the classroom situation. The better a child balances, the more efficient his movement” And of course, efficient movement means efficient thought!
Top ten exercises to promote balance
1. Static balance games – Get your child to try and balance while keeping her body in a stationary stable position. For example, stand to attention, stand on one leg, maintain a headstand. ‘Freeze’ is a great game to play for static balance as you play the music and then `freeze’ in any position when the music stops. (Also good for listening skills!)
2. Dynamic balance games – Get your child to control her movements while moving through space. For example hopping, catching a moving ball, climbing up a tree or up a ladder, or balancing on a low wall.
3. Object balance games – Get your child to support an object without letting it fall. For example, balance a stick on a finger, a bean bag on the head, carry a plate with food on it, or a tray with plastic teacups.
4. Swing in a sheet!– Place your baby in the middle of a sheet or blanket, each partner hold two corners of the sheet and gently swing your baby from side to side. If you don’t have a small sheet, use a blanket instead!
5. The handy hammock – Get yourself a hammock, lie in it yourself, place your baby on your tummy facing you, and swing from side to side! This is also a great sleeping aid!
6. Log rolling is lots of fun – Roll your baby from his tummy onto his back and onto his tummy again. Encourage him to do the rolling himself! If you can find a grassy slope to roll down, go for it!
7. Let’s play aeroplanes! Lie on your back with your knees bent. Put your baby on his tummy onto your legs, facing you. Straighten your legs, lifting baby in the process. Make aeroplane sounds! Continue flying up and down for as long as you both enjoy it.
8. Bounce your baby on your knee and sing to him. Bounce him to the sides as well as up and down. If you’ve had enough of bouncing, dance to music together, rocking, swaying and spinning.
9. A large ball can provide excellent balance stimulation. Sit your baby on it, lie him on his tummy, and rock him forwards and backwards on it. Sit and bounce up and down on it and then roll it to each other!
10. Put some round stepping stones out on the floor, and get your toddler to step on them without touching the floor in-between. Make your stepping stones out of cardboard, or hardboard, wood, or even flat cushions!
Balance CONCEPTS YOU CAN TEACH YOUR CHILD !
• Holding your arms out to the side will help you balance
• Focusing on an object will help you balance
• You can widen your base when you balance for greater stability
• You can lower your body when you balance for greater stability.
• You can balance forwards, backwards, sideways and diagonally.
References and quotes
• Sensory integration and the child by A.Jean Ayres. Published by WPS.
• The physical side of learning by Dr Leela C. Zion. Published by Front row experience.