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Angela Pulaski, Physical Therapist

10 ways to explore balance and coordination with your infant or toddler

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Balance and coordination are important to the development and growth of any child. Sometimes balance concerns can arise in isolation, but it also is common with a child who has delays and/or diagnoses that affect development. Many times these children are labeled as clumsy.

Although balance and coordination go hand and hand, they are different. Balance is the ability to maintain body positions during a task or activity as well as providing responses to outside forces that affect the body. There are two kinds of balance: static and dynamic. Static balance occurs when one position is required over time, such as sitting quietly at your desk in school or hiding behind a tree during hide-and-seek.

Dynamic balance is for movement such as running and reaching forward for a toy when sitting on the floor. Typically, static balance will develop in a skill before dynamic. An example is when a child can stand still without falling and then they develop the ability to stand and throw a ball. Coordination is the ability to move in a smooth and efficient way during these tasks.

There are three systems within the body that make up our sense of balance. These are the vestibular, visual and proprioceptive systems. The vestibular system is located in the inner ear and lets us know about linear and rotational movements that are occurring. The visual system clues us into our position compared to the objects around us and the proprioception system gives clues as to where our body is in space.

When our visual input is in conflict with our proprioceptive sensations, it is the task of the vestibular system to figure it out. Think of sitting still in your car as you zoom down the road. Those with car sickness have more trouble using their vestibular system to sort through this situation. For more information on the sense of balance you can follow this link: https://vestibular.org/article/what-is-vestibular/the-human-balance-system/the-human-balance-system/ 

Clearly, it is hard to say, “today is the day that my child gained balance and coordination” because these develop over time and within different skills. A 9-month-old may have good balance and coordination during sitting but be very wobbly when standing at the sofa.

Since motor development is closely related to a child’s balance and coordination, monitoring motor skills is the easiest way to look at this. We would not only look at the age of a child gaining a skill, but also the quality with which the child can use the skill. Can a child walk across the room without falling? Is the movement of the spoon to the mouth smooth? Does the child seem awkward compared to their peers when climbing the ladder to the slide at preschool?

There are many factors that affect balance and coordination such as muscle tone, strength and endurance.  The ability to cross mid-line and using your hands together (bilateral integration) and even being able to process sensory information in a way that creates an appropriate motor response are other important factors in having a good sense of balance and coordination. Not all of us are graceful ballerinas or champion bull riders, of course, but if a child is unable to fall without protecting themselves from injury or can’t keep up with their peers during play, balance and coordination should be addressed.

It isn’t just on the playground that a child can struggle; the ability to eat, write with a pencil and focus on learning while sitting at their school desk are just a few other activities that can be affected by poor balance and coordination.

So are there activities you can incorporate into your day to explore balance and coordination with your young child and infant?  The good news is that of course there is. Remember safety is always important in any activity you do with your child.

Infants:
1.    Tracking faces and toys in all directions – side to side develops first but tracking doesn’t stop there.
2.    Imitating silly faces, blowing kisses and silly sounds.
3.    Tummy time to work on sensory input through the front of the body and for varying vestibular input.
4.    Reaching across the mid-line of the body for toys.
5.    Encourage crawling in all-fours – this is critical for hand-eye coordination and core control.
6.    Clapping and drumming activities.
7.    Activating switches on toys and putting blocks in and out of a bucket.

Toddlers:
1.    Walking forwards, backwards and to the side.
2.    Bending down to get a toy and resuming walking.
3.    Navigating stairs, ramps and other uneven surfaces (walk on pillows, in sand or deep grass).
4.    Playground equipment such as slides, swings, ladders and climbing walls.
5.    Walking on painter’s tape or a very low balance beam.
6.    Animal walks and jumping games.
7.    Action songs such as baby shark or wheels on the bus.
8.    Bubble blowing and drinking through a straw.
9.    Stacking and building with blocks.
10.  Messy play such as play dough or digging in the mud.

These are just a few ideas for balance and coordination. If you have any concerns regarding your child’s balance and coordination, please contact us in Butler Co. at 316.320.1342, Sedgwick Co. at 316.945.7117 or Sumner Co. at 316.295.7855.

By Angela M. Pulaski, physical therapist, Butler County Infant/Toddler Services