The Art of Balance

Teaching your child good balance at an early age will set her up for better body awareness, coordination, and -- yes -- concentration.
Frank Heckers

Why Stability Is Important

For parents, "balance" is a big buzz word. Busy moms and dads seek better balance between work and family, family and friends, couple time, and alone time. Every day, in fact, can feel like one big balancing act.

But helping your child achieve good balance -- literally -- is equally vital. "Balance is the pillar beneath every skill we have," says Marjorie Woollacott, Ph.D., professor of human physiology at the University of Oregon in Eugene. And because kids are bending over laptop computers and video games, shouldering heavy backpacks, and becoming overweight in alarming numbers, experts believe their balance is more challenged than ever. Continuously hunching over or carrying extra weight "can affect posture and balance, which could then lead to less success in sports or even problems with gait," says Harriet Williams, Ph.D., a professor of exercise science at the University of South Carolina in Columbia.

The good news is that common games, like hopscotch and freeze tag, promote balance. And kid-level classes in balance-building activities such as yoga and Pilates are gaining in popularity -- one reason why the American Council on Exercise revealed balance training as the number-one fitness trend of 2005. But there are also simple exercises families can do at home to boost stability. "People used to think you have balance or you don't," says Dr. Williams. "We now know from studies with children that it's a function that can be improved with practice."

Why practice something so basic? More and more, researchers are connecting balance to mental, not just physical, functioning. "When kids stabilize themselves from an unstable pose, they learn how to focus faster and more efficiently," says Catherine Jackson, Ph.D., chair of the department of kinesiology at California State University at Fresno. Kids with learning problems, who often have less than optimal balance, can particularly benefit from balance training. "If you use half your mental energy to control balance, you have only the other half to process information," explains Dr. Williams. "But if you have to use only one-tenth of that energy for postural control, then 90% is available for cognitive things."

Because balance can be bolstered from infancy, Nancy Kern, group exercise instructor for 24 Hour Fitness, and Child advisory board member Jordan D. Metzl, M.D., medical director of The Sports Medicine Institute for Young Athletes at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City, helped us develop exercises for children as young as 6 months. (Before doing them, place soft pillows in the exercise area.) And remember, it's never too late to enhance your own equilibrium: "Learning balance is an ongoing practice," says Annie Buckley, author of The Kids' Yoga Deck. "Practicing together can give your child a sense of mutual support."

Frank Heckers

Easy Balance-Building Exercises

6 MONTHS TO 1 YEAR

Finger Pull-Ups: Once your child begins to sit up, let her grab the fingers of both your hands and pull herself into a sitting position. Once she's seated, slowly move your hands in toward her, just enough so that she has to rely on her own sense of balance. Once she begins to teeter, gently support her back into an upright position. Repeat as long as her attention span will allow.

1 TO 3 YEARSBoot Balancers: Sit in a chair and have your child stand in front of you with his arms extended from his sides. Reach your hands underneath his arms (but don't support his weight) so you can catch him if he loses his balance, and have him step up onto the tops of your shoes. Make a game of how long he can balance himself on your feet.

Stork Stands: Together with your child, stand straight with your feet shoulder-width apart, hands on hips. Stand on your left leg, bending the right leg slightly behind you. Hold this pose for two seconds, then slowly extend your right leg straight out and slightly in front of you without touching the ground. Hold for two seconds and repeat the exercise standing on the right leg, resting your opposite foot on your supporting leg if you need to rest. Once this feels easy, try extending your arms out in front of you or overhead. Playing Simon Says with your child, alternating as leader, can make this drill even more fun.

3 YEARS AND UP

Balance Beam Lunges: Have your child stand on a long board (a 2-by-4 is fine). She should place her left foot several feet forward on the beam and lunge down until her left thigh is parallel to the ground (her right knee will bend as she deepens the pose). After she holds this position as long as she can, have her repeat the move with the other leg. With practice, your child can lunge with her arms extended out from her sides. For a challenge, raise the board six inches by placing wood or cinder blocks under both ends.

Wheelbarrows: Have your child stand behind a basketball or large ball that will support her body weight and then place her hands, fingers pointing forward, on it. Keeping her feet planted, she should roll the ball forward, alternating hands. Once she rolls it as far from her feet as she can without losing balance, she should roll it back to its original position. Repeat as many times as she's able.

Frank Heckers

Balance: What to Expect When

About 2 months: Head control

6 to 7 months: Sitting

8 to 10 months: Crawling

9 to 10 months: Standing with support

9 to 16 months: Standing independently

9 to 17 months: Walking

21 to 30 months: Running smoothly

4 to 5 years: Hopping on one foot

5 to 6 years: Skipping

Ages are approximate. Some children reach these milestones sooner or later than indicated.

Copyright © Reprinted with permission from Child magazine.

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