In order for learning at school to be easeful and enjoyable, things such as good vision and hearing, a healthy diet and hydration are obvious to most of us. However, many parents (and teachers too) do not realise the utmost importance of good balance to the process of thinking.
Balance is the ability of the individual to maintain equilibrium, to sit erect in an upright posture, to be able to stand on two feet without swaying, to be able to walk without falling over, and to be able to maintain an upright posture, even in the dark.
It is, in fact, one the first of the senses to develop, and is the foundation for many capacities we need to function well in life. Good balance enables you and your child to concentrate, sit still and listen when required, to think clearly, to succeed at reading, spelling and mathematics and to enjoy sporting activities.
how do we maintain our balance?
The sense of balance is controlled primarily by the vestibular system which is located in the inner ear as part of the auditory (hearing/listening) system. This is a very complex system but, simply put, movement of fluid inside three semi-circular canals in the inner ear sends signals to the brain to tell us where our heads are and whether or not we are upright. The vestibular system also sends messages to our muscles and joints to make adjustments to maintain our balance while sitting, standing or when moving.
which way is up?
From the moment of birth, the infant has an inbuilt urge to know where upright is in order to be able to stand unsupported. Perhaps the greatest achievement of the first 12 months of life is to be able to stand upright and then to walk. When we look and see how tiny the feet of a 12-month-old baby are, and how large their head is in comparison, it is indeed a miracle when the baby learns to balance and then take her first steps.
In fact, every healthy child has an irrepressible need to move and struggle to attain an upright position. All of this early childhood movement builds a sensory map in the child’s brain of where they are in space at any particular time. Creeping and crawling on all fours, rolling on the floor, rocking to and fro, cruising the furniture, finally standing alone unsupported, rocking on Daddy’s knee or on a rocking horse, spinning, twirling, swinging and rolling down hills are all activities most children love, and will happily repeat them many times over.
The repetition of these movements results in a store of movement patterns which are developed and then stored for ready access in the cerebellum (the part of the brain which coordinates our movements). When enough information has been processed and stored in the cerebellum, the toddler sets out on his journey of exploration of the world.
It is therefore very important that we as parents do not interfere during this process. The struggle itself is vitally important, and the infant should not be aided by the use of walkers, jolly jumpers, bouncinettes and the like. These aids restrict the natural movement of the baby and inhibit the formation of pathways in the brain which will later be used for learning. This fact cannot be stressed too much.
By the age of 5–6 years, the young child has stored enough information and experience to enable him to run, jump, hop and skip at will, and also to sit still and listen when required. This ability to keep our heads still and upright enables us to think clearly and to concentrate. This is a key capacity which each child needs to develop if they are to succeed at school.
“what can I do to prevent my child from having learning difficulties?”
The first and most important thing you can do is to put your baby on the floor. When he is awake, put him on the floor each day and let him ‘play’ as nature intended. Floor time is essential for the development of neural pathways. Do not lift him onto his feet before he is able to lift himself. Let him struggle to get upright himself, knowing that this process will build pathways and bridges in his brain needed for reading, spelling, writing and mathematics later on.
“what can I do for my school-aged child if he has poor balance?”
Give him the gift of a second chance. If we repeat the early childhood movement patterns that, for whatever reason, he either missed out on or did not do enough of, the older child’s brain will develop new pathways to help him balance.
So, try the following developmental activities on a daily basis at home:
Rolling on the floor 10 times across your living room. Start with eyes open and then, when comfortable, do with eyes closed. If your child gets dizzy, stop rolling until the dizziness subsides, then proceed slowly, building up the number and speed of rolls gradually over a period of 6–12 weeks. Also, roll down grassy hills as often as possible. (Horizontal rolling is the first developmental step the infant takes to develop the vestibular or balance system.)
- tummy rocking
Buy a Swiss ball from a sports store. Choose the appropriate size for your child so that he can lie over the ball on his tummy and rock forwards onto his hands and then backwards onto his feet by himself (or with a little help from you). The head should be relaxed. Do 50 of these Tummy Rocks per day for 6–12 weeks.
- side-to-side rocking
Get a hammock and encourage your child to use this for gentle side-to-side rocking.
professional help for learning difficulties
If your child is generally awkward, has been slow to master gross motor activities (such as walking and running as a toddler; or hopping, skipping and jumping as a 5–6 year old), and is having learning difficulties at school, a referral to your local Early Childhood Development agency (funded by the Ministry of Education) would be a good idea. Parents can self-refer for children aged 6 and under, or be referred by the school or GP. If accepted, a paediatric occupational therapist will most likely do a developmental assessment and give you a programme of exercises and activities you can do at home to help your child.
If your child is 7 years or older and you have concerns regarding balance, gross and fine motor difficulties and learning difficulties, look for a trained developmental movement therapist to assist you with an in-clinic therapy programme designed for your child’s specific needs.
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“the struggle itself is vitally important, and the infant should not be aided by the use of walkers, jolly jumpers, bouncinettes and the like”