Remember how it felt to ride a swing as a child? Legs pumping, head way back, breeze blowing through your hair? For me as a child, being on a swing was the closest thing to flying. For all children, but especially for a child overcoming a developmental delay or a brain injury, swinging strengthens the muscles and challenges the brain – all while having fun. That’s important because children will not perform difficult physical movements repetitively to optimize their performance or enhance their capabilities. They will do them to have fun.
Swinging is a great way to build a child’s confidence, balance and motor control, since sitting on a swing challenges a child's dynamic sitting balance. That is, the swing represents a moving surface, so the child’s muscles and brain have to adjust continually to keep from falling off.
The movement of the swing forward and backward stimulates the vestibular system – the sensory organs in the inner ear that influence our balance, help us maintain posture, and stabilize the head and body when we’re in motion. The act of bending and straightening the legs to propel the swing challenges a child’s motor control and coordination. The quick movements of kicking out and bending the legs on the swing require muscle flexibility and demand that both sides of the brain work in coordination with each other. Swinging invites the repetitive, active motion that allows for maintaining muscle length and coordination to swing forward and back.
So, how do you introduce your child to swinging?
First, you can start sitting on a curved seat swing with your child secured in your lap or in a carrier strapped in front of you and slowly rock back and forth. Keeping them close to you can make them feel more secure with the movement. Focus on how your child responds to that motion. This will tell you if he or she likes this motion and if swinging would be a fun sensory activity.
When is your child ready for an infant swing vs. a flat or curved seat swing?
If you child is able to prop on hands to sit or sit without support, you can also place them in the infant swing. Some form of independent sitting, tells you they have the head and core control to stay balanced when swinging. Start with gentle, slow pushes, while maintaining a close distance to your child until it’s clear he or she is comfortable. Children are ready for a flat or curved seat swing when they hold the chains to prevent themselves from falling and also demonstrate protective reactions. That means that they are able to catch themselves forward, to the side or backwards in sitting or standing in response to losing stability in that position. Having those safety reactions to hold on and catch themselves are important signs to know your child would be safe on a "big girl" or "big boy" swing.
How can you help them get started?
Start by sitting on a swing next to your child and show them how to bend and straighten their legs while sitting. Focus only on the leg movement for them, instead of actually moving the swing from body movements. Modeling first, you can then use your hands to help bend and straighten legs for a couple pumps before giving them a push for motivation with swinging. The blocked practice of a few leg movements before a big push from an adult can help to encourage the leg motion practice needed to swing.