A playground offers many different surfaces for a child to walk on – and the challenge of transitioning from one surface to another, including the sidewalk, grass, mulch, and ramps. Being able to walk on hard and soft ground engages the body in different ways and can help challenge your child’s standing balance.
Mulch and grass tend to be shifty surfaces, and the unpredictable nature of those grounds can be a fun place to work on balance reactions. Wobbly surfaces challenge a child to maintain his balance in order to stay on his feet. Stepping between different kinds of surfaces allows for practice, with small step ups and step downs between dynamic surfaces building the balance needed for stair negotiation.
Ramps and inclines that may be on the playground and between different park areas challenge distinct muscles that assist with standing balance. When standing and walking up a ramp, all the muscles on the front of the body are activated to assist with staying upright. In contrast, walking down a ramp activates all the muscles on the back of the body. Those inclined surfaces can improve balance, leading to better motor activation and control during play.
How much should you help your child?
Always start with more support when standing and playing on wobbly surfaces. That means holding both hands, or providing support around the waist. It may be more fun to hold at a child's hips, so arms can be free for ball catching or games. You can decrease your hip support by the tightness of your hands around the waist. They wider your hands get, the less support you are giving the child. You can decrease your hand support from two hands, to one hand, to one finger or even to holding onto a string between the child and parent.
An outing to the park is not just fun -- it's a serious skill workout wrapped in fun.
Caroline Ubben, PT, DPT, PCS