What is Balance and Coordination?
Balance refers to the ability to keep a controlled position or posture during a specific task. Walking, climbing or even sitting all require balance. There are two types of balance. Dynamic balance refers to the ability to stay in position during activities that require movement (e.g. walking). Static balance refers to the ability to maintain position during stationary tasks (e.g. standing or sitting).
Coordination refers to the ability to correctly interpret multiple signals to do more complex physical tasks. For example, hand-eye coordination requires children to correctly interpret visual information in a way that allows them to catch a ball. This seemingly simple task involves neurological activity, physical control and reflexes (as well as other abilities).
What Are Fine Motor Skills?
Motor skills are sometimes divided into two categories: gross motor skills and fine motor skills. Gross motor skills refer to skills which include many large muscle groups and the whole body (e.g. skills needed to climb, walk and jump). Children need to develop these skills before mastering fine motor skills.
Fine motor skills include small, controlled body movements involving more limited numbers of muscles. These skills allow us to hold a pencil, write, hold a book and open a package. These skills require more patience for children, especially for more detailed and delicate tasks.
Why Are Balance, Coordination and Fine Motor Skills Important?
Balance, coordination and fine motor skills are essential for healthy growth. The development of these skills can help with day-to-day activities, such as walking, playing and learning. Children who develop gross motor skills can sit up, crawl, walk and play. Children who master coordination and balance can climb and walk confidently. Fine motor skills allow children to write with a pencil, feed themselves, tie their laces and perform many of the other small tasks which slowly make them more confident and independent. Age appropriate balance and coordination allows the child to be involved in the sports participation with a reasonable degree of success as it aids fluid body movement for physical skill performance (e.g. walking a balance beam or playing football). The involvement in sport is helpful in maintaining self-regulation for daily tasks as well as developing a social network and achieving a sense of belonging in a community or social setting. It also helps children develop and maintain appropriate controlled body movement during task performance which, when effective, limits the energy required thus minimising fatigue.
With good balance and coordination there is less likelihood of injury as the child is likely to have appropriate postural responses when needed (e.g. putting hands out to protect themselves when they fall). The physical attributes of balance and coordination also allow appropriate posture for desk tasks and subsequent success at fine motor tasks.
What is necessary to develop Balance and Coordination?
- Attention and concentration. This is the ability to maintain attention on a specific task for an extended period of time. It is made possible since the core strength is not challenged.
- Body Awareness (Proprioception). The information that the brain receives from the muscles and joints to make us aware of body position and body movement which in turn allows skills to become ‘automatic’.
- Bilateral integration. Using two hands together with one hand leading. A good example of this is holding a tennis racquet with the dominant hand with the ‘helping’ non-dominant hand holding and stabilising only between hits.
- Crossing the Mid-line. The ability to cross the imaginary line running from the child’s nose to pelvis that divides the body into left and right sides. This is essential for establishing hand dominance.
- Hand eye coordination. The ability to process information received from the eyes to control, guide and direct the hands in the performance of a given task (e.g. handwriting / catching a ball).
- Hand Dominance. The consistent use of one (usually the same) hand for task performance which is necessary to allow refined skills to develop.
- Isolated movement. The ability to move an arm or leg while keeping the remainder of the body still needed for refined movement (e.g. throwing a ball with one hand or swimming freestyle).
- Muscular strength. A muscles ability to exert force against resistance (e.g. when climbing a Jungle Gym to push or pull up).
- Muscular endurance. The ability of a singular muscle or group of muscles to exert force repeatedly against resistance. This is integral for developing sustained physical task engagement.
- Postural Control. The ability to stabilize the trunk and neck to enable coordination of the limbs for controlled task performance.
- Self-regulation. The ability to obtain, maintain and change alertness level appropriate for a task or situation. This then allows better attention to the task.
- Sensory processing. The accurate processing of sensory stimulation in the environment as well as in our own body for quick and physically appropriate responses to movement.
Checklist for seeing if my child has problems with balance and coordination.
If a child has difficulties with balance and coordination they might:
- Avoid physical activity (e.g. using the playground or participating in sport).
- Be late to reach developmental milestones (e.g. crawling and walking).
- Be slower than their peers to master physical skills (e.g. bike riding, swimming or tree climbing).
- Be less skilled than their peers in refined sports participation (e.g. team sports).
- Be fearful of new physical games (e.g. swings) or scared of heights that do not faze their peers.
- Fall easily, trip often or can’t ‘recover’ quickly from being off balance.
- Have difficulty getting dressed standing up (e.g. they need to sit down to get put pants as they lose their balance standing on one leg).
- Have trouble navigating some environments (e.g. steps, kerbs, uneven ground).
- Move stiffly and lack fluid body movement (e.g. robotic type movements).
- Push harder, move faster or invade the personal space of others more than they intend to.
- Tire more quickly than their peers or need to take regular short rest periods during physical activity.
Other problems can occur when a child has balance and coordination difficulties.
When a child has balance and coordination difficulties, you may also see difficulties with:
- Articulation. Clarity of speech sounds and spoken language.
- Floppy or rigid muscle tone. Floppy muscles make the limbs looks limp or alternatively overly tight muscles make the limbs look rigid.
- Hand dominance. The consistent use of one (usually the same) hand for task performance which is necessary to allow refined skills to develop.
- Left right discrimination. Conceptualising directional difference so the child knows the difference between left and right side of the body.
- Low Endurance. Not able to sustain physical (fine and gross motor) tasks.
- Motor (muscle) planning. Difficulty with how to perform a physical task (e.g. they may start at step three not one).
- Pencil control. The accuracy with which the child moves the pencil for drawing and writing.
- Pencil grasp. The efficiency of, and the manner in which, the pencil is held in drawing and writing is often compromised (too loose or extremely tight and heavy in pressure).
- Pre-writing skill development. Sloppy or excessively heavy pencil strokes that comprise most letters, numbers and early drawing.
- Self-care. Examples of this include dressing independently, holding and using cutlery or a tooth brush.
- Sensory processing. Accurate registration, interpretation and response to sensory stimulation in the environment and their own body.
- Spatial awareness. Lack of awareness as to how they are using or placing their body (e.g. so that they unintentionally invade other peoples personal space without knowing it).
What to do to improve my child’s balance and coordination skills.
- Explicit teaching of mechanics. Correct alignment of the body in order to maintain balance (e.g. walk up the stairs of the Jungle Gym holding the bars and moving the hands one by one as you climb).
- Improve attention to task and alertness levels to support a rapid response when they lose their balance. An example of this is when sitting to go down the slide catch hold of the side grips if you feel you are falling…
- Improve muscle strength to allow for better muscle control for speed and direction of movement. Spending time climbing, holding, swinging, sliding, hanging on a Jungle gym will do this.
- Improve muscular endurance to increase the length of time with which the child can maintain balance and coordination. What better way to do this when they are ‘at play’?
- Improve sensory processing to ensure the body is receiving and interpreting the correct messages from the muscles in terms of their position, their relationship to each other, the speed at which they move and how much force they are using. A Jungle Gym can assist in this as one continually has to plan the next move, reach out and grip with the right force etc.
- Simplify tasks to concentrate on only one movement at a time, until the child is ready to integrate several at once. Try going to the first monkey bar and holding. On the next day, try the movement of reaching for the next etc.
- Social motivators. If a child has a friend or family member involved in an activity, they may be more persistent in participating and practicing those specific skills. This is easy on a Jungle Gym!!
- Strengthen the core. These are the central muscles of the body to provide greater body (especially trunk) stability. Building core strength is one of the basic aims of a Jungle Gym.
Other activities that can help improve balance and coordination
- Bikes and scooters. Both activities require the child to continually make postural adjustments to maintain balance.
- Crawling through a moving drum. This requires the child to switch movement patterns frequently and rapidly.
- Kneeling. The child needs to have no hands touching the floor and can tap a balloon back to another person.
- Stepping-stone games with big jumps challenge a child’s balance.
- Swimming. This involves the body having to work against resistance of the water. It provides better awareness of where the body is in space.
- Unstable surfaces. Walking over unstable surfaces (e.g. pillows, bean bags or blankets on the floor) that make the trunk work hard to maintain an upright position.
- Unstable swings and moving games. This includes suspended climbing ladders and Jungle Gyms. When swings move in unexpected ways it forces the trunk muscles to work harder.
- Wheelbarrow walking. Here, the child ‘walks’ on their hands while an adult holds their legs off the floor.
It is of vital importance that we are aware of what the concepts of balance, co-ordination and fine motor skills are so that we can ensure that our children get the best foundation for life. Keep your eye out and be watching – ready to implement any strategies necessary to ensure a great future for our littlies.