BALANCE is a Key to Successful Learning
Vision and hearing, good fuel and hydration are obvious to most of us. However, many parents and teachers do not realise the importance of good balance to the process of thinking.
Let us explore the sense of BALANCE.
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.
The sense of balance develops in response to the pull of gravity. Gravity affects us all from the moment of conception until the end of life itself. 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.
Simple Balance Tests
Check out your own sense of balance.
(You can also do this playfully with your child if he is 6 years or more.)
1. Stand with your feet together, arms down by your sides, looking straight ahead. Count to 10 and observe your balance. You should be completely steady.
2. Now close your eyes, keeping your feet together and count slowly to 10. What do you notice about your balance? If your sense of balance is good, then you should remain stable with no swaying or movement.
3. Next open your eyes, stand on one leg and count slowly to 15.
4. Now stand on one leg with your eyes closed. Note any changes in your ability to maintain your balance.
5. Now stand with one foot immediately in front of the other, with your toes of your back foot touching the heel of your front foot, as if you are standing on a narrow ledge. Close your eyes, count to 15 and observe your balance.
6. Place a piece of wool or string on the floor across the room (3-4 metres). Anchor it at each end so that it is taut and straight. Now walk barefoot, heel to toe, along the string while looking straight ahead (not looking down at your feet). Then walk heel to toe backwards, while looking straight ahead. Heel to toe means there are no gaps in your steps. You must feel with your feet and place your toes and heels end-to-end, heel-to-toes when walking forward, and toes-to-heel when walking backwards.
Congratulations! You have just completed a simple balance assessment similar to the one we do in our clinic for children with learning difficulties. If you are fortunate you and your child will notice very little difference in your balance while performing these simple balance tasks. You should be able to maintain your equilibrium without wobbling, waving your arms about or looking down at your feet.
However, you or your child may be one of the many people for whom these tasks are quite challenging. If you wobbled and waved your arms about to maintain your balance, put one foot down or simply had to peek at your feet, your balance is not as good as it should be.
By the age of 6 – 7, children should be able to complete these tasks and remain steady.
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.
Simply put (this is a very complex system), 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 once achieved 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.
Every healthy child in fact 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 and are all activities most children love, and will repeat them over and over again.
The repetition of these movements results in a store of movement patterns which are developed by the vestibular nucleus in the brain 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.
By the age of 5 – 6 years the young child has enough information and experience stored to enable him to run, jump, hop, skip at will and also 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.
It is therefore very important that as parents we do not interfere with this process. The struggle itself is important, and the infant should not be aided by the use of walkers, jolly jumpers, bouncinettes and the like.
These 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.
In my parenting workshops I often get asked the question..
“ What can I do to prevent my child from having learning difficulties”.
The first and most important thing you can do is this:
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.
Another question I am often asked is this:
What can I do for my school aged child if he has poor balance?
Answer: Give him the gift of a second chance. If we repeat the early childhood movement patterns that he either missed out of or did not do enough of, for whatever reason, the child’s brain still will develop new pathways.
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 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).
Get a Swiss ball from a sporting goods store. Choose the appropriate size for your child so that he can lie on 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 Tummy Rocks per day for 6-12 weeks.
3. Get a Hammock.
Encourage your child to use this for gentle side-to-side rocking.
NOTE: 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 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.