In the previous post on improving handwriting skills I mentioned developed trunk control as one of the five essential prerequisites for proper handwriting.
Trunk, or core, refers to the muscles of abdomen, lower back and hips. Some authors include shoulder muscles, as well, but I will cover strengthening the shoulder girdle in a separate blog post, though most exercises for this area of the body also involve building the core.
Trunk stability serves as a base for all other movements, such as balancing, coordination, gross and fine motor activities. Without a strong core a child will slouch, tire easily and struggle with holding a pencil or using their hands in general. Which is why it is so important to help your kid develop a strong core.
The early days
Improving trunk control starts when your baby is just two, three weeks old. It is called tummy time and it involves putting your infant on her belly for a short period (half a minute to a few minutes at a stretch) several times a day. As the child gets older, the periods should increase. Like all exercises, tummy time may be a bit frustrating for your baby, so be patient and supportive. And never let your kid unattended while on her belly.
While lying on her back, make her reach out to grab a rattle or a favourite toy. Do it in front of her and also to the side, for some additional twisting.
At about a month old, you can start helping your baby to roll, by lifting him sideways and letting him play on his side. After a while assist him in transitioning from back to tummy and the other way round until he can roll about all on his own.
You can use some pillows at around 4 months to support your child into a sitting position before she can sit upright unaided.
Finally, from 6 months on, encourage your child to crawl as much as possible, to develop not only the trunk control, but also balance, bilateral coordination and shoulder muscles.
A circus act
It is fairly easy to do different exercises with children who have only a limited arsenal of protesting behaviour. But, once the kid can run away from you whenever he doesn’t feel like doing what he’s told, you need to step up your game.
So make it fun! What I usually try on my girls is to perform the exercises along with some tricks and illusions we do, telling them we are preparing a circus act. You can also pretend they are animals in a zoo, or out in the wild.
Another good way to improve compliance is to do the exercises together. That way you can demonstrate how to perform it properly, instead of explaining it. As the best parenting advice goes, model the behaviour you want to see in your kids.
In general, whatever you do, make sure your kid is breathing properly and not holding her breath to compensate, because that way the muscles are not really working hard enough.
Before you begin
Make sure you warm up the muscles and joints properly, either by walking in place while moving your shoulders up and down, or by running from one end of the room to another (if your room is big enough and there’s no risk of sliding) to touch the wall.
What seems to work best for my kids, though, is dancing to their favourite song (or two) before we start with the exercises.
If you’re outside, you can always play tag to get the juices flowing.
Balancing is an excellent exercise for strengthening the core muscles and a great circus number, too. You can make your own balance beam using scrap planks of wood, be it at home or out in the backyard.
Jumping also works to strengthen the core:
- use a jump rope or
- do animals,
- like a frog, hoping from a squatting position, with both hands on the floor,
- or a rabbit, with feet shoulder-width apart, knees slightly bent and arms folded at the chest.
Animal walk is another excellent exercise and you can do :
- a bear, walking on all fours, with knees and elbows straight or just slightly bent, or
- a crab, which is like a flipped bear, again on all fours, just with the back to the floor and the face towards the ceiling. Start from a sitting position, knees bent, place your palms behind you, shift your weight to your arms and lift your bottom up.
A yogi zoo
You can also do some yoga animals. The good thing about yoga is that you can do each animal separately, or you can do several of them in a flow (Vinyasa style, slowly going through each pose, for maximum effect).
There is a large selection of different animals (and insects), but I will mention only the ones I usually do with my children.
- Sunbird: kneel on the floor, feet in line with the knees, knees hip-width apart, palms pushing against the ground, arms shoulder-width apart, slowly lift one leg, holding it straight, and then lift the opposite arm and hold. Breathe, three long breaths. Then the same thing on the other side. Feel free to chirp along the way.
- Bring the knees and palms back to the floor and lift your behind into a downward facing dog. Breathe and bark. Again, three long breaths. You can step it up by lifting one leg at the time, but only if it doesn’t seem too difficult.
- The cat position feels especially good to me, and my kids like it because they love cats. Again, on all fours, lift your back and lower your chin to your chest as you exhale. Then on the inhale lift your head and lower your back, shoulder blades nearly touching, to a cow position. Miaow or moo at will and don’t forget to breathe, three long breaths.
- Flex the elbows, lower the head, slide the knees back until the chest can touch the ground, palms next to the shoulders pushing down firmly, knees and toes bent, lower back reaching up. Welcome to the caterpillar pose.
- From here you can slide into a snake, by lowering your behind and straightening the arms and back, chest reaching forward and up. Lower your shoulders and lift your chin. Hiss! And breathe, three again.
- For me the most challenging position is locust, because it really works hard the core muscles. It is similar to the snake, only the arms are not supporting the upper body, but are reaching behind. Breathe. If you can.
Yogi still life
- Plank: lie flat on your belly, place the palms underneath the shoulders. Breathe in and, on an exhale, lift yourself on your arms, keeping the body in a straight line. Hold for three longs breaths.
- Boat: sit with the knees bent, then with an exhale, lift the feet while straightening the legs and leaning a bit backwards for balance. Grip your thighs or, if you can, send your arms to reach out. Keep breathing and hold for three long breaths.
- Bridge: lie flat on your back, bend the knees, grab your ankles and on an exhale lift your bottom, slowly. Hold for three long breaths, and with each breath try to lift your chest higher. If you are feeling up to it, do a whole bridge, with palms pushing down underneath the shoulders.
- Bow: start from a locust position, bend your knees and grab your ankles. Breathe.
If some of these exercises seem too complicated or demanding, find whatever suits you and your kids best. Remember to keep it playful and light, no need to strain the little bodies or get frustrated. Take it slow and gentle — it is playtime, not a test.
Tummy time for toddlers and older kids
Another useful practice is performing different activities, such as drawing, playing with toys, doing a puzzle or watching butterflies, while lying flat on your belly.
By far my favourite exercise is sitting on a park bench, knitting and lifting my head only once in a while to see if my kids are working on their core strength while running around a playground.
There’s nothing like climbing a tree or a wooden castle to exercise those trunk muscles.
And all kids love clambering up a slide, though there should be rules about letting the child who took the stairs go down first.
More to come
In the next several months I will be posting about other ways to ensure proper handwriting, namely exercising hand-to-eye and bilateral coordination, shoulder girdle muscles, visual and fine motor skills, so stay tuned.